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161. A Tool for Diagnosing Adaptive Challenges in School Discussions

by Lindsay Lyons
April 30th 2024
In today's solo episode as part of a new mini series focused on transforming the systems that uphold inequity in our s... More
Educational justice coach, Lindsay Lyons, and here on the time for Teacher podcast, we learn how to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice design curricula grounded in student voice and build capacity for shared leadership. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach. I'm striving to live a life full of learning, running, baking, traveling, and parenting because we can be rockstar educators and be full human beings if you're a principal assistant superintendent, curriculum director, instructional coach or teacher who enjoys nering out about core curriculum of students. I made this show for you. Here we go. Welcome to episode 161 of the time for leadership podcast. Today, we're tackling adaptive challenges. So, in this mini series on systems transformation, we're really looking at what impedes that transformation and change leadership. And specifically in this episode, I'll explain how you can use a diagnostic tool to identify what exactly is going on and how to get unstuck and finally move towards that transformation you've been working towards.

All right. So let's dive in, let's talk about diagnosing adaptive challenges in school discussions where to look for those, what tool you can use. And before we get to the step by step process. I wouldn't just situate this conversation in adaptive leadership scholarship. So Heitz Grass and Linskey, who I referenced all the time, write a quote that I share all the time. And here it is quote, adaptive challenges are typically grounded in the complexity of values, beliefs and loyalties rather than technical complexity and stir up intense emotions rather than dispassionate analysis. So in summary, a typical workshop or other means of sharing information is just not going to work. You can't just talk your way out of RPD your way out of an adaptive challenge that's been lasting a very long time. There's something deeper that's resisting that change. We have to unearth that before the transformational change can happen, but it's really quite difficult to get everyone on your staff or in a classroom to just share honestly where that resistance is really coming from. I mean, it's a struggle even for those individuals to even know what that is, right?

What are the values that they hold the beliefs or loyalties that are holding them back from this change? Diagnosing that is something that individuals probably have a hard time doing within themselves, let alone you doing it as a leader for everyone in a space. So it can be challenging. There are multiple ways to go about this for today's episode. We're talking about really focusing on a school discussion. Now, this could be uh if you have a challenge with the staff or an adaptive challenge that you're working through and trying to lead change around with the staff. You might start by paying attention to a discussion in a staff meeting or maybe it's a team within your staff. So a grade team, a department team, you might want to just kind of pop into one of those meetings and observe what's going on there. And that can be your starting point if you are trying to support a teacher who was having a really tough time in with a particular class or a particular grade of students. Um as they come into that class, you might just want to observe those students talking either in a formal class discussion or just as the class is pro out of control.

And we were just kind of talking about nothing related to life and that talking right or talking about the challenge if you can do it, that is a really good opportunity to observe, reflect not what's going on. And then you can really have the diagnostic criteria to move forward and actually help make the change. So think about which option or which group you would want to pay attention to and go ahead and think about an opportunity where you can jump into that meeting, observe what you can and follow these steps. So here we go. Number one, as you listen or as you are engaging, I'm trying not to use a list language. Uh as you're engaging and observing what's happening in this conversation, I'd like you to think about which type of discourse is present. I'm gonna give you four options. Now, this comes originally from one Equis work, Doctor Chie Bs Patrick, and I have made this into a small adaptation for our work and our publication on adaptive leadership specifically talking about leading racial justice initiatives and, and work in communities.

So as we think about these discourse types, I want you to think about whatever team you have seen operate, whether that's a class based team full of students or again like a a whole staff, you can though also think about interpersonal conversations in your family in your friend groups just to kind of internalize these discourse types because I know just hearing this um or reading about it later on the blog post is going to not be quite the same as as fully experiencing it. Now, I will say there's a youtube video that I will link to the bottom of this blog post that you can actually see these four quadrants as a visual and I walk you through them there. So if that's something you're looking for, feel free to grab that link, that's gonna be again at the blog post for this episode, Lindsay, Beth lions.com/blog/one, 61. OK. Here are the four types of discourses. One polarizing. I think we see this a lot. We see this a lot in the political atmosphere of the United States, particularly during presidential election years.

But really all the time. So polarizing discourse, when we're talking about this type of discourse, we are talking about being rooted in our positions, being very defensive. We are probably a little uncomfortable, right? It's it's uncomfortable to like be in that space. We're in a bit of disequilibrium. But what we're doing is we're not looking for change, we're really just reinforcing those past patterns, right? So these ways of being in a group or at a staff culture level or a class culture level, right? Those really are just standing in the way of change. They're just reinforcing. This is the way we do things and we just kind of repeat that we reinforce this way of being. Now, the next piece is silencing and denying. So in this space, we really have a willful avoidance, right? We are not happy to be uncomfortable. We're going to preserve that comfort, we're going to avoid that risk at all costs. We don't want um really to build any capacity because we don't want change, right?

We're perfectly fine with the way things are again reinforcing past patterns and in contrast to polarizing discourse really sitting in that equilibrium. Now, the next piece is intellectualizing this course, I see this a lot in kind of white liberal conversations. So um we might have some insights, some thinking about imagination and possibility. But what we're really seeing here is that it's very didactic. We are in the head, not the heart, so to speak. So we are talking about things, academic resources or research or a podcast I listened to and here's this idea and we're ignoring the root cause we're ignoring the emotion that makes us human and we're not connecting the head to the heart. We're not really getting into the root cause the source of where all of this is coming from. Um Sometimes this particular type of discourse or discourses in this kind of quadrant reveal historic patterns of dominance, right? And, and they, they might um invite that imaginative possibility for change, right?

They might um offer a limited set of capacity building. But at the core, we are divorced from emotion and that whole list that invites us to experience enough of this equilibrium that we move into the fourth quadrant, which is what we really want. And that's generative mobilizing discourse. So this is where we see racial justice, intersectional justice. This is where we see engagement of the head and the heart. This is where we really mobilize folks to grapple with um any sort of discomfort and disequilibrium, we lean into that and it comes with that imagination and possibility. So, in contrast to the polarizing discourse, where we are feeling that disequilibrium, we're not doing what they're doing in the polarizing discourse, which is reinforcing the past patterns we're looking forward in inviting change. So we have these four types of discourse and I'm sure that as you're listening, you're like, oh, yep, I can think of a time where I was a part of or I was a witness to a discourse that resembled, you know, any one of these, right?

So, again, polarizing, silencing and denying, intellectualizing, generative mobilizing. These are the four, ideally, we want to have generative mobilizing, but polarizing, silencing and denying and intellectualizing are all too common. So what we want to do next, I'm going to go ahead and assume based on what I've heard from folks uh in schools, both thinking about students and thinking about staff um at all levels of, of this kind of school districts spectrum ecosystem, polarizing and silencing and denying quadrants are the most common. This is not to say that the other two are not but polarizing and silencing and denying are the ones that often come up when I present at conferences. When I present in P DS, when I'm just asking folks to individually think about this, these are the two. So I'm gonna kind of go in that direction but feel free to use any of these strategies um to support an intellectualizing discourse as well to try to get it degenerative mobilizing. So, polarizing again, when we're thinking about this, we're thinking about um the fact that we are not inviting imagination and possibilities, right?

When we're in polarizing, also silencing and denying is also on the left hand side of this quadrant So if you can imagine kind of a mathematical graph in your head, I believe that uh quadrant one is the top left. So that's you're polarizing. And then we go counterclockwise around where generative mobilizing is kind of our point in quadrant four in the top, right. So, polarizing and silencing and denying are on the left hand side of this, which means that they are on the opposite side from inviting imagination and possibility. So what's the first step we're gonna invite imagination and possibility. So how do we do this? We can invite teachers or stakeholders of any kind, right? If we're talking about students, whoever it is families to tell you what they wish, their classroom or school experience was like often the change that we might be trying to lead or the aha moment we're hoping folks have is a way that ultimately gets them, that outcome that they want that dream, that wish can come true if we can do these things. Um Here's what we're trying to kind of talk about and engage with, right?

And that resistance we're coming up against and we have to work through that to be able to get there, right. So oftentimes people just need that space to share and be valued, right? They just need to tell you their wish and their wish probably if they're working at the same school as either an educator like you, right? They probably have that deep down value set and that deep down wish and hope for the school or class experience is going to be the same right students I imagine are going to want much of the same things if we dig down deep into the core of what we truly want and what the real wish is. Right. It's probably I'm thinking of like Glasser's needs. So it's probably a sense of, you know, belonging or autonomy or enjoyment or survival, right? These, these core pieces of just what every human wants. So again, dig down deep, invite that wish and people can dream up the wish, right? However they want, if they're like, it looks like pizza every day for lunch. Ok. Great. Awesome. And like, what is that? That's joy for you. OK, cool. So you can kind of facilitate a little bit.

Um But what does it actually look like for you? I think if you're trying to lead a specific initiative or you have a thing that you're, you're trying to like get folks to quote unquote, buy into, I do think the best way to address a lack of buying is co creation, right? So it's not actually buying into something that you create, but it's co creating with everyone like core the dream. Um Ultimately, but first, if you have a particular vision, share it and paint a clear picture of what the dream is because a lot of times that resistance um that unwillingness to engage that avoidance, the silencing, denying anything is even happening, right? That can come from just confusion about what we're even talking about. So get real clear on, here's what we're talking about. Here's what I'd like to talk about. Here's the dream, we get to engage with this kind of content, right? And here's the why so co create the dream ultimately make that the focal point root it in our shared values, which I imagine are going to be very similar. Um If you don't have shared values already, you kind of kind of create them from the ground up uh as you have this conversation.

Now, step three is going to be to create that disequilibrium. Remember the silencing and denying the avoidance super common. And so in order to get to generative mobilizing discourse, we don't just create the imagination, a possibility, sense of things, we also have to create the disequilibrium. So avoidance, which is very popular. Hallmark of adaptive challenges is super common. Often we're avoiding conversations about the things that really matter because we like to be comfortable. And so what it could look like in practice is either diverting attention. So this might mean a topic is brought up that we're uncomfortable with, right? And we want to preserve that comfort. So we're just gonna make a joke or we're gonna make it personal so that it's now about, oh, you've attacked me versus deflecting or in order to deflect from the real issue, right? Versus like, actually we're gonna stick with this issue and I'm gonna deal with my discomfort. We also could have it look like displacing responsibility. So there's a lot of times in and I talked about this before on the podcast, there's a lot of times in strategic planning meetings or something where we're getting at the root cause of something.

And we're really trying to dig deep. Often a displacing responsibility phrase will be something like that's the family's responsibility. That's not mine, right? Or that's not ours as the school. So this idea of like we can't do anything about this. We're gonna just like put that responsibility on someone else is a popular category of things that is going to highlight for you as the observer of this discourse that avoidance is happening, that we're moving into that silencing and denying quadrant. So what do we do then when we see this happen? So if folks are like, I'm cool with the comfort, I'm good. I don't want to rock the boat. Uh who is a um leadership scholar says that actually, we need a disorienting dilemma and that's gonna jump start this transformative learning, which is a little bit different from like a technical learning learning, a new skill. For example, in that it requires a paradigm shift. It really asks us to critically examine our assumptions which is going to be a little more uncomfortable than learning.

You know, this this new formula for math or something, right? So presenting information that makes folks just uncomfortable enough to realize. Whoa the way I have been thinking about this, the current paradigm I'm operating under, it's just not working, it's clearly not working. The data does not support this. So consider what sort of data sets or information you might be able to share with a group that's like, hey, heads up, this is not working something new needs to happen. And what enables what this enables them to do is really just trying on other ways of thinking. And the research has shown that this is actually most effective within group discussions. So being in that group space is super cool because not only are we using dialogue as a tool to diagnose what's going on. But Doctor Cherie Bridges, Patrick has talked about this on the podcast before. It's also used as a tool for change and working through some of this stuff, right? So we diagnose it in a in a discourse in a dialogue, right? We diagnose what's going on and then we work on it through dialogue. We try on those different ways of thinking because folks around us will present different ways of thinking than what we have internally in our heads.

We need to get out of our own heads to practice all that stuff. So on an ongoing basis, I don't think there is really an end point to any of this. But I think the four and five are really, how do we continue this work? One is to practice engaging in discourse, engage as the participants facilitate when and where you can but encourage all school stakeholders to do the same and notice aspects of the experience. For example, what skills did you use in that discussion? Are there certain like verbal moves that you need? Um what is avoided? What is someone like really uncomfortable with? And you notice a displacement of responsibility or a joke was made? What feels really good to you when someone you know, acknowledges what you said and repeats it back, like it doesn't feel so good. Uh This person just kind of talked right over you or didn't let you have the space to share or just dismiss what you said without any sort of um explanation, right? Like what are those things? Just kind of notice the experiences that you're having and what all encouraged all the other folks to do the same and then make space for reflection individually, but also as a group.

So as a staff or a class of students, you can use these reflections to then core discussion agreements if you don't have them already or if you've already created these at the start of the year, for example, and you want to adapt them based on what's coming up in terms of our noticing as we engage in, in discussion. Awesome. And I will say I said this before, but I do think discussion of any kind discussion in any group. For example, discussion with friend groups in the cafeteria on the playground, discussion with families at dinner time. Totally relevant. Those are discussions that is discourse, you can practice there, you can encourage students and families to practice there. It doesn't need to be a formally you know, structured facilitated event. Now, step five is similar in that practice and in that noticing and reflecting you're going to be engaging with certain skills and noticing that you might want to grow certain skills some more than where they're currently at.

So the skills, the four skills or four kind of features of high quality generative mobilizing discourse that Doctor Cherie Bridges Patrick found in her research, she talked about them before on the podcast, I'll link in the blog post to a previous episode where she goes in depth here. But these are the things that you want to be practicing and just be aware of. So one is kind of a readiness and willingness to do the thing, right? So in those moments of I can opt out of this conversation, it's happening or I'm going to kind of lean in and and really do my best to be willing to engage even though it's uncomfortable, right? That is is key number one, right? I have to do the the active like stepping forward and um stepping forward might be able to English, sorry, uh being willing to uh engage, right? And and lean into that. Now, the next piece is vulnerability. This is similar, there's a element of vulnerability. I think that goes with your willingness to have a conversation. But I also think vulnerability in what you share in how you show up in how you respond with emotion to other folks who are sharing in a discussion or dialogue that's vulnerable, right?

That's being vulnerable, particularly in the realm of school where you are a leader interacting with staff, right? There is a power dynamic there. If you are an educator interacting with students or families, there are power dynamics there. When we think about teachers in a classroom with students, right? We often talk about not over sharing, right? I do think there's a degree of vulnerability that is appropriate as a human to foster those human connections without being unprofessional, right? The next piece after vulnerability is adaptability, we have to be able to be thrown a curveball and and still swing the bat, right? So we have to be able to adapt and just kind of be on our toes. That is life, right? That is a life skill that we want to constantly practice and get better at. So as we engage in these, there are going to be folks who say things in discussion that are kind of out of left field, so to speak, there are going to be moments where you are feeling an influx of emotion and you have to figure out what the next step is.

Do I take a breath? Do I respond? Do I leave the room because it's overwhelming, right? Like what is going to help me, what is going to be adaptive? Um And what is going to help me stay committed to this journey for the long haul? That is adaptive, right? So readiness, millions vulnerability adaptability. The fourth one is to really work on your skills of developing, contributing to as a participant, but also as a facilitator, a positive encouraging liberating environment for dialogue. So if we don't have those co created agreements, if we don't have the uh physical space set up, so everyone can be literally uh acknowledged, seen, heard, whatever, whatever it is. However, we're acknowledging folks in that space like we're not creating an environment where we can have liberated dialogue. We need to think about all of these things. We need to think about. What's the moment you step in as a facilitator. What's the moment you step back and let folks resolve things for themselves?

Um What are those agreements? How do we hold folks accountable once we've created the agreements, these all take practice and they all take a concerted effort and and real focus on the fact that you're approving these skills specifically. So as a final call to action, I suppose I want you to pick one meeting or one flash to observe the speed, take notes, you can use the diagnosing adaptive challenges workbook links below. Uh When I say links below, I mean in the blog post below. Uh So that's Lindsay, Beth lines.com/blog/one 161, I'll link it in there. There are a bunch of kind of things to observe or check out as you're engaging in these meetings. Eventually, you might be able to or depending on the stakeholders, you might be able to just hand a paper over to folks in the meeting and say, hey, what did we notice? Did we notice any of these things? And you can have them individually reflect? Um You can reflect on your own, but I'd love for you to identify one place where this happens. Do the observation, learn what you can and then move forward by naming what you see, inviting imagination and possibilities, creating this equilibrium, encouraging ongoing practice of discourse and building your own skills.

If you like this episode, I bet you'll be just as jazz as I am about my coaching program for increasing student led discussions in your school, Shane Sapir and Jamila Dugan talk about a pedagogy of student voice in their book street data. They say students should be talking for 75% of class time. Do students in your school talk for 75% of each class period? I would love for you to walk into any classroom in your community and see this in action. If you're smiling to yourself as you listen right now, grab 20 minutes on my calendar to brainstorm. How I can help you make this big dream a reality. I'll help you build a comprehensive plan from full day trainings and discussion protocols like circle and Socratic seminar to follow up classroom visits where I can plan witness and debrief discussion based lessons with your teachers. Sign up for a nerdy no strings attached to brainstorm. Call at Lindsay, Beth lions.com/contact. Until next time, leaders think big act brave and be your best self. This podcast is a proud member of the Teach Better Podcast network. Better today, better tomorrow and the podcast to get you there, explore more podcasts at teach better.com/podcasts and we'll see you at the next episode.

161. A Tool for Diagnosing Adaptive Challenges in School Discussions
161. A Tool for Diagnosing Adaptive Challenges in School Discussions
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