Why Do Learning Oriented Conversations Matter?

kid_talk_3.jpg courtesy of angelamaiers.com

It’s been an interesting start to the new school year.  My self-deprecating line, after a week of collecting school fees and tracking down attendance is, “I’m exhausted . . . I’ve been working like a teacher.”

Despite the irreverence, I must say that what I really miss right now is the opportunity to engage with teachers within the formal, collective constructs that we have established over the years at our school.  Gone are the Staff Committee, Department Head Meetings and collegial processes that help us connect, come together and both sustain while concomitantly create a strong sense of supportive co-dependency.  You see, these are more than mere meetings and processes: these are opportunities to gather and construct identity.  It is this phased out reality which I miss most of all.

In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, has something interesting to say about how identity is constructed:

Plurality is the law of the earth.  My discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue.  My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.

Who we are and what we do is, in large part, greatly affected by the discussions we have with one another. Arendt reframes relationships as dialogical relations and it is through the power of these relations (these verbal, ‘in the moment’ connections) that we have, in years past, come together and acted upon our school vision – our collective identity.  We have done so by discussing in departments and committees the past, present and the future: drawing from the past, anchoring the future in the present and sharpening the focus of our picture of the future with a clear long-term goal.

Dialogical relations are for us, as educators, what Dennis Sparks calls “learning-oriented conversations”.  In his article, “Leaders Use Every Opportunity to Promote Learning-Oriented Conversations,” he writes that leading through learning occurs when we “listen to others in a spirit of openness about the topic at hand” and when we “listen to learn.”  I would argue that Sparks’ learning-oriented conversations are the equivalent of Arendt’s dialogical relations: each is meant to move us forward in our understanding of those around us (the stakeholders within our learning community) and ultimately, ourselves (as educators and empathic human beings).

I am certain that these learning-oriented conversations are still occurring in our schools between colleagues; however, gone for me are the familiar learning conversations (one to one, at School Growth and Department Meetings) that traditionally marked Septembers past.  Absent is the conversation with a teacher who, before I have my first coffee Monday morning, will accost me with kindness and a desire to discuss his struggles with making differentiated instruction ‘work’ in his classroom.  Gone is the meeting with the Professional Development Committee where innovative practices are introduced and developed into workshops for staff. Missing is the School Growth Committee Meeting in which school directions are put forward and discussed.

When people ask me what impact job action has had on me, this is what I tell them: the absence of dialogical relations, those learning oriented conversations that aid in constructing my professional and personal identity . . . that’s what I miss most.

They usually look at me askance and try to probe deeper: how can these relations, these conversations be that important?

The answer, really, is quite obvious to anyone who walks these halls for 40% of their waking hours: they are important because through them we foster deep connections by building trusting relationships; through them we co-develop a vision to guide the sustained direction of our learning community; and, through them we create a culture of inquiry mindedness.  Above all else, through them we embark upon a path of self-discovery while engaging in the form of meaningful work that will improve the life chances of the students we serve.

This is why they matter.

  1. Gino,

    Thank you so much for saying what is in my heart… I was just discussing this with my wife last year as she said “You seem ‘moosh’… everything ok?”. I said that I miss the passionate dialogue that we once had as a staff. I am sure these conversations are still occurring in the staffroom and in the school but I don’t get to be a part. If our staff meetings were dry, information-based, and unidirectional, then I could see how I would be just frustrated; however, our staff meeting dialogue is what motivates me and lights the fire in me at my school. I have the odd conversation with a teacher around great topics and issues in education but I really miss the learning conversations that drive us forward as a team and as a school. I have been very hesitant to speak about this but your words really resonate with me. This is a struggle for all of us involved in education but the lack of dialogue around the how and why in our school leaves me… well ‘moosh’.

    I need to find ways to be part of the passionate dialogue around learning in my school. If anybody has any advice… would love to hear it.

    Thanks so much for allowing to share my thoughts on this challenging time for us all.

  2. Well said Gino!

    This year represents my sixth year at my school, and I am just feeling like we are starting to shift into high gear in terms of setting the direction for the school. Over the course of last year, our staff spent a great deal of time and effort maximizing the number and quality interactions between each of us as educators. Using a number of different literacy exercises with our staff, we not only taught ourselves how to use these exercises to benefit our students, we collaborated together as a staff on student achievement, social responsibility, and school pride so we could positively affect the culture of our school. I have never had richer conversations with educators, and I have never learned more about each of the people on our large staff. It was awesome.

    And as much as some of these conversations are still taking place, more often than not they are in the halls, by the photocopier, and individual. Like you, I miss listening to the ideas of the group, be they our Coordinators or the entire staff, and getting fired up about how we can turn those ideas into action.

    I look forward to resuming the very conversations of the collective that you write about.

    Tremendous thoughts, my friend!

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