Collaborative Conversations and the Intentional Magic of Protocols

Recently, 21 of our teachers came together to experience a day and a half training on using different protocols to look at student work, receive feedback on unit plans and solve dilemmas. Though not an official Critical Friends Group training, we were able to practice a variety of the School Reform Initiative protocols (which are all free!) with the guidance of a consultant who has had years of experience applying and analyzing and the power that so many of these protocols hold.  

I remember my early experiences with using protocols.  My first thoughts were, ‘this is ridiculous! Why do we have to follow all of these rules? Why can’t we just talk?’ Soon, though, through repeated exposure and practice, I began to see the wisdom in the protocol construction and the benefits to my team.  A protocol can level the playing field, allowing everyone equal space to participate in a structured and scaffolded way, which almost ALWAYS reveals more insight than if you were to sit around a table and say, “well, what do we think?” It’s not just about putting constraints and “rules” on a discussion;  it’s about the clarity of the intention of the conversation. When we are clear why we are coming together, the level of collaboration is heightened as we work towards a common goal.

During this particular training, we focused on three protocols: Looking for Patterns in Student Work, the Tuning Protocol, and the Consultancy Protocol. 

Looking for Patterns in Student Work:  The intention of this process is to “examine patterns, themes, and inconsistencies, you gain insight about a particular population or large group of students and are able to draw conclusions and generate implications for instruction in general.”   This protocol could be used across a team of teachers (say, a third-grade team, or 10th grade English teachers) who have been given the same assignment.  This, according to the protocol description, keeps the personal risk lower, as it is not focusing on one particular teacher or student.  During our workshop, because our small group represented different grade levels and content areas, we modified the directions by only looking at one teacher’s work from multiple students, but in an environment where psychological safety had already been established, this worked very well. We were able to share our ‘noticings’ and ‘wonderings’ and draw some potential conclusions about the next steps for the presenting teacher’s instruction.  The conversation was high energy and positive, validating the teacher and the groundwork they have established, and there was a sense of excitement about returning to their class and their team to share these new ideas.

Tuning Protocol: This is one of my personal favorites, but it definitely requires high levels of trust in the group, as the presenter is sharing something of their own creation. According to the protocol description, “The general objective [of the Tuning Protocol] is to get feedback from your colleagues about the degree to which the design or document you’ve offered seems likely to allow the presenter to achieve her/his goals.” We all know how deeply personal our craft can be, and offering up something new can be very vulnerable and exposing. When a group has a shared sense of trust and respect, though, this type of conversation can be quite energizing, and great things can come from it. This is a protocol that can be done in “job alike” teams (content or grade level) or in mixed groups. Personally, I think the mixed groups are almost more powerful, as teachers of a different content or grade level can look at the upcoming work through the eyes of a student, offering insights into clarity of directions and expectations, as well as perspectives on how engaging the work might be to a diverse group of learners. 

Consultancy Protocol: We all know those problems that keep us up at night. Whether it’s how to reach a certain kid or groups of kids, or how to create a powerful advisory experience that meets the ever-changing needs of our students, we often can’t solve all of our dilemmas on our own. This is when a Consultancy Protocol can really help.  The protocol description describes two main purposes:  “to develop participants’ capacity to see and describe the dilemmas that are the essential material of their work, and to help each other understand and deal with them.” An added bonus of having these conversations is that you often can connect with others who are currently or have experienced your dilemma (or one similar), and the protocol creates a container to honor all of the wisdom in the room.  Consultancy conversations are just another piece of evidence that ‘teamwork makes the dream work’!

One final benefit of using protocols to engage in these types of collaborative conversations is in regards to the principle of “windows and mirrors:” when you look through the window into a colleague’s classroom, you have the opportunity to turn the mirror back to yourself, to see how this new learning might be reflected in your own situation. Our work is entirely too complex to take on alone, and the students we serve deserve our collective best, each and every day. 


With more than two decades of experience in education around the globe, Kristen Moreland is committed to bringing humanity back to education. A former middle school English teacher and Instructional Coach, she is currently serving as the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Littleton Schools in Littleton, New Hampshire. You can follow her on Twitter @kmorekin and on Instagram @educatorsforhumanity