Robust Learning Laboratories

The strategic planning work teams were designed to be robust learning laboratories in which members had an opportunity for ongoing dialogue about the issue at hand, and to become familiar with the research and practices associated with it. We determined that members of the Senior Management Team would each select a district or community-based partner to co-lead the respective work team--and together, the two co-leads then assembled the work teams. We encouraged them to think broadly about who they would invite to serve--parents, business and faith leaders, teachers and students--so that the end product would deeply reflect the multiple perspectives in the community. 

Gathering Data & Research

Once the work teams were assembled, we helped them gather data and conduct research related to each of the six different levers for change. With the help of a graduate school intern, we created a “workbook” for each of the teams that included summaries of relevant research, links to websites and articles, and, where applicable, state and local data. The general outline we followed was:

  • What are the state and national trends and challenges in this particular area?
  • What is happening in Salem and its schools with respect to this particular area?
  • What does excellence look like in this particular area and what exemplars can help guide the work?

These workbooks served a couple of purposes. First, our team developed a stronger understanding of current research in the field related to each of the levers. Secondly, the workbooks served as a foundation for each team's work together.

Work Team Meeting Cadence & Our Role as Facilitators

The Work Teams met on a monthly basis for six months, with a few teams choosing to meet a seventh time.

At the beginning of the process, our facilitation was more active, as we wanted to set a tone of appreciative inquiry and assure the co-leads that we were there to support them.  We developed draft agendas and submitted them to the co-leads for review prior to each meeting. We also developed templates and tools for use through the process. At the beginning, the agendas were fairly consistent across the work teams. As the work unfolded, the agendas diverged based on the respective team’s composition, the scope of their work, and their desired outcomes.

In the later meetings, our goal as facilitator was to shift the cognitive load to the co-leads so that they would take increasing ownership of the agenda and facilitation responsibilities. Instead of proposing an agenda, we held planning calls with the co-leads a week or two before each meeting in which they determined what needed to happen next. We provided scaffolding to the teams when it was needed, but we mostly turned our attention to listening for themes that were resonating across the work teams, and to identifying redundancies and opportunities for collaboration. Our role was often to be the "sense-makers", figuring out what the next step was or determining an alternative approach to a challenge. Because of our background in education, we also recommended research and brokered connections with experts when necessary.

The Importance of Documentation

We also took copious notes during each meeting and created a synthesis for each meeting that was shared back with work team members prior to the next meeting. This way, work team members could be reminded of what was discussed in the previous meeting and there was a shared knowledge base to build on in the next meeting. This also helped our team keep track of what was discussed in each of the meetings, which was critical to our project management. With six work teams each meeting ~six times each, plus steering committee meetings, we had to be disciplined about documentation.

More about: Work Team Meetings

key takeaways

  • Community
    Make sure you take the time to tap a wide swath of the community for representation on the work teams, including students. For example, only 3 students served on our work teams, and we also aspired to stronger representation of business leaders, community and faith-based organization leaders, and parents.
  • Be clear
    Outline clear roles, responsibilities, and commitments for the co-leads, as that will ensure that the work gets done in a timely fashion.
  • Collaborate
    Adopt a collaborative approach as a facilitator, crafting meeting agendas together with the co-leads and honoring different people's styles of working.
  • Sharing
    Build in multiple avenues for sharing across work teams. Some work team members experienced the work teams as siloed and desired greater understanding of each others' work.
  • Vocabulary
    Develop a shared vocabulary and avoid jargon, as participants will have varying levels of expertise and experience.