Unstuck in action: Setting the stage for a very big conversation


July 18, 2013
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Mark Silberberg has a tough nut to crack. As the middle school principal for Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, he leads his faculty and students on a progressive education journey. Naturally, curriculum is at the heart of it. But for the last few years both Silberberg and his teachers have come to believe that the school schedule is at odds with the values embedded in the curriculum.

“For a school that has a value of integrated curriculum driven by inquiry, we have a schedule structured very tightly around the different disciplines,” says Silberberg. His team is in favor of changing the school day format, but feels overwhelmed by the topic. “When you say, ‘Let’s do something about it,’ the reaction can be ‘well, it wasn’t so bad,’ because the idea of change can be overwhelming.”

But “not so bad” didn’t cut it for Silberberg. So he looked for a way to facilitate a conversation about schedule that would ease his faculty into the thorny topic of how to make the school day more responsive, more integrated with inquiry and discovery.

Enter Unstuck.

Silberberg teaches a class around value-based decision-making. “I’m looking for interesting tools to support this work, and Unstuck struck me as an awesome one to help students to define a goal, figure out how to get there, and monitor it,” says Silberberg. It also struck him that Unstuck could help him mediate the schedule issue at one of his weekly faculty meetings. “It’s not a tool designed for groups, but there is something interesting about the prompts,” he says.

Here’s what they did.

Six groups of three or four teachers each had a single iPad with the Unstuck app. Their stuck moment: How do we start thinking about the schedule-redesign project? What ideas are we bringing to it? Where are there tensions?

The groups spent 35 to 40 minutes working on this, going only as far as the end of the diagnostic. “The app is pretty intuitive, so it didn’t require much facilitation on my part,” Silberberg says. “It was fascinating to watch the groups. Some groups approached it as single entity, working toward consensus, while some were more schizophrenic, with the people who felt more strongly about a particular question driving the group’s response.

“People found the ‘What are you thinking?’ cards really interesting,” he continues. “The forcing of a choice where the stakes are low prompted some interesting conversation. Sometimes for us as a community, we get stuck too much in the process and conversation, and we aren’t as concise as we need to be. With the cards, it either is or is not. You can’t debate the middle ground.”

Silberberg also appreciated not being at the center of the discussions: “It freed us from pressures we would have had if I had been facilitating. It shifted the locus. ‘This isn’t Mark telling us to do these things.’ It was like an outside consultant came in and helped us. It allowed people to be more free and honest. It was a more comfortable way for people to jump into something.”

How they were acting in their stuck moment.

The groups took screenshots of their stuck moments and projected them on the wall for discussion. Two of the groups were acting like Deflated Doers, doing things like longing for insight and looking for ways out. The other groups came up as an Idle Achiever, Ad Libber, Tunnel Visionary, and Lone Leader. And, interestingly, half felt “we want different things,” while the other half were “not sure what we want.”

“It allowed everyone collectively to say we’re not really sure where this is going,” says Silberberg. “We’ve been talking abstractly about moving in a new direction, we’re uncomfortable, and not sure we want to go through all this change work.”

How they got unstuck.

Once people’s thoughts and feelings about the topic were out on the table, the group was able to move onto the less personal area of curriculum values. “There was a suggestion that there be an overlap of ideas and beliefs. Do the actions match our values?” Silberberg explains. “From the stuck moments we’ve defined the nonnegotiables from a values perspective.”

They drafted a five-page document that outlines their priorities on time and culture in an is/is not format. For instance, “Longer periods for sustained work, NOT chopped up short periods and lots of transition,” and “Time structured around interdisciplinary blocks and NOT time based on subject.”

Now that his teachers are talking about schedule and curriculum, Silberberg is confident they will follow through with the hard work. “You can’t just tinker with the schedule,” he says. “You have to blow it up. We needed to spend time unpacking what it is going to feel and mean to be in that conversation.”

Going forward, Silberberg may introduce his team to some of the 11 tools in the Unstuck app: “They offer ways to collect ideas about next steps, and are helpful in framing the action. Kind of like a compass to help us get where we think we need to go.”

How do you use Unstuck? Email us at info@unstuck.com and we may feature you in an upcoming newsletter.

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