Making meetings more meaningful

Now that we are only some 80-something days away from the end of the school year, thoughts turn toward what we are completing in our action plan this school year, and what we want to accomplish next school year. As we think about achievements and goals, we are thinking about which protocols to use for which meeting to help us realize the purpose of each one.

Why we use protocols for our meetings

Last year in May, our faculty met to focus our goals for 2014-2015, which was officially the first year of MYP: Next Chapter transition. In the past two school years, our goal was focused on conceptual teaching and learning, and we spent those two years developing a conceptual framework for our subject overviews, and experimenting on implementing conceptual teaching and learning in our classrooms. However, the Next Chapter presents us with some tough implementation goals, which I am sure is similar for all other MYP schools worldwide. Our problem was the number of new implementation considerations. How might we focus our work so that we do not suffer what the Powells describe as “organizational ADHD” ? (See Powell, W. and Powell, O., The OIQ Factor; Raising your school’s organizational intelligence, 2013)

We have been working on using protocols in our meetings, to maximize learning and minimize meeting meanderings that do not propel our organizational purposes. These protocols are from The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups by Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman.

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Expecting products that make group thinking visible helps to increase shared ownership of group priorities. This product was from a meeting focusing on assessment.

Example – The Focusing Four Protocol

One protocol that we use quite often in our teams’ collaborative work is called the Focusing Four. We decided last May 2013 to use the Focusing Four protocol to decide on our priorities for 2014-2015, to help us narrow and align our goals for Next Chapter transition and make this first year a more ‘intelligent’ year for our MYP.

How this protocol works and how we used it

There are four steps in this protocol, and to run it successfully, there needs to be a facilitator who is knowledgeable about the protocol, and a scribe, who writes the group’s ideas and choices as the meeting progresses. The documentation needs to be visible to the whole group, so this meeting needs a large board or a series of charts on which the scribe records the ideas and choices.

Step 1 Popcorn Brainstorm

The goal is have a brainstorm and record all the ideas from the group. This is an unedited collection of ideas and works much like popcorn: allow the brainstorm to continue as long as there is not a very long gap between the previous idea and the next idea. When ideas slow down, the facilitator closes this step.

Step 2 Clarifying ideas

The goal of this step is to gain shared understanding about the ideas that popped up in the brainstorm. Group members can query specific ideas that are listed on the charts or board, one at a time. When someone asks to clarify a specific idea, the author of that idea provides a brief explanation of the idea to clarify. This step continues for as long as there are queries for clarification. When all in the group are satisfied that they understand the brainstormed ideas, the group moves on to the next step.

Step 3 Advocating for ideas

In this stage, group members reflect on the ideas in the list and decide for themselves which ideas they might advocate for. Individuals can advocate for their own or others’ ideas. They raise their hands and when called on by the facilitator, they might give a brief justification why this idea is valuable.

Step 4 Choosing the focus

In this stage, group members are asked to choose and vote for a third plus one of the listed ideas. The top one third plus one of ideas that got the highest number of votes become the focus for the group. This one-third plus one is a strategy from Adaptive Schools.

Why the protocol works

Step 1 is important in that it allows all ideas to be visible to the whole group. By giving all members a chance to suggest ideas, each one is valued as a contributing member of the group. Step 2 helps to facilitate shared understanding of the ideas that have been suggested, and allows authorship of ideas to be acknowledged. Step 3 in the process allows for each person to consider the prioritizing of ideas in the holistic context of the group. It also provides ownership of the group’s work toward which goals might emerge as the group’s priorities. Finally, the one-third plus one strategy in Step 4 helps to efficiently identify the urgent items in the list without a meandering discussion. This also avoids hurt feelings that could result if instead the ideas in the whole list were ranked one by one.

This protocol is useful for decision making and sorting out ideas for any group. I’ve seen it used by subject departments, student government groups, clubs, grade level teams, and entire faculties.

In that meeting last May 2013, the faculty came up with over 186 ideas in Step 1. Going through the steps in the protocol, the group was able to cull that list and identify the top 10 implementation items in MYP, which the group believed were important to our faculty’s first year with new subject guides and new criteria.

Making meetings more meaningful

The value of using protocols like the Focusing Four in our collaborative planning and reflection rests on the protocols’ design. By thoughtfully considering meeting goals, we are able to decide which protocol helps us to propel the work during a meeting to meet that meeting’s goal. We are able to avoid meetings that meander through and become sounding boards for personal anecdotes, so we don’t waste anyone’s time. Meetings become learning engagements, so they might more likely energize our practice. We also increase our ownership of the programme because in these meetings, we are visibly thinking and learning together.

How might you make meetings more meaningful? What protocols do you use to make meetings constructive and engaging? Share experiences and ideas in the comments!

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    Author: alavina

    Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at

    11 thoughts

    1. Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing this. Death by Meeting is also a nice resource for thinking about involvement in meetings.

    2. This is excellent. I like the word ‘structure’. What I see in the ‘The Focusing Four Protocol’ is purely a well thought out and structured system.

      Thanks for sharing.

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