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The Untapped Power of Protocols

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I’m following the Twitter stream from the NAIS Science of Learning and 21st Century Schools Summit, and at this particular moment the magic word is “protocols.” To my mind, that’s deep magic, of the very best kind.

I first encountered protocols as a participant in Steve Seidel’s Rounds at Project Zero back in the very early oughts. A parent who was also an educator told me, “Hey, you need to go to this,” and I was hooked. At some point my kids’ Saturday morning schedules began to get in the way, but I will never, ever forget my first experience at Rounds with Steve facilitating a Collaborative Assessment Conference Protocol; in one of the first couple of sessions the presenting teacher was an art teacher from central Massachusetts named Ron Berger, who brought samples of student painting and seemed to have some interesting thoughts on the work when it was time for the Presenting Teacher to respond to the group. Since then Ron has been something of a hero of mine, and it was awesome to be a peer with him last week at the Transforming Teaching Design Convening at Harvard, right upstairs from the place where Rounds is held.

I was so excited that I took the protocol concept back to my school. We found someone to train a couple of us, and we tried doing CAC Protocols as part of our professional development offerings, moving on to a Tuning Protocol or two. (See this site for descriptions and links explaining and showing a number of excellent protocols.) That summer we ran a faculty workshop and trained a bunch more of us to facilitate Looking At Student Work exercises; it was a heady time.

It didn’t take long, however, for the bloom to come off the rose. As much as many of my colleagues appreciated and enjoyed protocol-driven Looking At Student Work, there was a significant group that could never quite warm to the process. As teachers, they felt—and defended their position—as though they were obligated to cut through the discipline of the protocol and get right to the business of problem-solving. Instead of seeing the protocols as a disciplined, structured, and rather egalitarian way to solicit input and drive deeper thinking on the things students and teachers might be working on, and sometimes grappling with, they saw the essential problem as the need to figure it out and start fixing things.

It’s been twelve years since the very useful book The Power of Protocols (now in its third edition) first appeared, and the Looking At Student Work movement has been around since before then. (There is also the invaluable A Facilitator’s Book of Questions, the product of several Project Zero mavens.) Critical Friends groups and other structured ways for educators to self-organize around issues in our practice aren’t new. Why isn’t protocol-driven work, in our classrooms and in our professional learning environments, more universal?

I believe the answer is that protocols don’t seem to work well for some teachers. Whether it’s because they are impatient, or they find the discipline dehumanizing (in the way that some teachers think rubrics drain the life blood from evaluating student work), or they just really can’t wrap their heads around the concept as a whole, these folks feel an urgent need to slice through what they see as the clutter and get to sorting out the issue. (I suspect that this same issue is going to be getting in the way of our design-thinking-driven work for a while, as well.) We’re teachers; we solve problems as expeditiously as possible in the moment—just as in the Geico ads, “It’s what we do.”

It may also be, and I suggest this knowing that it won’t be a universally popular notion, that those of us who embrace protocols (and many of us who embrace design thinking, which in certain doctrinaire versions is a protocol in its own right) may be operating in something of an echo chamber—agreed as we are on the wonderfulness of our process, perhaps we aren’t as open as we could be to the possibilities of those expedient solutions and the virtues of turning insight directly into action. I like to think that this isn’t me, but then, we’re all suspect narrators of our own consciousness.

Another reason may be that relatively few of us have ever sat through a well-facilitated protocol-based process; certainly my initiation at the hands of Steve Seidel, who models the passionate neutrality and deep wisdom required to make the most of the process with the skill of Yoda himself, was a special experience. But education is full of patient Jedi sages, and great facilitation can be learned. People may also not know of how many protocols there are, and how easy it is to tailor one to a specific need. (For example, I was particularly proud of the Comment Protocol we developed for trying to coax insights about our teaching and curriculum from our term-end reports.)

There are likely to be many, many takeaways from the NAIS summit, and I hope that one of them will be to inspire more educators in more schools to explore the power of protocols as a tool for thoughtful analysis of nearly every conceivable aspect of our work. (And buy the book if you don’t believe me.)

Or at the very least, next time you’re in Boston on the first Saturday morning of a month during the academic year, stop by Longfellow Hall at Harvard and go to Rounds.

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