Monday, May 2, 2016

Old School Discernment in the Digital Age

I get asked a lot about decision making in my job.  As an assistant principal, I can go from hiring to student conduct to event set up to state reports in a matter of 10 minutes.  While I am in no ways a perfect decision-maker, I have learned a few things over the years and most recently in Ignatian Leadership Seminars.  This post is built off a webinar I recent gave via the ISTE Connects Professional Learning Series (ISTE members can find the free webinar here – sorry about the pay wall folks). 

Old school discernment holds up quite well in the digital age.  While we may be making decisions about 1:1 programs, 3D printing, virtual reality or interactive screens, the process of decision-making via discernment holds.  As a Jesuit educator, discernment for me comes out of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The elements of Ignatian Discernment are:
  • A choice between two or more “goods” - discernment requires smart options 
  • The process is dynamic - discernment requires freedom of action and reflection
  • Feelings matter – trust those feelings of excitement, fear, calm, anxiety
So what does this look like in a 21st century example?  In 2009, the technology team at Brebeuf Jesuit began to discern what a 1:1 program at the school would look like.  Feel free to peruse old posts on this blog as to the details – but in a nutshell:

  • No matter what was chosen (Bring Your Own Technology, single-platform, continuation of carts) the priority was the student learning experience.  The choices could all work – and indeed had in many schools.
  • The discernment process ended up taking 2 years.  The time was filled with conversation, surveys, workshops and pilot programs.  At times, one option would outweigh another and the school created “what if we….” trials to see the real life experience of a choice.  Reflection allowed us to choose what was best for our students.
  • Oh the feelings – anxiety, resistance, enthusiasm, excitement were all handled respectfully.  The whys behind the feelings were considered. Many a digital aged initiative has failed because administration did not respect or address the feelings of those affected by the change.
So big picture discernment is about the choice between good choices, accepting a dynamic experience and attention to feelings.  What does the process look like in the details of digital age decision making? 

For me, the process looks something like this:

Phase One – Setting the Context
  • Identify the need to be addressed as concretely as possible
  • Gather all necessary information – data, interviews, sample products  
At this point, the team has a stated decision based on a need for change, choices between goods and is ready to move into an experiential phase. The catch here is detachment.  Change-makers must remain open to options and remain flexible at this phase.  Attaching oneself to any single choice will derail the process.

Phase Two – Experience
  • Evaluate advantages and disadvantages of choices – this may involve pilot programs, test groups, visiting another school. 
  • Test reasoning with self and others - now is the time to play with alternatives.  “What if we….”  “What would our school look like if….?”  If you have a school board or colleagues in the field, ask them to review your plan.
Again, remaining detached is key.  At this point, you may see “camps” in your decision-making team.  People start to become attached to a side and may stop listening.  The team leader should feel comfortable reminding the group to remain detached.

Phase Three – Deciding to Decide
  • Make a tentative decisions – For thee record not making a decision at this time is in fact a decision.  Maybe the context and experience phases have shown it’s not a good time to change.  That is an acceptable decision.  Some tentative decisions are easy – the best choice has made itself clear along the way.  Sometimes the tentative decision is fraught with anxiety.  Listen to that anxiety.
  • Live with the tentative decision for a set period of time.  This is the infamous “let’s sleep on it” stage.  What feeling arise in the decision?  If anxiety – why?  Are the reasons a deal breaker or feelings that can be lived with?  If excitement – why?  How does the team transfer that excitement to a larger group?
  • Finally, confirm the decision even if the team is not 100% on board.  Consensus is tricky business, but if the discernment process has been given time, consideration and detachment the group is ready to move.
Thankfully, good decisions show some signs along the way.  A good decision leads to movement.  When the team starts easily talking about next steps and the fun of the process, you are on the right track.  A sometimes difficult criterion in strong hierarchical groups is discernment made in freedom.  Good decisions happen outside of mandates, fear or reactive situations.  A good decision involves all affected by change.  All voices feel heard along the way, even if the decision was not made in their favor.  Finally, a good decision spirals a school to deeper knowledge.

For Brebeuf Jesuit, our 1:1 BYOT decision quickly engaged faculty and students in the possibilities it opened up.  Because 1:1 grew out of student and classroom needs, the ownership was in the hands of the learners, those who would use the technology day after day.  And over the years, this one decision has guided us in curriculum review, classroom redesign and new teaching practices.  We’ve learned a lot!  And grew as a learning community.

This is a rather long post so thanks for sticking with me!  More posts to come as I continue to gather ideas on pitfalls to avoid and conversation starters.  As always, comments welcome below!