One truth that can’t be denied is that our capacity to learn and our willingness to engage increase when we feel more connected to the situation at hand. The more opportunities we have to influence outcomes, the more energy and effort we feel compelled to put into influencing them.
If we are flexible in the “how” and the “what” of giving students and adults a voice, they will be more likely to recognize and value the “why.” Chances to provide feedback and share ideas (voice) as well as options to craft pathways forward and select an end product or outcome (choice) can turn learners into leaders by engaging them more than a passive or teacher/leader-driven lesson would.
Providing voice, however, doesn’t cure all woes; leaning too heavily in that direction can create obstacles. Too many choices can lead to silence, and too much voice can muddy the issue and prevent adequate consideration. The end result is usually the same: Those whose voices we most wanted to incorporate tend to be silenced, and the loudest voices, or the only voices, make up the incomplete input we receive.
Three steps can help ensure the right balance between silence and noise.
Vary voice modes and media
As leaders, it is important to vary how we collect input. No matter how many times we ask, “What other thoughts or ideas do we want to add?” some people on the team will never feel as confident sharing their thoughts or ideas out loud. We can, of course, amplify those opportunities by offering up alternative options. I personally have found that using different modes allows me to hear from more people: One-on-one conversations work for some, and tools such as electronic or paper surveys or a feedback or resource box allow me to hear the voices of those who are less comfortable connecting in person.
Three times does harm
In some cases, the third time’s a charm, but with voice, three times tends to do harm. If we notice the same person or people leading the work or influencing the decision three times or more, then it is clear that we aren’t doing enough to collect, and leverage, a representative distribution of voice. It’s often fine for the same person or group to make the decisions or take the action — but those results should be influenced by multiple people, and rarely all the same people in the same way. Leaders must loudly and clearly express that everyone’s input is important.
Push, but don’t shove, the envelope
Sometimes people need to be encouraged to use their voice, to be reminded that you’d like to hear their ideas and feedback. But we must make sure that the push is seen as a supportive one and not a make-or-break shove that someone may not recover from. No one should ever be forced to share their thoughts.
As with all things, it isn’t enough to set the table for good educational practice; at times we have to be willing to serve the meal and clean up afterward. Offering opportunities for providing voice is a good first step. What allows us to go from good to great is making sure everyone feels their voice is heard and their feedback is valued. Only then can we move away from deafening silence and rampant noise.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.
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