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Meetings Making Sense

From Data Wise to Meeting Wise, faculty Kathy Boudett and Liz City offer new ways to make meetings more effective for educators
An illustration of the four Ps of the new meeting wise book

In late August, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s EdCast host, Matt Weber, sat down with faculty Kathy Boudett and Liz City to discuss their new book, Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators. As Boudett and City explain, the book was a natural progression from their prior work together — along with Professor Richard MurnaneData Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching And Learning.

Listen to the full EdCast, below, or read an excerpt from the full interview here.

Liz, the first chapter in the book is, “Why Focus on Meetings?” And given that meetings are an everyday occurrence … why do we need a book about them? What are some of the biggest challenges you observed?

LC: You can ask anyone what makes a great meeting, and they can tell you what makes a great meeting. And then you can ask them, “So are all the meetings you go to great?” And people will look at you like, “No, I don’t like to go to meetings.” We essentially see meetings as an untapped, underutilized lever for improvement in education. So instead of dreading going to meetings, imagine if you looked forward to every meeting and you saw every meeting as an opportunity to improve learning with both adults and children. People didn’t need help using data nearly as much as they needed help working together.

In setting up the structure of the book to make meeting time more effective you included checklists. And that sort of compartmentalizes the planning and the structure of meetings into four Ps — Purpose, Process, Preparation, and Pacing. I’m curious, can you both explain how breaking things down this way helps educators make better use of time?

KB: The important thing is we wanted the checklist to be manageable for folks. And we knew that there were lots of different components that affect the quality of our own meetings.

LC: The checklist has 12 items on it, but we thought if you could only remember three or four themes what would they be. Alright, purpose; I need to know why I’m meeting. Process: pay attention to how you’re having people meet together. And by the way, preparation; make sure that you utilize the fact that people could come having done something before they get to the meeting. And then pacing; probably because it’s the thing I’m worst at, but also because it’s one of people’s biggest complaints. The meeting is too slow or too long.

You write about the different roles that individuals need to assume to make a meeting successful, including a facilitator, a time keeper, a note taker. How do you respond to those who might think this makes the process of meetings maybe too formalized, or that it reduces the spontaneous exchange of ideas within the group. How do you respond to that?

LC: One thing we’ve learned in our experience is that a little structure actually frees people up for the exchange of ideas. It helps everybody know why am I here, what am I supposed to be doing? How can I engage in this? And especially having a facilitator when you have more than two people meeting, it doesn’t mean the person is heavy handed; it just means facilitate comes from “to make easier.” It’s that person’s job to make it a little bit easier to achieve the purpose of the meeting.

KB: It also is really helpful when the group knows when they’re expected to talk and when they’re expected to listen … it allows people to participate more effectively.

The title of the book indicates that Meeting Wise is geared toward making the most of collaborative time for educators. And I suspect other sectors could also benefit from following these guidelines. Am I wrong in thinking that thy are broadly applicable outside of education?

LC: We thought about whether to make the book for anybody to use, and we realized business folks have some meetings books already; that exists out in the world. But we weren’t aware of any that cater to the challenges that educators have. I think the checklist is widely applicable … (but) our business is about learning. And so meetings should be about learning too. They should be about helping make sure that children learn as a product of your meeting, and that the adults are learning within it.

KB: There are so many different kinds of meetings that take place in the education sector. There are meetings happening at the state policy level. There are meetings happening in education nonprofits, or other organizations that are meeting virtually over the course of several years. And there’s parent-teacher conferences happening. So education itself is a pretty broad category when you think of all the different kinds of meetings that take place.

What are your final tips for educators when they start the school year? How are they going to start off with Meeting Wise and put together that perfect meeting?

KB: Well, maybe not strive for perfection on day one. One of the big things we try to get across is the power of taking small steps toward the big goal of having great meetings all the time. The most important thing is having … a group of people starting to get a shared sense of, yeah, there’s some room for improvement in the way we meet. And maybe committing to a few things they do to step into the water.

LC: This is an incremental thing. This book is not meant to radically shift the way we think about learning and teaching. This book is meant to help people do their job a little bit better tomorrow so that they can do better on behalf of kids. And then just get really clear on the purpose. Why are we meeting? And how would we organize to do that? Those would be my tips.

KB: If people start to make adjustments to their meetings and start to enjoy them more, or get more done, it can take on a life of its own. We’ve talked with lots of educators who get back to us a year later and say, “We’re having whole different kinds of conversations in our school now.” Having faith and getting started — without putting too much pressure on it — can have big impact.

Both Data Wise and Meeting Wise are published by the Harvard Education Press.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker


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