students providing feedback in a circle

Have you ever experienced the power of a protocol as a workshop participant, but when you tried to lead one with students it lacked the same magic?

The protocols I’m thinking about are structured discussions for sharing ideas or giving feedback, such as the “tuning protocol” PBLWorks has used in its PBL 101 workshop. 

The lack of magic is not uncommon, and, unfortunately, it can cause educators to stop using these powerful tools for equity and growth. That’s why I’d like to share some tips I’ve learned from watching masterful facilitators. These four strategies have helped me more effectively reach even the most reluctant participants.

Tip #1:  Always Debrief the Process

Protocols require vulnerability, and if participants do not come from a culture that embraces vulnerability, it can be difficult for them to share and critique work. Thus, the debrief is an essential step in building a protocol-friendly culture. 

I usually debrief protocols in two rounds:

Round 1 is only warm feedback.

Framing Question:
What about the process* helped move you forward as a learner? 

Round 2 is cool feedback.

Framing Question:
What about the process didn’t work for you as a learner, and what might you change about the process to further your growth? 

 

Debriefing a protocol in this way does several things:

  • Different Perspectives. It lets participants hear that not everyone experienced the protocol in the same way. For instance, participants whose voices are not traditionally dominant often report appreciating the structured approach because it gives them a dedicated space to talk. This is important for other participants to hear, especially those who tend to dominate conversations and may have disliked constraints on their air time.

  • Metacognition. By identifying what did and did not work for them as learners, participants are practicing metacognition.

  • Modeling Vulnerability. By listening to the feedback with an open mind and adapting future protocols based on participant feedback, facilitators can model what vulnerability and responsiveness look like. Through practicing vulnerability, facilitators also give increased ownership and voice to participants.

* It’s important for the debrief to just focus on the process and not serve as a recap of what was said during the protocol. Otherwise, debriefs are redundant and can contradict the egalitarian intention of protocols.

Tip #2: Intentionally Form Groups

In my role with PBLWorks, I occasionally facilitate protocols with teachers who are all from different schools. In these debriefs, teachers usually say something like, “I didn’t even know this person, but I now I’m invested in their success, and I’m so grateful for their feedback!” This is a beautiful thing about protocols. They can connect us because we listen deeply to one another, and we collaborate in making all our work better.

If teachers who were previously strangers can feel more connected after a 20-minute protocol, imagine what frequent protocols can do for a school culture. That’s why I’m very particular about how I group students. I form groups where students can connect with peers from different backgrounds. When possible, I also try to group students across grade levels so that more experienced students can model the process for less experienced students.

Through this approach, protocols can transform schools into spaces of greater collaboration and kindness. Students begin to really know and appreciate one another on because they look at each other in the eyes, they deeply listen to one another, and they lift each other toward their goals.

Tip #3: Analyze the Purpose of Structures BEFORE Beginning

This step is especially important for participants who are new to protocols. If people analyze the purpose of a protocol’s structure beforehand, they are more likely to engage in things that make them feel a little vulnerable and uncomfortable. I’m guessing this is because they go into a protocol knowing that feeling uncomfortable is about the process, not about them as individuals.

So, before a protocol like a charrette, I’ll ask participants a question such as:

“Why might it be important for only one person to speak while the other person only listens for the entire five minutes?”

People usually identify things like, “If both people can talk, they might start talking about other things, not just the project,” or “If the audience just listens, it gives the presenter a chance to quietly process their thoughts in case they have more to say.”

I then let participants know that it may feel a bit awkward to just listen and not respond, but it’s important because the process is all about equity. I also let participants know that I’ve been practicing being awkward for over 40 years and awkwardness gets easier over time. After a short and light preview, I’ve found that participants are much more willing to honor the structures within protocols than if we had just jumped straight in.

Tip #4: Keep at It!

In many schools, protocols require participants to engage in major cultural shifts toward vulnerability. This can be highly uncomfortable for some people, and it takes time to make this transition. However, by leaning into the previous three steps, protocols can serve as powerful tools to transform schools into places of greater equity, collaboration, and creation. 


For more resources on protocols, visit www.schoolreforminitiative.org.

Ryan Sprott, National Faculty
Ryan is a public high school teacher at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, TX and the recipient of the James F. Veninga Award for outstanding teaching of the humanities. In his work as co-founder of Borderland Collective and as a National Faculty member for PBLWorks, he strives to extend learning beyond the classroom walls so that students and teachers may develop greater capacities for collaboration, critical thinking, and empathy.