Deeper Questions: Deeper Learning - Mid-Pacific Institute

High School Principal's Blog

Deeper Questions: Deeper Learning

Posted on February 7, 2018

by Thomas McManus on February 7, 2018

On this past Wednesday, the entire high school faculty gathered for an hour in Bakken auditorium with the express intention of deepening our relationships with one another. With roughly 90 full-time faculty, it can be hard to keep up with colleagues whose rooms aren't close by, are in different departments, or work with different grade levels. Left to our own devices, we'd give any spare time to the students and never slow down to build the kind of relationships and rich connections which make a school a true community of adult learners.

Three teachers led us through exercises in pairs and trios, with specific instructions to find someone you don't know too well (this is actually a harder job when you are a principal). We mirrored each other, talked over each other (on-purpose!), and broke out of the exercises in laughter more than a few times. It felt goofy and fun, and the goal of togetherness was achieved.


The scene: our student created morning coffee house last week. The cast: Assistant Principal Grems, Assistant Principal McGuigan, Sara McKay Hines, John Cheever, and Chris Falk

"Yes, and..." is a primary building block for all improvisational acting. The principle of "yes, and..." is that partners will accept and embrace whatever they are given and then add onto it. As a professional improviser on the side (yes, I am admitting to that now that I only have few months left here at school...), I find "yes, and..." to be a sure way to create energy. Not only can't I say "no" to what someone suggests, but I also have to add to it. We get a lot farther from where we started that way, together, kakou.

So, I love "yes, and..." but I had a revelation during another recent teacher workshop that made me realize it is just one tool for listening, and maybe not the best one for the kind of introspection teachers need to engage in about our practice. "Yes, and..." is great for a brainstorm or to build something quickly. It's grounded in mutuality and collaboration. But what happens when our goal is not to collaborate but to serve the thinking of the person we are in community with?

Coming to visit for their fifth straight year, Educational Consultants Anne Davies and Sandra Herbst were here in January to inspire and encourage us. Sandra is fond of saying that "the deepest form of feedback is a question which mediates someone's thinking." Have you ever wanted to help someone move to the next level of their thinking without getting in their way? Although we may mistake our role for one of collaboration, the situation instead calls for one partner to effectively disappear so the other can learn. Ironically, in this situation, the principles of cognitive coaching ask us not to say "yes, and!" Instead, the best way to listen deeply is to paraphrase and let your partner know you have truly heard them. Instead of adding "and," you turn what they have just said into a guiding question for where they may need to go next.

If a colleague I am coaching tells me that her goal is to better measure student progress on a certain skill, my "and" will only get in the way. Her question and inquiry is plenty big without my interjecting what else they may want to do. Instead, my role is to acknowledge her goal and ask her a series of questions about what success might look like for her students, what resources she might consult, and what her next steps may be. Along the way, I can reflect to her both the substance of what she is saying ("you want to know how well a student has learned what you are teaching") and the values that are driving her ("you are doing this because you believe this is the key skill for what will come next in their learning"). Finally, of course, I can ask her the ways in which our conversation might be useful in what she wants to do next. This is a time for her to consolidate thinking and for me to consider how effective my coaching may have been.

For a "yes, and" person, understanding the tool of cognitive coaching has helped me to grow as a professional. If you care enough for someone that you want them to display thoughtful decision making and autonomy--as most parents want for their own children--I will also tell you that it takes practice. Many of us at school who took the training are forming small teams to practice conversations like these for only 20 minutes at a time. It is hard to get yourself out of the way, but the methodology is powerful. We find that the more disciplined we are about listening and reflecting, there are deeper questions that can be posed and answered.


I'm closing this blog with a photo that makes me smile. On January 27th, a team of facilitators including Mid-Pacific's own Mrs. McGuigan, Dr. Hines, Mr. Cheever, and I worked with 10 teams from public, private, and charter schools to create "sail plans" for innovation in their schools. The teams that day at Ewa Makai Middle consisted of teachers, principals, students, parents, and community partners. This was a continuation of a conversation that included Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner (Educational luminaries and co-authors of "Most Likely to Succeed") as well as the leaders of public, private, charter, and Catholic schools statewide.
When trying to change larger--seemingly intractable--schools and systems of education, we may actually need both "yes, and" and cognitive coaching. "Yes, and" creates common cause and energy. Transformative, individualized solutions come from sitting beside someone and coaching. On this particular day, it was energizing to speak with people who are so deeply invested in making the right choices with and for their students. It was an honor to listen deeply and reflect back their ideas for change. As a lifelong-learner myself, I feel privileged to be part of a school which provides opportunities for both children and adults to grow.

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