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Remember when disruptive behavior wasn’t something teachers welcomed?

Today, the conversation in education reform is all about disrupting and challenging, but it’s not clear that this approach is always recognized — let alone welcomed — as a facilitator of innovation. In some cases, disruption as a strategy may trigger an altogether different response, even among the most forward-thinking educators, and some teachers may instead view it as a threat to their effectiveness.

This unintended clash of perspectives was evident at a recent session with a group of aspiring teachers that I attended. The group was preparing for a visit to a progressive school, with the assignment of shadowing and then interviewing teachers about what novice teachers should know and be able to do as they enter their own classrooms, as well as what kinds of pitfalls novices should be learning to anticipate.

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In addition to the expectation that they try to discern instances of successful, effective teaching — the best ways to teach a particular subject, creative interactions with different kinds of learners, sensitivity to cultural differences and so on — these classroom observers were also encouraged by one of their mentors to keep their eyes open for what was perhaps not being showcased, and to speak with others in the school who were not necessarily on their formal agenda.

Would they, he asked, notice any moments when content was not carefully tied to standards? Would they spot instances of missed opportunities to engage students? Could they get a sense of whether this school’s ostensible approach was really as intentional and streamlined, as student-facing and outcomes-driven, as it was meant to be?

The session leader’s intent in giving the group this instruction was not necessarily to open closets in search of skeletons, but to help them understand and assess what they were seeing. It occurred to me, however, that this approach presumed that teachers would not be open to such dialogue — that to get at reform one had to barnstorm. Why not just ask?

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My experience is that straightforward questioning is better than sleuthing, especially with educators who take seriously the growth mindset and atmosphere of continuous improvement that strong schools foster. These educators want to be exemplary. Generally speaking, they see areas that need improvement, and can be open to working on them if they are treated as advisors and partners in that work, rather than approached as though they’re unaware of the needs and unwilling to address them.

For anyone inclined to reform or disrupt education, here are three constructive ways to ask about practices that might, to an observer, seem unanticipated:

1. Try starting a conversation with statements, not questions or judgments: “I saw that you were doing this.” Rather than interrogate the teacher, just start with observation and clarification. This is also an important coaching and mentoring technique.

2. Ask open-ended, curious questions: “How did you choose that approach?” or “What does it take to set up that kind of dynamic/culture/lesson?” In most cases, teachers are either aware of or open to the ideal approach, but also have practical reasons for their own choices that may yield new understandings.

3. Ask directly about pain points: “What has been difficult in getting to this point? What are you still grappling with?” If you have gotten the right approach to the previous questions, you’ll get honest answers and further perspectives.

Good teaching is constant innovation. Disruption is not the enemy, and an atmosphere of assessment is the norm in most classrooms. It is almost always a mistake to assume that a teacher doesn’t know of or hasn’t tried various approaches — and it is definitely always a mistake to come in as the “more knowledgeable disruptor” rather than as a partner in learning. The trick is to remove the aggression and the threat, assuming instead that setbacks are common and can be inspiring/motivational.

As learners change, teaching must both meet them where they are and anticipate where they are headed. Disruptors and creative, entrepreneurial thinkers can offer valuable insights and recommendations, even radical suggestions for reform. The collaboration will be all the more effective if the proposed changes — from the simplest interventions to the greatest departures from the status quo — are grounded in open-minded observation and genuine, respectful dialogue with teachers who are reinventing themselves, their classrooms and their approaches every day.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Dr. Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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