At the Heads of Departments meetings I used to attend we usually had refreshments at the start. One meeting was notable because there was a choice between fruit and cheese scones (it’s a measure of the meetings that this was the most exciting and memorable moment). The meeting chair made a comment about this as we settled into our seats and then had an impromptu vote on whether people would prefer sweet or savoury refreshments in future. “That’s about as democratic as these meetings get,” he joked. Unfortunately, that joke betrayed a sad truth about much of our meetings. In this post I want to explore some of the issues around meetings in schools, and consider how we might adopt some key principles to make them better.
Research on the science of meetings (eg Mroz et al 2018) highlights that many people rate their experience of meetings poorly, and this accounts for a huge amount of wasted time across organisations: “More time spent in meetings is associated with greater fatigue, stress and perceived workload.” Opportunity-cost is important here – every hour spent in a meeting is an hour not spent doing something else. That’s not to say meetings aren’t important and shouldn’t happen, they just need to be more important enough than whatever else teachers could be doing with their time. A poor meeting can lead to a vicious cycle of complaining which has negative impacts “Complaining is contagious, and groups of complainers perform poorly.” Rogelberg (2019) highlights research showing that “the effects of a bad meeting can linger for hours in the form of attendee grousing and complaining—a phenomenon dubbed “meeting recovery syndrome.” Rogelberg goes on to point out that many people who chair meetings rarely garner feedback on their meetings and are unaware of how they might be perceived – research suggests that “leaders consistently rate their own meetings very favorably—and much more positively than attendees do.” In the absence of meaningful feedback they are therefore unlikely to do much about it to improve.
In a lot of the recent discourse around CPD, two common themes are emerging. One is that good quality subject-specific CPD is critical for teacher development; the obvious place for that to occur most frequently is in department meetings, where teachers can share their knowledge and collaborate in improving their practice. Sadly that’s probably an ideal that happens all too rarely, and I know department meetings I have led in the past were seldom as focused on teaching and learning as I would have liked. A second theme is that we should approach professional development using similar principles to how we approach student learning. There’s a growing recognition that assuming that adults can just be talked at for a while and that this will have any meaningful impact is just wrong; why not the same for meetings too? What if we planned & ran meetings using some of the guiding principles of great teaching? What if we tried instead to (with acknowledgements and apologies to Doug Lemov!) ‘Meet like a champion?’ So what are some of the key areas we could improve?
Inclusivity & Participation
I wouldn’t teach a lesson in which half of the class didn’t need to be there. We expect attendance at all lessons because every single lesson matters, to every member of the class. Imagine if I started a lesson by saying “You guys over here can switch off for 20 minutes while I talk to this group about something that isn’t relevant to you.” Yet that is exactly what happens in so many meetings. As a Psychology teacher I have little to do with KS3 or 4 and so it has been a regular bugbear to sit through various HoDs meetings entailing a lot of discussion about matters on which I have no meaningful opinion and decisions which have no impact on my role. It’s the same in department meetings where progress of specific students that I don’t teach is being discussed (and I hold my hands up here as being guilty of this sin on many occasions when I was HoD). Of course that’s an important conversation to have, but it doesn’t need me as a silent spectator. A simple principle for running meetings should be one of inclusivity – every person there has a vested interest in the whole of the meeting. If they don’t then it’s just a waste of lots of people’s time, and they’re hardly likely to turn up to the next one brimming with enthusiasm. If you absolutely need to have that conversation about something that excludes some people then make sure those people know that their time is still being valued. Give them another task to do while you have that conversation (especially if there’s a group – unleash their collaborative power!), or simply schedule the agenda to put that item last so that everyone else can leave early.
Meetings can, just like lessons, be dominated by the same few people. The grumpy Head of Department who can be relied upon to say what he thinks; the brand new teacher who wants to get noticed; the sycophantic and ambitious middle leader who will act as a cheerleader for whatever is suggested to curry favour with SLT. Whoever chairs the meeting may be the person who speaks the most (often a bad sign), and poor meeting facilitation will mean that for many it’s a passive, non-participatory experience. Again, we have reliable routines to guard against this in our classrooms, why not in meetings? Cold-calling, giving think/write time, paired discussion are all strategies that would probably translate well to meetings and increase the participation ratio. These need to be handled carefully and should be avoided if they are simply paying lip service to engagement. But stating clearly that you are aware that you’re in a room full of experts who will all have a valuable perspective to share should go some way to persuading attendees that everyone’s voice can and should be heard.
Checking for understanding
Just like in the classroom, meetings need to have clear processes in place to ensure that everyone understands what is being presented or discussed. I think we tend to avoid doing this with staff for fear of appearing condescending, and an incorrect assumption that adults don’t need their understanding checked. But how many times have you sat in a meeting when someone asks what appears quite a basic question? You can almost hear the sound of several pairs of eyes rolling as ‘that teacher’ asks something which suggests either they haven’t been listening or have missed the point. But given the pace with which information is often presented, and in some cases the complexity of information which is novel to all but the author, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. We try to mitigate against this in lessons by scripting our explanations and then using robust routines for checking for understanding, why not the same in meetings? Asking ‘any questions’ in this forum is often as pointless as doing so in a classroom setting, possibly more so since experienced staff may actually be less willing to speak up for fear of either looking silly or being shot down, or because past experience has taught them it’s a waste of time. People need time to process new information and consider the impact for their own teaching/subject/team – ‘what does this mean for me?’ And then ask questions to clarify that. Classroom strategies like turn & talk, or even time for personal reflection, noting down thoughts on a meeting document, may lead to a much higher chance that everyone leaves with a shared understanding.
If material needs presenting, what’s the most effective way? I don’t present material verbally to my class because I like the sound of my own voice, but because I believe that my exposition will enhance their understanding, clarifying key points with examples, and gauging body language of my audience to assess if my tone and pace are appropriate. If I don’t think that me doing that will make any difference then I’ll direct them to a text because they don’t need to hear me say it if it’s written clearly for them already. How many meetings include someone essentially reading out something from a document that everyone has in front of them? One solution here is to send out the document in advance with the expectation that everyone reads it and comes prepared with any questions or comments. However, just like when you set pre-reading for a lesson, you can usually guarantee someone won’t have read it, and this wastes everyone’s time. But teachers are busy, and asking them to find time to read something – often sent out with either too little advance notice, or so far in advance that it gets filed under ‘not urgent’ and then forgotten about by the time of the meeting, may be unrealistic. An alternative, one used by big corporations such as Amazon, is to dedicate a portion of the meeting for everyone to read the document first. This actually makes so much more sense; you’ve got a much better chance that everyone will actually read it, and you can get everyone’s feedback there and then. It might feel like a slow way to start a meeting, but scaled up across the organization it’s actually a much more efficient use of time, and emphasises that whatever is being shared is actually worth ring-fencing some time for.
While we’re on the subject of material being shared at meetings, we should aim for similar standards of presentation as we would expect in lessons. ‘Busy’ slides, overly small text, screenshots of complicated spreadsheets which no one has a hope of actually being able to read are all too frequently the staple of many meetings. “Sorry, you probably can’t actually read the details on here but…” is a familiar refrain; who would deem it acceptable if a teacher shared information with a class in this way? How many meetings have we sat through where someone reads out loud what is already visibly printed on page or screen? We know from Cognitive Load Theory that this leads to redundancy, and that this doubly-presented material is actually less well attended to than either form alone. Yet it persists!
Decision making, discussion and debate
Those organising a meeting need to make a clear distinction between decisions that have already been made and those that are genuinely open for discussion. If discussion is genuinely desired then a suitable process and structure for that needs to be established, with some clear parameters on the purpose and scope of that discussion. If not, an email will probably suffice, as Mroz et al point out “Meetings that exist simply to share routine, non-urgent information that does not involve problem solving, decision making, or discussion should be avoided.” Leaders may wish to appear democratic by instigating some sort of discussion or decision-making process, but in many cases it seems that the decision has already been made, and the meeting is engineered to make a show of engagement and consultation which is both dishonest and professionally insulting. If senior leaders have already made a decision which they know will not be well received then they need to be prepared to have an open and frank discussion about it, giving clear explanation of the reasons behind it. It may well be that, outside of the echo-chamber of the senior leadership team, ideas are presented that improve on the original decision and allow plans to move forward in a way that satisfies more people. The outcome may end up being that the original decision is upheld, but colleagues are far more likely to support this if they have actually seen that alternatives were genuinely discussed rather than being offered empty assurances that ‘we have thought about this really hard’ when the decision was taken behind closed doors.
Outcomes & actions
Do meeting attendees actually leave the meeting knowing what they are expected to do next? In the information overload of meetings, particularly when they are end of a busy day’s teaching, it’s no surprise that attention is waning. I’ve left many meetings confident that I’ve understood something that has been discussed but less clear about what I’m now supposed to do about it. It’s fairly standard routine that meeting minutes are published to attendees after the meeting, and it can sometimes be a surprise to find your name next to an action that you don’t remember agreeing to! In class we use clear routines for setting homework – students record them in their planner or they are logged on Google Classroom; it’s often considered good practice, where practical, to set homework early in the lesson rather than waiting until the last 5 minutes when everyone is packing away and mentally already on the way out the door. It would be easy to add a section to the meeting agenda for attendees to record what actions are required by them and by when, or to set up electronic systems which post reminders. And we need to ensure that those actions are clearly specified in terms of expectations, success criteria if you like.
Review and takeaways
If you’re going to be leading a meeting, here are some top tops to consider:
- Make meetings inclusive – everyone should be there for a reason
- Prioritise those items that actually need discussion, rather than transmission
- Agree a system for sharing information that ensures everyone has time to digest it
- Present materials/information as you would in a classroom, paying attention to cognitive load
- Make clear what you want people to do with the information you’ve given them, or nothing will change
Roegelberg, S.G. (2019). Why Your Meetings Stink – and What To Do About It. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2019. Available at: https://hbr.org/2019/01/why-your-meetings-stink-and-what-to-do-about-it
Mroz, J. E., Allen, J. A., Verhoeven, D. C., & Shuffler, M. L. (2018). Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(6), 484–491. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418776307