Monday, January 23, 2012

Ritual Dissent (#Change11)

During his live webinar last week in the change11 MOOC, Dave Snowden discussed the power of ritual dissent to support decision making, saying that there is tremendous learning in organizations happening in the ritual grumbling around the water cooler.

Because of my work as an instructional coach in a large school district, I think about the role of dissent among educators in a school. In collaborative learning environments, like the workshops I’ve attended and sometimes facilitated through my local National Writing Project site, I often hear teachers remark that the learning opportunities are so much stronger when they have an opportunity to escape the typical discourse of negative coworkers. So, I wonder about the benefits of water cooler-style grumbling.

On the other hand, I also believe that a large organization like my school district can fall into repetitive cycles of “groupthink,” where the same types of ideas recur year after year and solutions to new challenges sound reminiscent of our typical approaches.

Recently, I have begun using a version of Peter Elbow’s believing and doubting game in workshops I lead about 21st Century Literacy. On these few occasions, I notice less vocal community members, freed perhaps by the protocol, challenging more vocal members. After these workshops, when I sift through teachers’ handwritten doubts about the role of technology in education, I also find that the opportunity to dissent has allowed some to express their fear.

In learning environments, where so much of the learning potential ought to be measured by the interaction between, and the participation of the participants, what are some ways we can put a premium on dissent?


  1. Allowing people to take genuine responsibility for themselves and their work allows them to be more vocal, hopefully in a positive critical way. We have a firmly embedded contingent of online teaching/learning refusers that drive themselves quite crazy bad mouthing any attempt to discuss the topic of learning outside the classroom. Their worries are genuine, if maybe overblown, and they exhibit many attributes of adult learners struggling with uncertainty that I sympathize with.

    But...these are not people who ever really contributed anyway. They don't talk back or exhibit any signs that they have any intention to step up and defend what they claim they value. Their "dissent" is expressed in selfish complaining which further disempowers them.

    I agree that it's nice to be away from them. We don't work in a perfect institution. And the people I work closest with are not innocent of push back and bitching. But we do it in the open. Our president has tendency to the tyrannical, doesn't listen and has many whacky notions. Just the sort of person that strengthens our suggestions by being challenging and hard to agree with. He even randomly comes up with fabulous ideas which keeps us from habitual opposition.

    I far prefer this style. The staff who have traded complaining for what I guess is loyal opposition have made themselves helpless. It's not resistance to change or some neo-Luddite position they stand for. They stand for resistance to resistance.

    Believing and doubting game sounds interesting. Are the two compiled into one resource?


  2. Believing and doubting comes from Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers, oldy but a good book... and the title might've been a bit prescient...

  3. Thanks for the link. Through a twist of fate I've been reassigned to adapt a set of Power Engineering trade courses to online delivery. First stage is to be blended delivery and from there we go on to a stand alone format to be presented later.

    I know the instructors, know the subject and, like them, secretly believe trade courses are poor candidates for online delivery. So now I get to eat my words and take on some real opposition I can understand and sympathize with. That said, we have a huge waiting list for the current classroom / lab offerings of this course and employers waiting to hire. These courses have to go online, have to be good and need to go beyond simply replicating the F2F versions in cyberspace.

    The alternative to blended online with scheduled lab sessions is to send students south to one of the two urban campuses offering the program f2f at considerably higher cost. For local students this translates into big loans to finance living costs first and education second which is especially hard on the rural student base we serve.

    In some ways this program is ideal for conversion. It's way more challenging to serve trades learners who aren't particularly adept in the two dimensional environment. They will need special support which I'm hoping will wake people up to the importance of providing genuine help up front and not just as an afterthought. Worthy opposition helps too, the instructors have clear and well thought out arguments that need to be addressed--and in addressing them I hope we can improve on delivery. From my perspective it's nice to have articulate opposition over the sort of foot dragging, passive-aggressive, just-don't-like-it-but-can't-say-why resistance we get from other departments.

    Believing and doubting seem the appropriate positions to take here. Having to serve interests that seem beyond resolution makes this project much more interesting. Also helps to have a project that engages my attention over the others that have been 99% political crap and 1% worth the trouble.

    Thanks for link to the book. I'll definitely check it out.


  4. Scott,

    Your situation sounds like a scenario where people come in with firm positions in place.

    I heard a facilitator comment once that the benefit of this game is that in walking through the protocol, the dissenters will end up formulating strong arguments in favor and authentically change their stance on a position by trying to actively persuade someone, if even for a few minutes in a contrived way.

    Here's a handout that was shared with me by some folks from the National Writing Project. It might be more handy than the book.