Improving Schools One Conversation at a Time

High quality classroom teaching is a national pursuit: we want to improve student learning, close achievement gaps and increase graduation rates, and we share societal, political, and economic reasons for desiring these outcomes. The field is not short of strategies for pursuing instructional improvement, including new curricula, new instructional strategies, data teams, even learning walks. Yet even when smart people are working incredibly hard to implement research-based interventions, the results often fall short of expectations. In districts across the nation, leaders are dissatisfied with the results of years—even decades—of effort toward systematic school improvement.

What gets in the way? The reasons are many and varied, yet the authors' collective experience in the field suggests an important pattern: the successful execution of nearly every initiative, no matter its content, comes down to what Bossidy and Charan call "the basic unit of work": individuals' ability to have the right conversations at the right time with the right people. Any educational change effort requires learning and most initiatives rely on person-to person conversation to foster that learning, for example, feedback from a principal to her staff after learning walks or conversation between an instructional coach and a teacher about how to implement a new curriculum.

Surprisingly often educators either avoid these “learning conversations” or conduct them poorly, diminishing the potential of the chosen improvement strategy to catalyse professional learning and ultimately to change practice. It is tempting to frame the major barrier to these conversations as a lack of courage or will on the part of those who should be initiating them. We suggest, instead, that the problem is a lack of skill. Conversations that lead to learning require a specific skill set as well as a shared understanding of their purpose, which in turn require training and support for all concerned.

Four Essentials

There are four essential attributes to successful learning conversations. First: learning conversations occur in a spirit of shared inquiry and a relationship of mutual support for professional learning. This stands in contrast to one-way transmission of information common in the conversations among educators and perhaps especially between supervisors and teachers.
Second: learning conversations are grounded in data and evidence.
Third: learning conversations are built on the understanding that every individual brings his or her own assumptions, experiences and mental models to bear on those data, and reaching shared understanding may not be straightforward or easy.
Fourth: learning conversations involve the construction of new knowledge or insight by those involved.

Some educational change initiatives, including the widely popular movement to create PLCs and data teams, are built around the argument for such generative conversations. We are not the first to argue for their place in advancing the adult learning necessary for real instructional change. However, we argue that the need for learning conversations does not exist solely in PLCs and data teams. It is at the heart of every educational improvement initiative that aims to change practice.

What Schools and Districts Leaders Can Do

Schools and districts benefit from acknowledging the importance of the learning conversation in educational improvement, and investing in it. What can you do?

  • Identify your learning conversations Examine your core improvement strategies and identify the specific moments in which you expect staff members' beliefs, attitudes, skills or practices to change. Notice how many of those depend on conversation and exchange, such as:
    • Developing a shared understanding of what high quality instruction looks like
    • Using data to guide conversations about where instructional practice falls short
    • Discussing practices that effectively meet particular student needs
    • Analyzing why data teams often fail to get to improved instructional practice
    • Planning high quality instruction
    • Reflecting on what worked and did not about recent instruction.
    Take time to plan where and when those conversations will take place, charting how the participants will be involved in each one.
  • Invest in skill building
    Once you have identified the key learning conversations embedded within your core improvement strategies, make sure that the individuals necessary to making the conversations effective receive training and support. Learning to engage in an effective learning conversation is a life-long pursuit, relying on a host of skills and dispositions. To help school leaders and faculty build them, we suggest focused professional development on:
    • skill at framing purposeful conversations and establishing agreed upon outcomes;
    • skill at selecting and presenting appropriate data for consideration;
    • the capacity to listen carefully to what someone else is saying, including suppressing the need to talk;
    • sensitivity to clues about what others value and are worried about;
    • skill at asking questions that help others activate their prior knowledge, uncover assumptions, and generate ideas
    • skill at identifying connections across seemingly disparate perspectives.
    Frequently, leaders train educators whom they see as the "feedback givers", those who have something important or powerful to tell to others that those others need to know. We advocate training everyone whom we expect to engage in learning conversations for two reasons: learning to receive feedback is as important as learning to give it; and the ethos of the learning conversation is of mutual professional learning rather than master and apprentice.
  • Monitor the existence and quality of the learning conversations
    Do not leave to chance that these conversations will take place. As we have noted, they often do not. But gathering evidence as to whether and when these conversations happen is not enough. These conversations need to be at a high enough quality to foster learning, challenge existing organizational practices, and develop new skills and understandings. Ultimately, what matters is whether the conversations deliver the intended results. If professional learning community discussions are supposed to lead to collectively altered instructional practice, does that practice occur? If supervisory post-observation sessions are supposed to prompt introspection, is there evidence that teachers are more reflective as a result? If learning walk debriefs are to create ownership of instructional patterns and trends and commitment to work on high-priority areas, does anything improve? Gather evidence related to these questions, and use the data as a basis for subsequent learning conversations.
Leveraging the power of a school improvement strategy requires more than setting up the calendar and providing high-quality professional development. It requires that the strategy is translated into instructional improvement through discussion of collective meaning making, new understandings of instructional patterns, increased expectations for the kinds of tasks students can tackle, and deep understanding of what creating such tasks entails. If our ultimate aim is to make the changes in instruction that will lead to improvements in student learning, we must engage in dialogue that is likely to help change practice.


  • Bossidy, L., & Charan, R. (2011). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York, NY: Random House.

About Authors:
Sarah Birkeland is an education researcher and the founder of Helix Learning Partners.
Richard W. Lemons is the deputy director at the Connecticut Center for School Change, where Isobel Stevenson is a program coordinator. GCI thanks the authors for permission to reprint this article.This article first appeared in ASCD Express, Volume 10, (20).

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