Open-to-learning Conversations in schools

By reading this background paper, you will learn more about the model of effective communication that is the focus of this module.

Viviane M J Robinson, The University of Auckland

It will enable you to:

  1. Explain what is meant by an open-to-learning (OLC) conversation
  2. Understand why such conversations are important
  3. Reflect on the match between your interpersonal style and the values and strategies
    involved in an OLC.

Source: Background Paper

Introduction to Open-to-learning Conversations

The model of communication that informs this module is that of “Open-to-learning”
conversations. At the heart of the model is the value of openness to learning – learning about
the quality of the thinking and information that we use when making judgments about what is
happening, why, and what to do about it. An open-to-learning conversation, therefore, is one
in which this value is evident in how people think and talk. Do they assume the validity of
their views and try to impose them, however nicely, on others, or are they searching for ways
to check and improve the quality of their thinking and decision-making?

Why Conversations about Improvement can be Difficult

Conversations about the quality of performance are difficult because they have the potential
to threaten relationships by triggering discomfort and defensiveness. In the face of such
threats, leaders often experience a dilemma between the pursuit of their change agenda and
the protection of their relationships. Leaders may want to address what they see as a
performance issue yet believe they can not do so without running an unacceptable risk of
increased stress and conflict. In other words, they feel that they can not address the
performance issues and maintain relationships with the staff member. They feel caught
between the two.

Learning Conversations: The Model

It is time now to turn to the theory and practice that will help change the thinking that
produces or exacerbates the type of dilemmas involved in the discussion of many performances
problems. The theory that we are drawing on is based on that of Chris Argyris, a social and
organizational psychologist who has done extensive empirical and intervention research on
the interpersonal effectiveness of leaders in real on-the-job situations.









An effective strategy for communicating performance concerns






This third approach substantially reduces the dilemma because the concern is disclosed in a
way that neither prejudges the situation nor protects the staff member from the possibility that
change might be needed. Provided that the principal continues to disclose, check, listen and
co-construct the evaluation of the program and of any required revisions, the outcome
should be a teacher who feels challenged yet respected. The leader’s thinking does not create
an impossible choice between either tackling the educational issue or damaging the

The Key Components of an Open-to-learning Conversation.

There are no rules or step-by-step guides to open-to-learning conversations. This is because
the shifts from less open to more open-to-learning conversations are as much about changes in
values and ways of thinking as they are about changes in communication skills. Hard and fast
rules also do not work because good conversations are responsive to context and to the other
person. Despite this, it is possible to identify some of the recurring components of open-to learning conversations. Table 3 identifies some of these components and shows how a leader
might use them in conversations about the quality of teaching.

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