How to effectively mentor or participate in a team that gives space for sharing and debate without excessive conflict

This post was written by Matthew Greenberg, group facilitator and mediator at Interlink. It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network October half term newsletter (sign up here).

The concept of continuing professional development (CPD) is not new.  The professions have long since subscribed to – and, in some cases, mandated – its use across a wide range of disciplines including law, medicine and teaching.

The premise of CPD is that pre-qualification training cannot possibly tell us all there is to know about practising our chosen profession.  We continue to learn on the job long after we first become fully fledged.  The body of knowledge and practice with which we were familiar on qualification will evolve, and well-conceived, produced and managed CPD will help us evolve with this.  That includes supporting more experienced teachers in reviewing habitually used teaching methods which may not have worn well with age.

In some professions, CPD is often still characterised by vast numbers of delegates sitting in lecture halls being instructed about best practice and the latest edicts from their regulator.  Little wonder that, for some, CPD is seen as a box to be ticked rather than an inspiring ongoing project in which to become engaged.

It is now time for CPD, itself, to unlearn some of its established practices and to embrace collaborative approaches to and active participation in professional development.  CPD should draw on the resource that is the teachers themselves.  It is they – as bearers of a body of knowledge and experience – who can teach each other.  Collaboration, when fully developed and functioning, becomes the occasion on which teachers come together in groups to identify weaknesses in their students’ learning, produce targeted lesson plans and resources to tackle the problem and give feedback to each other on their implementation.

But groups can present a challenging environment in which to work.  Facilitators need to take account of the combination of different personality types and diverse levels of seniority and be aware that people learn differently, that some are naturally forthcoming whereas others will be reticent, that some will have bought into the process and others will be resistant and that some will be confident about collaborating and others will be apprehensive.  Collaboration is likely to uncover differences of professional opinion.  In these cases, as a group facilitator, I regularly find that one significant challenge for groups is that, without guidance, the need for participants to air their views is often much stronger than the desire to listen to and to understand the opinions of others.

These are some of the factors which lead groups into working ineffectively and even conflict.  Conflict, however, should be distinguished from differences of opinion.  Differences of opinion are an inevitable product of people working together and can be a fertile source of learning and creativity.  Working in groups should be about bringing diverse people together effectively and encouraging them to articulate their opinions and explore their differences.  Conflict arises only where differences of opinion, not having been handled properly, lead to dysfunction.

So how might working in groups for CPD best be handled to enable effective collaboration and conflict-avoidance?  No one approach fits all, and the steps taken and methods adopted will differ according to the circumstances.  However, the following might be considered:

  • Creating a culture, led from the top, where collaboration and the sharing of ideas are encouraged.  This calls for head teachers and heads of department to commend teamwork when engaging in CPD.
  • Schools getting buy-in from teachers by selling the benefits of collaboration before any changes to CPD are introduced.
  • Head teachers and heads of department providing a forum for views on proposed CPD changes to be canvassed.  Leading by example by watching out for resistance to change, listening to concerns expressed and providing reassurance about CPD being for personal development and not the assessment of professional competence.
  • Those organising a particular session to consider the best combination of people.  Would mixed levels of seniority promote learning for all (with our without encouraging appropriate sensitivity amongst senior teachers towards their junior colleagues) or would groups of similar levels of experience be preferable?
  • Preparing teachers in good time before a session about its specific aims and as to what is expected of them.  Beneficial and useful outcomes are impossible or difficult to achieve and measure where the aims are non-existent or diffuse.  Without clear aims, the group will have mixed expectations as to its purpose, and this is ripe for conflict.

Mentors facilitating sessions may like to:

  • invite each attendee in advance to make contact on a confidential basis with any concerns or questions;
  • create an atmosphere at the session in which ideas can be articulated freely and that contributions are acknowledged;
  • be alive to reticent attendees and encouraging their contributions;
  • spot tensions (expressed non verbally as well as verbally) and, where they are counter-productive, coaxing this out and encouraging dialogue about them;

Where there are differences of professional opinion, encourage all attendees into dialogue by asking open questions where appropriate.  In (hopefully rare) cases of deadlock, adopting some of the classic methods used by facilitators:

  • reviewing common ground;
  • parking sensitive or difficult issues;
  • taking a break;
  • breaking up teams into more effective sub groups;
  • encouraging clarification in cases of misunderstanding between attendees; and
  • where there is disagreement over principle, try to gain common ground by switching to the detail and doing the reverse where the detail is proving a sticking point.

Finish each session with an agreed list of specific and achievable objectives, naming those responsible for taking action and by when.  Draf the objectives so that the action to be taken can be measured against them.

Learning in groups is about harnessing the knowledge, experience and ideas in each of us.  Best outcomes are assured with an awareness and careful handling of the challenges which can arise.

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