Function Over Structure…What is the Purpose?


As I sat in a hotel meeting room with another SGDSB colleague, 3 other supervisory officers from the North AND Steven KATZ, my thoughts (for a brief moment) were about what an incredible opportunity this was.  The chance to meet for 1.5 hours face-to-face in a small group with a researcher whose name even my husband recognizes – the Ontario champion of the notion of the Problem of Practice (now called Leadership Inquiry), someone who has helped to define how to “Intentionally Interrupt” the culture of niceness that oftentimes characterizes our professional learning, the originator of the research that has driven the changes that I am working on around the function of my SO visits to elementary schools…the man whose work is referenced in almost every one of my Masters’ degree and Supervisory Officer Qualifications essays – I was sitting in a room with him AND it was about us asking him questions.

I wish that I had been able to videotape the conversation that resulted – five Ontario educators deeply reflecting on our practice – being forced to reflect by a significantly knowledgeable critical friend who actually ended up posing difficult questions to us about our thinking.  The manner in which Katz engaged in this dialogue came from a place of credibility, honesty and non-judgementalism; he challenged our thinking and pushed us past what we thought that we knew.  He modelled the notion of “interrupting” the culture of niceness that we are mired in, AND he rejuvenated me in my quest to ensure that the LEARNING IS THE WORK! As Fullan stated (yesterday…wow what a day for me – Fullan AND Katz!), “as leaders, we need to LEAD and to LEARN in equal measure” (OPSOA/OPC Conference, April 2016).

Capturemindset distractors

The timing of this message is serendipitous as my perception has been that we may once again be getting stuck in the distractors…in conversations the fall to all of the reasons why we “can’t” do the important work that is required to meet the needs of the learners within our sphere of influence, or perhaps what we need to do “before” we can get to that important work. Katz tells us that, “you learn the work by doing the work!” (Ministry of Education Conference, Summer 2015).  We need to focus on the learning and cease expending our energy on what doesn’t matter.  Let’s get that student evidence on the table!

So, where did Katz push my thinking during this dialogue?  What am I now pursuing?  He made me think about the essential nature of having a critical friend who can push us out of our comfort zone…to “move our thinking beyond what it was previously or what we can do alone”.  Without this type of genuine collaboration that focused on learning conversations (which are very different from “great discussions”), our thinking stays in our head, our ideas are our own, what we are practicing is not really analyzed, and thus, it is surface.  I realized that I need a critical friend to help me to move forward in my learning.  It is this type of learning that motivates and engages me.

Capturenew learning

Yikes! CapturevacancyMy critical friend role is vacant at this time.  I didn’t even realize it until today and honestly, it is a gap for me that I need to address in my quest to constantly be learning, growing and getting better.  I own my learning, and not having a critical friend (well, I kinda do but she is REALLY busy right now) is a sign that I am only interested in staying within my own thinking.  Every learner MUST HAVE a critical friend; one who is engaged (listens!), can ask the right questions, is well-read and thoughtful…or as I often say, one who is CREDIBLE.

The existence of this structure doesn’t necessarily guarantee this learning.  As Katz tells us, “together isn’t necessarily better!” (OPSOA Symposium, April 2016).  That is the structure piece – or perhaps the “activity” piece.  If we really are shifting from a culture of “doing” to a culture of “thinking and learning” in our district, we need to go further into our understanding of the function of this structure. What is the function of the critical friend?  We start with this question as the vehicle to get us thinking about how we function as critical friends to successful support deep thinking and learning…to learn how to do to the impactful work of a critical friend.  Today, watching a master at his work, this was so clear to me.

For me:

  1. The function of Critical Friends is to serve as a structure to support our personal LEARNING and GROWTH. I believe that to truly engage in learning, we need to make our thinking visible and have that thinking respectfully challenged by someone who has the knowledge of current research. You should be able to name that learning by the end of the conversation.
  2. It is about asking the right QUESTIONS – Of significant challenge is to ask effective questions that will move participants to engage and reflect in meaningful ways.
  3. It is not about JUDGING, it is about learning. To accomplish this, the environment needs to be safe. However, we must take care not to enter in the culture of “niceness” but to respectfully engage in discourse.
  4. It is not about storytelling, but about sharing EVIDENCE in the quest to determine if the leadership move that you are using is making the difference.
  5. It is about LISTENING and thinking about the possibilities, rather than DEFENDING your position. Your mindset matters as you enter this conversation. There will be discomfort!

So I am returning to Intentional Interruptions (and other thinkers) to dig a bit deeper into the function of the critical friend that are exercised through Katz’s “Learning Conversations Protocol”. In this protocol, Katz helps us to see how our critical friend deeply understands our Problem of Practice, gives us feedback, genuinely collaborates, and helps us to find new solutions (Deborah Bambino, ASCD, 2002). The protocol helps to keep these conversations focused, to ensure that they are problem based (rather than person based), and to help us with our learning moves.

Until Next Week…How are you ensuring that your conversations with your critical friends are pushing your thinking…and are not simply an activity to get done?   Can you name your learning/different thinking at the end of the conversation? post at #nmcblog!

4 responses

  1. Function over structure – it takes courage to have our ideas and beliefs tested. It is uncomfortable and tense, even in a safe environment. There is uncertainty and anxiety, disorientation, fear. I have a tendency to support, agree, encourage my colleagues and critical friends – these are positive qualities and useful in many situations; but to go out of my comfort zone of the territory of niceness and disagree, challenge, argue – this is the space where new thoughts occur, beliefs get tested, and learning happens. It happened this week and left me feeling slightly disoriented, kind of sideways, but open to a changed perspective. Now, to intentionally put myself in situations regularly that do this – real, accelerated growth.


    1. It does leave us disoriented…especially if we don’t have time to really dig into the thinking – time is critical for this process to be impactful!


  2. I wish I could embed our Twitter conversation here. It was nice to talk about the relationship between function and the “rest of the stuff”; that is, LG&SC, building an understanding of the relevance of what we do/teach; and not getting caught up in structural issues, (like worrying about how we collect data).

    The key piece of your post, which Jenn articulates well, is the discomfort of abandoning “niceness”. We need to do it, (and we CAN do it in a respectful way) to champion change and growth. One of the challenges of education is that we’re often in our own bubbles without critical friends to tell us what’s working and what’s not working. Other than TPAs, how often do teacher’s have critical friends in their classrooms? We need to initiate opportunities to allow more frequent classroom visits, sharing of practices, sharing of advice, etc. – and administrators need to be more visible in classrooms, too. I realize that administrators have reports, paperwork, meetings, teleconferences, more meetings, discipline, more meetings, and other duties, (that’s the structure of the job!), but the value in those classroom meetings and opportunities to help foster growth (function!) is pretty high.

    Often, those new to a role have mentors, (e.g. NTIP, new administrators), but what about those in the middle of their career? How can we ensure they have access to critical friends?


    1. If we learn to do the work by doing the work, then the work really is about learning! We must make time for this! We all need feedback to continue to grow and thus, trusting relationships need to be established to do this important work!


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