Posted by: darcymullin | April 5, 2013

Context Matters

The more time I spend in education the more I come to realize that context is everything. It was this post by Cale Birk that challenged my preconceived notions and got me thinking about my own environment.

Last summer I read a few posts by Bill Ferriter about flipping faculty meetings. I was really intrigued with the idea. It seemed cutting edge and in my mind if we could spend more time learning together as a whole staff it would be better for our school. For the first few staff meetings this year I did change things. I put the Professional Learning pieces at the piecesbeginning of our meetings and the discussion items at the end. It was fine, but then an interesting thing happened. People began clamoring for more talk time. I began to hear comments about not talking things through “like we used to”.

I forgot about context. I started trying to implement ideas without thinking about the cultural norms of our school.

I am still relatively new to the school (my second year) and Giant’s Head has a long history of innovation and professional learning. It came about through rigorous discussion, often in staff meetings. In order to keep this school moving forward, I needed to provide time to talk things through.  Even talking about the structure of school, people make relevant connections to professional learning – it’s cultural. By taking away talk time in our staff meetings, I actually was impeding learning…I needed to provide time to talk about issues that are relevant to the context of our school.

In our last two meetings, we have focused almost completely on discussion items and they have arguably been our two best meetings all year. By having a forum to talk about things, teachers are making connections and in many ways clarifying the vision and path the school is going to continue on. We are looking to pursue some really innovative practices that will allow us to build long-term structures for ongoing professional inquiry (but that’s another post :-))

Being connected to Social Media I am inundated with great ideas. There are so many great things happening in the field. I have to watch my competitive nature (or ego) and not feel the pressure to continually implement every great idea I am exposed to.  As an educator I need to be current and aware of great innovative practices, but the more I reflect the more I realize it is even more important to understand how those practices can be tweaked to fit our context. Better yet, gauge the innovation with a critical eye and decide whether they fit the context at all.



  1. You’re right, Darcy, that understanding the context of your school is essential to driving real change. I call that thinking along the edges of the box. You want to find new patterns of behavior that stretch your staff, but that don’t take them beyond their comfort zone.

    The only push-back that I’d give is that my notion of a flipped faculty meeting should create MORE time for talking in your face-to-face meetings. Just as importantly, it should create new opportunities for everyone to talk — including those people who feel marginalized in your face-to-face meetings.

    Here’s an example: A few years back, we were rethinking grading policies in our school. That is an incredibly important and incredibly difficult conversation all wrapped into one.

    We started with a three-day digital conversation in VoiceThread that happened before our faculty meeting on the topic. Staff members had the opportunity to contribute or to browse the conversation, getting important ideas on the table and in front of everyone before the meeting even began.

    Then, our faculty meeting started with asking table groups to browse the conversation and find comments that they agreed with, comments they disagreed with, and comments that they wanted to hear more about.

    So essentially the “flipped” part of the meeting — the work we did in advance of the meeting — allowed us to slip directly into a really powerful and really meaningful conversation from the moment we sat down together in our face-to-face meeting.

    The time we saved was the “preloading” portion that would have traditionally happened at the start of our face-to-face session. Background knowledge and opinions were activated from the moment we walked through the door.

    What was really important, though, was that there were people who contributed to the conversation anonymously. While some principals that I share this story with see that as a negative — why would someone add opinions on an important topic without putting their names behind it — I see it as a positive because those same people would have sat in a face-to-face meeting and said nothing.

    Sometimes those anonymous people are new teachers who don’t want to make their peers mad. Sometimes they are crusty old badgers who don’t want to move forward. Sometimes they are introverts who have opinions but don’t want their opinions to take center stage.

    I don’t care who they are — I just care about creating an avenue where their thinking gets into important staff conversations.

    Here’s a challenge for you: Pay attention to the patterns of participation in your face-to-face meetings. Is everyone REALLY getting involved, or are their a handful of people who are driving all the conversations?

    If you’ve got a handful of people who are driving the conversations, creating a place for conversations to happen before your face-to-face meetings might just get more people involved — and more importantly, might just bring more ideas to the table.

    Any of this make sense?

    • Bill, thanks for sharing. I agree with what you have said. Interestingly, one of (the many) bright teachers we have on staff suggested changing the format of the discussion a bit, using smaller groups, jigsaw etc. Her thinking was just like yours, not everyone is going to speak up. I chose not to because of time, but I agree. If we want to move forward together everyone needs a chance to share their views. There is nothing wrong with dissension, or critical questions – it’s often what pushes our thinking in a new direction.

  2. Context is so important – absolutely, Darcy.

    I think of staff meetings as my opportunity to be in the classroom (with the brightest kids (disguised as adults) in the building). What that means is rather than a laid out lesson plan (agenda), the direction we take is contextually driven by the discussion and concomitant energy that flows from it.

    And Bill is right: what we are modelling is a new way of “doing” that should transcend the meeting and embed itself in our day to day conversations moving us from being merely congenial to the truly collegial (in a way that builds our collective professional capital).

    I think of staff meetings and discussions between staff and remind myself of where the deeper, “second” level of learning happens in a classroom. The teacher/facilitator sets a context via curriculum but the deeper learning occurs during that peer to peer discourse: meaning is played with, extended and given a resonance that impacts the student(s).

    Now, with this type of intellectual “mining” developed by the students, conversations between them, in the lunchroom, by text and, dare I say, Instagram, become more than ‘one off’ statements of regurgitation but rather multi layered reflections.

    As educators, don’t we want to model the learning behaviours that we expect from our students. Like Cale, what you are doing in your staff meetings is establishing that context so that eventually the discussion becomes “the context is learning, at all levels, and that’s all that matters.”

    Great post – thanks for sharing

  3. […] to pursue their learning in a way that is meaningful to them and in a way that is going to fit the context of their classroom.  For me, that’s where the rubber hits the road.  How can we apply what […]

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