In my school, lots of meetings have “protocols.” What, you say? Protocols?
Protocols are a highly organized, structured way to accomplish tasks which involve lots of people.
My school frequently uses two.
One protocol my school loves to do in various meetings is called “Critical Friends Group.” One person spends 5 minutes presenting an assignment (or shares some of their students’ work and the assignment that led to that work) to a group of 8-15 other teachers. Then everyone thinks about the assignment silently, with reference to one or two key questions (e.g. “what kinds of thinking skills would a student need to complete this task successfully?”). One by one, each teacher asks the presenter a question about the assignment — something like “how many days did you give students to work on it?” and “did you have a grading rubric?” Finally, after the initial questions are answered, each person makes an analytic comment about the project — with the presenter just listening. If there is enough time, everyone can make a second comment. Finally, the presenter responds to as many of the comments as he or she wants. There is no interrupting or discussion.
That’s an example of a protocol. It’s a highly structured method to elicit specific feedback on a particular project or assignment.
Another example of a protocol is something called a “chalk talk.” There are one to four questions or statements on various boards around the room. Everyone gets a marker and writes their comments down on each of the boards. Then everyone makes a second pass and writes down comments on the already written comments. No one is allowed to speak — this is done in total silence.
And I tell you, when I first heard about protocols, I thought: hey, an efficient way to get very specific information back from a group of people. The concept of the protocol is good.
I’ll even admit that the information gathered from some of the protocols are good.
But I don’t care. I hate them. And here’s a list of the reasons why:
1. It’s infantalizing. I really feel like the formal procedures treats its participants like young children the way they’re set up. It’s hard feeling to explain. Maybe it’s the markers that are put out to write with, or the too-rigid environment that’s set up. But I don’t feel like a capable, intelligent adult.
2. I don’t feel like my voice is being heard. With the “chalk talk” for example, I often feel very strongly about some of the questions asked. They will ask, for example, “what can we do for professional development next year?” and I have a lot of very specific ideas. I am given only 5 or so minutes to write it down in marker (or pen if I’m lucky) — and I usually haven’t thought about the question beforehand, so I feel like my thoughts aren’t yet fully formed. My ideas are now ill-formed, poorly-written, and scrawled on a giant sheet of paper with about fifty or sixty other comments. The worst part is that people feel obligated to write — so something I’m passionate about, something that I care deeply about, is often sitting next to statements written by people who write because they have to. They don’t care (I’ve talked to them; I know) and they wouldn’t put anything down if they could. But they do and now my contribution is floating in a massive sea of detritus. It forces fake engagement. (Plus, let’s be honest, I doubt that anyone seriously looks at these pages. If anything, they glance at them, take a few notes, and make a memo.)
3. It stifles dialogue. And actually, I think that’s what they’re designed to do. They are structured to have a very specific goal. So, for example, the Critical Friends Group protocol will engage with one or two specific questions. And the “discussion” is centered around them. But the problem is that there is no “discussion” really. Everyone gets to speak while everyone else is silent. Only the presenter gets to respond, and then only to a few people. It’s a bunch of sound bytes, with serious discussions about teaching ripe for the having, yet never had.
4. It doesn’t account for the individual being smart. Critical Friends, for example, is used to help a teacher improve an assignment. However, here’s my issue. Let’s say you do an assignment and it doesn’t go so well. You do Critical Friends, making, say, 8 people spend 50 minutes analyzing your assignment. You improve the assignment. Great. But here’s where my problem is.
If you had initially critically thought about your assignment and come up with ways to improve it the following year, I’d say that chances are, you’d come up with some pretty insightful ideas. And then you do Critical Friends, and you get, say, a few more good ideas that aren’t already on your list. Is it worth it? You’ve spent 50 minutes of 8 other people’s time to get a few different ideas/perspectives. But I contend that having a few informal conversations with other teachers about your assignment would have given you those few additional ideas/perspectives that you hadn’t thought of. In a cost-benefit analysis, it just doesn’t seem worth it. You can get the same result, I’m guessing, without spending all this time.
5. I get the feeling that it’s a safety net for meeting leaders who don’t know how to lead a meeting. Certainly this is not universally true. But I think I’ve become so jaded that I hear this advertisment: “Don’t know what to do with this meeting? Don’t have a way to get everyone involved and engaged? Make everyone miserable with a protocol! Force them to think, write, and ‘discuss’ so you can say you are engaging everyone, without truly engaging anyone!”
Of course, I go on this diatribe, knowing full well that leading a meeting is hard work and I don’t have a lot of answers. You have a lot of different people with a lot of different ideas and strong opinions that you need to rally together. You need to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard. You have to strive to engage your audience, without making them resent spending their time with you. You have to come to some sort of closure at the end. And that’s hard work. Moreover, there are a lot of people at my school who say they find immense value in them. (Though I wonder how much true take-away value these meetings have had; has anyone come out knowing how to advise their advisees or teach their students better? Probably, but I’m betting the number is few, and that there are a heck of a lot more people who feel their time was completely wasted.)
And guess what? That’s teaching. Leading a meeting requires almost all the skills that a good teacher must possess. And I often complain about the meeting formats at my school. But at the same time, I am always wondering: how could I have led the meeting differently? 
The answers are few and far between, but I know they exist. I’ve come up with a few ideas — some which involve straight up, good presentation. I’m okay not “dialoguing” and just getting the information I need. Also, I’m okay with an informal small group dialogue led by a facilitator which is allowed to veer in different directions of conversation, depending on the interests of the participants.
Does anyone enjoy any of the meetings at their school? Are any of them not a waste of time, as determined by a cost-benefit analysis (how much take-away value have I gotten versus how much time I’ve spent getting that take-away value?).
The catalyst for this post after the fold.
 The answer to that would probably partially be the answer to how to keep a class of 10th and 11th graders with varying ability levels and interests engaged in math class. It’s not easy (at least not for me), but I believe it’s possible, and that’s what I striving for. It takes a lot of preparation beforehand. And I only really succeed every so often.
Every 5 or 6 weeks, we have a shortened Tuesday, where school lets out at 2pm and we have a teacher’s professional development afternoon from 2:30-5pm. Groups of teachers investigating various topics (e.g. digital portfolios, the brain and development, space and architecture, critical friends group, diversity, etc.) meet and teachers undergo “professional development.” (Some truly are professional development; others are a lot more questionable.)
Last Tuesday we had our last professional development day, and at the end, we filled out detailed surveys about the group. We gave our feedback. Then, today, at our faculty meeting (3:30-5pm), we did a chalk talk:
1. We were sat at a table and asked to write on the “tablecloth” (made of paper) about something we learned in our professional development groups. After 10 minutes of thinking and writing, we read them to each other. A gong sounded. (Seriously.)
2. We then moved to another table, and read what other people wrote. Then we commented on their comments. (“Neat! I agree!” or “How did you know students actually did learn?”). We didn’t talk. The gong was sounded again.
3. We moved to another table, and read what other people wrote and commented. We wrote more comments, on their comments (things are getting meta now!) and then in the center of the table, we wrote down our ideas for next year’s professional development groups. There was no discussion. The gong rang a final time, and we all got to go home.
Did I learn anything? That I am praying that there are no more protocols until the summer ends.
Yeah. And at least there were yum-delish snacks on the tables.