Coaching Letter #52

Hello!  Thanks for all the messages about learning goals as they can be leveraged in organizations.  I have enjoyed the exchanges and I’m glad so many people found the ideas useful.

Sometime last spring I decided that we should have a summer book club, and I chose Humble Inquiry, by Ed Schein.  I had all kinds of big plans.  Then before I knew it, the end of the semester was upon me, I had no real plan for how this was going to work, and I hadn’t even figured out a platform for the discussion.

I remember very clearly sitting up in bed late one night, laptop on lap, looking for an online forum to use for the book club.  It wasn’t until after I sent out the announcement and the link to the Google+ community, and after people had started posting, that it occurred to me that I hadn’t even thought about norms for participation.  So I wrote some and sent them out.

Miraculously, people started posting.  Some people even posted more than once.  But I can count on one hand the number of people who did that.  So I thought the experiment had been a bit of a damp squib.

But then, as I talked to people over the summer, I realized that it hadn’t fizzled the way that I had thought from looking at the posts on Google+.  I came to find out that lots more people had read the book than I thought, but had not posted for a variety of reasons.  And I realized that I had fallen into many of the traps that I, as part of my job, warn other people about.  Here are just two of them.

First, I raised barriers to participation—aside from not giving people enough time to read the book, I imposed norms that had the effect of scaring people off.  If, for example, you felt like you did not have the time to fulfill the obligations as laid out in the norms, you were quite likely not to post rather than feel like you were letting others down.  Opportunity for humility: I talk all the time about lowering the stakes and eliminating barriers to participation, so I don’t know why I didn’t see what I was doing or that it was a mistake.

Second, I made inferences from the data that turned out not to be true.  I thought that lack of postings on Google+ meant that folks weren’t reading the book.  Not only did many people read it, but they shared it with others and talked to them about it.  Opportunity for humility: I have read the work of Lave, Lave and Wenger—indeed, their work on communities of practice is one of the cornerstones of the Center’s work, and that I know that surface indicators of participation do not necessarily tell you how deeply someone is engaged.  From their book Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation:

Learning viewed as situated activity has as its central defining characteristic a process that we call legitimate peripheral participation. By this we mean to draw attention to the point that learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. ‘Legitimate peripheral participation’ provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old timers, and about activities, identities, artifacts and communities of knowledge and practice. It concerns the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice. This social process includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills …

So now I have some things figured out, if belatedly, and I have yet another opportunity to learn from my failures, and another opportunity to act on what I’ve learned.  So the next book will be…

Big announcement next week, but if you want to know now, you need only email me and I’ll tell you.

Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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