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Professional conflict in lesson study: Creating learning through dissonance

Written by: John Mynott
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7 min read

Achinstein (2002) suggests that conflict is essential in a learning community. Yet, while some communities will be conflict-embracing, others will externalise the conflict and become conflict-avoidant. Over the past five years, I have been using lesson study to support the development of a learning community in my school, so that it is increasingly conflict-embracing. In this reflective piece, I will explore the challenges, pitfalls and experiences we have had on our journey to becoming a more conflict-embracing school.

Raelin (2006) explored facilitation in praxis, which identified some fundamental principles needed to develop andragogy (the method and practice of teaching adult learners). I will attempt to demonstrate that, alongside these, there is a need to be mindful of the fact that too much dissonance or too little dissonance can limit potential teacher learning. In this article, I will explore how the optimum amount of conflict can support teacher learning. If professional conflict is facilitated well, it can aid teachers and leaders in developing the andragogy of their schools.

The starting point for professional conflict is a moment of discord, dissonance or disagreement, followed by reflection on a previously held view or unconsidered aspect of a tacitly developed action. To become fully formed, this initial dissonance needs to be sustained in order to lead to discontinuity – a need to choose to accept that a change is needed or not. If discontinuity can be achieved, then the participant – the holder of the moment of dissonance – may experience a moment of potential learning (Mynott, 2017).

Positioning professional conflict

Yet, professional conflict can be problematic. Conflict has negative connotations and can therefore be difficult for some to embrace. Achinstein (2002) explored the role of conflict in schools, using two contrasting case studies to articulate that school communities can develop two distinct conflict cultures: conflict-embracing and conflict-avoidant. Achinstein’s (2002) account is balanced, but ultimately, a preference towards a conflict-embracing culture seems to emerge in her conclusions. I will discuss how we as a school have moved to be more conflict-embracing, although not to the same degree as the case described in Achinstein (2002).

I will first explore how professional conflict is oriented on a continuum of dissonance and a parallel conflict-culture continuum – Figure 1. These two continuums also interact with many different elements within teaching and learning, including continuums of subject expertise, collaboration, observation and feedback. The ‘Goldilocks’ zone’ is therefore the part of each continuum that provides the individual with the opportunity to experience a successful and sustained professional conflict process. In terms of dissonance, the conditions must not be too hot – dysfunctional dissonance – nor too cold – absence of dissonance (Mynott, 2017). Finding the ‘Goldilocks’ zone’ and then inhabiting it when supporting professional development is necessary, as it is only within these ‘just right’ conditions that optimum professional conflict will occur.

Figure 1

My reflection is about our journey as a school and how we pursued the idea of a ‘Goldilocks’ zone’ for professional conflict even before we theorised its existence or understood what professional conflict was. Writings by those such as Weston and Clay (2018), who talk about removing defensiveness to encourage opportunities to challenge, were not available. Therefore, when we started lesson study at my school six years ago, we had no idea about this transection of the different continuums, and were consequently naïve to the challenges and pitfalls of the journey we were to undertake.

Pitfalls

Lesson study is a collaborative process (Dudley, 2014) but the type of collaboration that is natural in lesson study is not an intrinsic part of a teacher’s day-to-day experience in the UK. So, in 2013, when we embarked on our first cycles of lesson study work, we were underprepared for the spectrum of our collaborative styles. One lesson study team was very kind to each other and ultimately provided no dissonance in their work. Another was dysfunctional and generated so much dissonance that their first lesson study review meeting was fraught and ended abruptly (Mynott, 2017). Our work was inhibited by our understanding of collaboration.

To resolve this lack of understanding, we read about conflict (Achinstein, 2002) and considered ways of working more effectively together. Raelin (2006) outlines listening and attending, clarifying goals, airing problems, giving feedback in a non-defensive way, and encouraging an open and participative environment, as some of the andragogical skills needed to facilitate collaborative discussion. Raelin’s (2006) strands would help us exit Heron’s (1999) stage of defensiveness and allow us to think more about generating dissonance through our conversations. Our location in Heron’s stage of defensiveness was due to our inexperience in knowing how to create and sustain dissonance in a professional way with our peers. We needed to de-personalise our working and structure our skills to focus on the work – the children’s learning.

In 2015, we took a whole year away from lesson study to develop our understanding of what dissonance and professional conflict meant for us as a school. We focused on diverting our conflict away from people and towards the work. We looked at the evidence from lessons and our thoughts on how we could improve pupils’ learning. We developed our skills at giving feedback. We talked through how it feels to be challenged and the continuum of dissonance. We spoke about how we felt when we were in conflictful situations, and whether we naturally tended to be conflict-generating or conflict-avoidant. We have developed, over time, an increasing number of the characteristics Raelin (2006) identified, and are moving to a more conflict-embracing position on the continuum. This work on developing our conflict-expertise was vital to post-2015 work and increasingly, when conflict occurs, we can see this as professional conflict and can work through the moments of dissonance to reach potential learning points.

Challenges

While our collaboration to manage dissonance and conflict had been a pitfall in our journey, expertise – or rather the limitations of our expertise – played a significant role in the challenges we faced in generating dissonance. The expertise required in lesson study is significant, yet an outcome of lesson study work is further expertise (Mynott, 2018b), so it is an investment in expertise generation.

In addition to the conflict-expertise discussed, we found that our expertise of observation and feedback needed to be further developed to generate and sustain dissonance. Raelin (2006) suggests that the act of giving feedback in a non-defensive way operates alongside the soliciting and receiving of feedback. Essentially, an individual needs to be able to give feedback to someone who is ready to receive it. If a person was unable to tolerate feedback, they might be avoidant (Mynott, 2017), but it is not only the recipient of the feedback that is important: the giver must also be skilful. If the feedback is given incorrectly, or without thought, then the conversation might be dysfunctional (Mynott, 2017), because even if the point raised is valid, it has been given without careful thought of how it will be received. Therefore, we needed to practise giving and receiving feedback that was focused on what was actually happening in the lesson and was less about the person.  Using summary and detailed descriptions also aided this (Mynott, 2018b). To produce these summaries and descriptions, we moved away from compliance-based observations and used a more descriptive method of observation. Undoing our existing understanding of how to observe and feed back meant that we needed to reflect and learn about what we should and could look for within a lesson and how we could capture that for another person. As our understanding of what is important has developed, we have adopted a ‘questions, feelings and favourites’ approach, as described by Stevens (2017), for our observations. To this, we added a reflection on the post-observation dialogue, which reinforces a lesson study characteristic of collaborative review into all our observations, and not just our lesson study cycles. Recently, we have taken this further to provide more detailed descriptions, comparing the intended against the observed before building our questions, feelings and favourites.

The second strand of expertise that needed to be more developed was the subject and pedagogic knowledge that we held. It is easy to assume that the differentials in experience that teachers have within a lesson study team will enable them to experience professional conflict and learn. The reality is that if only prior experience is used, then the professional conflict will be limited and will eventually plateau (Mynott, 2017). It is important to feed the expertise of participants in lesson study to help expertise grow. Since 2017, we have developed ‘extended preparation lesson study’ (Mynott, 2018a). Extended preparation lesson study uses three phases, with the first being focused on expertise development. The team works together to read key information about the subject of their enquiry, refining and strengthening their knowledge. In Mynott et al. (2018c), this allowed them to identify a gap in knowledge in teaching consonant clusters, which they were able to pursue in more detail. All this expertise development has aided our skills in talking about, enabling, and sustaining moments of dissonance.

Experience

Overall, we have learnt a lot from the introduction of lesson study in our school. Heron (1999) talks about the need for dexterous facilitation when working in collaboration, and I think increasing our dexterity is a good way to think about our journey towards the ‘Goldilocks’ zone’. We know that we need to create productive dissonance, which might lead us through discontinuity to eventual instances of potential learning. Alongside this, we found that it was important to prepare ourselves to collaborate through building our skills in observation, feedback and subject expertise. We have evolved an Extended Preparation Lesson Study model (Mynott, 2018a), and this structure has allowed us the time and space to front-load our expertise, collaboration and enquiry focus so that when we eventually start our lesson study cycle of lessons, we are equipped to use this cycle effectively. In summary, our work to embrace professional conflict has been transformative, and by working on the expertise surrounding dissonance, we have become more able to work towards generating professional learning through professional conflict.

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