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November 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 3

Principal Connection / Musing Over Meetings

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      I've been lookin' for love in all the wrong places," sang Johnny Lee in Urban Cowboy, and that's a bit how I felt when I read Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011). For some time, I had been looking for a better way to run meetings, and when I read this book, I saw where my thinking had gone wrong.
      Thinking, Fast and Slow looks at decision making and is filled with gems of information about human behavior and leadership. For example, in a study of eight Israeli parole judges, Kahneman notes that although only 35 percent of parole requests are approved, the judges' decisions peak in approvals after lunch: "The proportion [of favorable parole decisions] spikes after each meal, when about 65 percent of requests are granted. During the two hours or so until the judges' next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to just about zero before the meal" (p. 123). If compassion will be particularly important in a meeting (and when is compassion not important?), it's not a good idea to schedule it for 11:30 a.m. And I definitely should have food available at faculty meetings.
      Another of Kahneman's observations deals with how to elicit input from others. We've all been part of brainstorming sessions—and probably have even led a few. I've often said, "Say what's on your mind, and remember not to pass judgments on others' ideas. We just want to get all of the ideas on the table." Kahneman, though, points out that simply inviting unchecked oral participation can actually reduce creativity and diversity of thought. He notes, "The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them" (p. 248).
      Before the sharing begins, Kahneman suggests having each participant jot down his or her thoughts on a piece of paper. Similarly, I often ask participants to think of or write down their ideas and then turn to their neighbors and share one-on-one before I invite comments from the group.
      What was most striking for me was the distinction Kahneman made—the distinction that we all make—between memory and experience. Our memory is different from our experience, and our memories are most influenced by what happens at the end of the experience.
      Kahneman cites three stories that illustrate this reality. In one, two groups of people held their hands in pans of incredibly cold water, cold enough to cause pain. One group was in pain for a longer period of time, but the time ended with their pan of water being slowly warmed. They later remembered their experience as less painful than members of the other group, who had their hands in consistently cold water for a shorter period of time.
      Patients undergoing colonoscopies without anesthetic (ugh!) had a similar reaction. Their reactions to pain were monitored every 60 seconds throughout the procedure, and it turns out that their memories were most influenced by two factors: the level of pain experienced at the worst moments and the amount of pain they felt near the end of the procedure. Finally, Kahneman shares an example that illustrates how the pleasant memory of listening to a recording of a world-class symphony can diminish if the last moments are marred by static. Each of these examples vividly shows that our memories are inordinately affected by the end of an experience. We are usually unaware of this phenomenon.
      Remember me wanting to improve my meetings? Like John Travolta's character in Urban Cowboy, I have been looking in all the wrong places for what I want. When I plan my meetings, I give a great deal of attention to how meetings begin. I think a lot about my opening and the tone that I want to create. I ponder the best way to get my teachers engaged, and I frame tasks so they will be challenged and successful. We never seem to have enough time, so at the conclusion of the meeting, I quickly thank everyone for participating and dismiss them. But if I want teachers to reflect positively on the meeting and look forward to gathering again, then concluding by simply thanking people, necessary as it is, isn't adequate.
      Now as I plan faculty meetings, I build in time near the end so that we can leave on a positive note. I ask teachers to reflect on what they learned and to envision how it can help them be more effective. Then I have them turn to a neighbor and share something good about the meeting. And I remind them to grab any uneaten food as they leave.
      I hope that reflecting on the good parts of the meeting—and leaving with some good food in hand—will give them positive memories of the whole experience.

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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