Collaboration versus Consensus

At the 15LCS (2015 Leadership for Change Summit) last week one of the speakers made a comment that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this, “Most of us say we want collaboration, but what we really want is to reach a consensus. And it’s important to know the difference.”

I see more of myself in that statement than I care to admit — despite the fact that I like to think I teach my students and help my colleagues to “collaborate” on assignments and ideas on a regular basis.

The more I think about the difference between the pathways and outcomes of collaboration and consensus, the more I realize that nothing about the way we design education places collaboration at the pinnacle of best practice. At best, I might be teaching students to work together to reach the one correct response or solution…which is ultimately, reaching consensus on what I’ve pre-determined to be the correct answer. Sure, I allow – even encourage – students to reach consensus by collaborating on their rationale, but I can’t say that I actually place people in charge of their learning to the point that they’re free to collaborate to an answer that was beyond my lesson objective.

Daniel Pink might tell me not to worry so much about whether I have too much consensus going on in my classrooms and workshops. He might even tell me that there’s really very little I can do to avoid, much less eliminate, it. “The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial for our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are…selling is fundamentally human.” (To Sell is Human, Pink, p 6) Coming to consensus means selling our ideas. And, if for no other reason, I don’t know how to separate consensus and collaboration.

So, can I really allow collaboration to unfold? How does one break the cycle of consensus so that collaboration can grow? I think I’ll start with deeper listening, less talking, and a heavy dose of self-reflection. The next time I’m about to open my mouth, I hope I stop to think…am I truly collaborating or am I trying to build consensus?

Clearly the speaker at 15LCS was not trying to say that I needed to sacrifice consensus at the expense of collaboration, but rather she was emphasizing that there is a time and place for each. And knowing what the situation calls for is just as important as understanding the nuances of each.

My final question is whether I can teach students to value collaboration in an educational system that insists on students out-performing each other with every assessment. Do we pay lip service to collaboration in education by insisting on a winner-take-all mentality of high-stakes assessments and entrance exams specifically intended to rank and sort students by individual ability?  These are questions for another day.

Thanks for reading.



It’s Sunday evening. I’m in Washington D.C. attending the 2015 Leading Change Summit – bringing innovators together who work to promote equity for digital access. I’m here because I’m well aware that roughly one-third of my adult ELL students don’t have an email account much less internet access. I’m here because research indicates that parents of ELL students not only face a language barrier regarding information and engagement with schools about their children, but that parents in these households are often least likely to have the digital literacy skills needed to communicate with schools who make very few personal phone calls or no longer send student information home on paper. I’ve been looking forward to this summit for months, but now that I’m here I’m conflicted.

During the morning workshop several other participants and I were asked to create a post-it note for each way we’d used a device since arriving in D.C. It didn’t take me long to amass about a dozen examples including:

  • accessing my boarding pass
  • doing a morning weather check
  • sourcing walking directions
  • texting a “Hey, I arrived safely.” message to my daughter.

Comparatively speaking I know I use my devices far less than many of my counterparts. I gave up TV more than 10 years ago (I don’t even live-stream), and I haven’t regretted it. As digital consumption has become a pervasive pastime in society, I’ve monitored my usage. I even intentionally abstain from digital engagement for extended periods of time (yes, that includes emailing and texting), and means I retreat and detox for days sometimes a week at a time. I ended my FB nearly a year ago. I have a Twitter account but in 6 years I’ve tweeted 51 times. I “follow” the Twitter feed of my daughter, one friend, and this summit (because it seems the polite thing to do since I’m here).

So I was mildly surprised to discover that I may be kidding myself about whether I’ve been successful at avoiding digitrophy. (My word – yes, my very own made-up word…meaning atrophy of my brain’s capacity to think for myself and atrophy of my heart’s capacity to have an appropriate emotional response as the result of an over-reliance on digital engagement. i.e. FaceBook, Twitter, email, texting, etc, etc, etc.)

To get more to the point of why I’m conflicted…teaching English as a life skill has sensitized me to the reality that when I insist that a person communicate with me only in English, ultimately I’m asking them to do more than speak English to get a better job, or to conduct a transaction, or even express their knowledge. By insisting that they communicate with me in English I’m insisting that my way is the only way to get their needs met, fulfill their dreams, and express their creativity (at least in words – written or spoken).   Language is cultural, language is personal…very personal. Some ideas or feelings don’t translate. There simply is no direct translation when we are attempting to communicate something that is highly personal. I think that human interaction works in similar fashion. So my concern is what will happen when the digital landscape becomes the only way to express our needs and have them met?

I’m well aware that basic skills in literacy and basic math skills are needed to survive. For many years being unable to read the Help Wanted section of the newspaper limited a person’s job search, just as poor spelling limited someone’s ability to complete an employment application.  Now we conduct our job searches and complete our employment histories online, adding another layer of complexity to the process. I concede that society has created the need for everyone to obtain basic digital skills much the way everyone was once required to utilize print and paper-pen.

My greater concern is whether in the transition to becoming digitally driven, we are giving up what seems to most distinguish us from other creatures – intuition, emotions, awareness. And most of all, being fully present to someone’s needs.

The U.S. has a long, sad tradition of forcing people to assimilate to lifestyles that ultimately foster consumption without those individuals realizing the consequences of what they are being asked to give up or change about themselves. Of course I want my adult students and their children to have equitable access to education, to employment, and to public services. I want my students to have choices. That includes a choice of whether they have a preference for engaging human-to-human or human-through-digital – especially when it comes to matters concerning their children and their needs.

I’m in my hotel room this evening reflecting on the certainty with which many individuals are convinced that all inequities will be eradicated in a digital world.  I find myself asking, is there a point where we may realize that we’ve sacrificed human interaction for virtual convenience?

I have no doubt that folks attending this summit are leading change. I have no doubt that they are passionate and committed to digital inclusion and digital equity. Let me be clear that my doubts are not a commentary on their intentions, but are purely a reflection of my inner turmoil. The following quote expresses my concern far more eloquently:

“I have heard a great deal of complaint against material progress from Westerners, and yet, paradoxically, it has been the very pride of the Western world. I see nothing wrong with material progress per se, provided people are always given precedence. It is my firm belief that in order to solve human problems in all their dimensions, we must combine and harmonize economic development with spiritual growth.

However, we must know its limitations. Although materialistic knowledge in the form of science and technology has contributed enormously to human welfare, it is not capable of creating lasting happiness. In America, for example, where technological development is perhaps more advanced than in any other country, there is still a great deal of mental suffering. This is because materialistic knowledge can only provide a type of happiness that is dependent upon physical conditions. It cannot provide happiness that springs from inner development independent of external factors.

For renewal of human values and attainment of lasting happiness, we need to look to the common humanitarian heritage of all nations the world over. May this essay serve as an urgent reminder lest we forget the human values that unite us all as a single family on this planet.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

 Thanks for reading!

The (not so) obvious question

I’ve become aware of a new genre recently…education philosophy. Who knew?

You might think that having been a teacher for nearly ten years that the question, “What is education?” would have crossed my mind long before now. Not, what does it mean to be educated? Not, what is the purpose of education? But literally, what is education?

I’ve been told my whole life – you need an education. Now I hear myself telling others – you need an education. But what is education? Is it the completion of something? Is it mastery of certain subject matter? And if so, which subject matter? Who gets to decide what subject matter makes up the components of an education? Is education attainment of a skill or a set of skills? And if so, which skills and why those skills and not others? What does education do to me? (As opposed to, what can education do for me?) Is education subtractive from or additive to who I am?

I’m going to state the obvious — I’m a late bloomer. (Perhaps the result of the education I received?) I recently discovered the work of the late education philosopher, Maxine Greene, “I’ve never been a teacher who wants to impose an authority on people. I suppose I will never stop trying to wake people up to ask questions, to have passion in the way they look at the world.”

I feel a serious reading-binge coming on, headlined by the works of Maxine Greene.

And with this short post, I’m off to prepare for the coming week. May I awaken myself as I seek to awaken others.

Thanks for reading!