November 20, 2014

On Old-school Meetings

By Bellwether

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I recently attended a small meeting with an impressive group of current and past leaders of a number of education’s largest and oldest organizations. It wasn’t a secretive get-together or sensitive topic, and I’m not going to reveal the name of any participants or discuss any specific content. So if you’re looking for some inside scoop or salaciousness, you’re about to be disappointed.
Instead, I want to explain how something as seemingly simple as a meeting’s form and tone influenced my thinking, and I want to thank, in absentia, those responsible.
As for the meeting itself, I was a bit of a fish out of water; it was not populated by any of the reform community’s usual suspects. I was also probably the youngest and least experienced person in the room.
There were two other notable sets of differences between this gathering and my frequent haunts.
The first related to style. At this meeting:

  • People dressed more formally; just about everyone had on a jacket, and all men wore ties.
  • There were zero laptops. Most people took notes on paper pads.
  • Because there was so little technology in the room, almost no one multitasked.
  • Each person at the table had several minutes at the beginning of the meeting to give his/her thoughts on the subject at hand (this alone took almost an hour).

At first, each of these things struck me as anachronistic. But in combination, they had a powerful, and almost entirely positive, influence on the discussion.
They slowed the conversation, enabled the discussion to go deeper, helped everyone take the subject and one another more seriously, encouraged everyone to contribute, democratized the back-and-forth, enabled people to stay fully engaged over four hours, and much more.
In short, these little old-school stylistic differences appeared to have promoted and reinforced behavior that made our time together more valuable.
Only because of this contrast was I able to recognize the unfortunate routine of so many of my other meetings: high-level people tend to dominate; the discussions often reflect only certain individuals’ preferences; participants’ preoccupation with their phones and tablets detracts from the quality of the conversation and subtly insults others in the room; the conversation stays at a surface level and/or deeper discussions can’t be sustained.
The second difference related to substance. The folks in this room were admirably prudent. Though they definitely skewed progressive in their politics, they were temperamentally conservative.
They talked about the need to make small changes in policy and practice, learn from the results, make adjustments, and then repeat. They’d seen lots of next-best-things come and go. They regularly mentioned the very good things happening in the field. They also frequently referenced past reform efforts, how elements had succeeded and others hadn’t, and what they’d learned from the work.
I could totally imagine lots of eager reformers thinking this meeting was too slow and too starched. I can envision complaints that the consensus recommendation of incremental changes was indicative of a lack of urgency. I can pictures scowls and muttering that there weren’t enough immediate “takeaways” and all the talk about the past amounted to sharing war stories and lacking vision.
Maybe my recent meditations on preservation, conservatism, social capital, and education reform have biased me. But I walked away from this gathering thinking a) I’d be well served to change the rules of the road for a lot of my meetings, b) that our field’s preoccupation with new, big, and urgent is leaving a whole lot of wisdom on the table, and c) we’d all benefit from more cross-pollination between leaders of older “establishment” groups and leaders of today’s prominent ed-reform organizations.

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