Groupthink and the cautions of quick consensus

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 7th 2015

I find myself at another meeting. One of the many I attend in any given week. The topic on the table is a series of questions asking our collective advice. It’s a strategy and structure that I encounter on a weekly basis in any number of meetings. I’ve seen a presentation, along with others. I’ve been presented with information and with complete sincerity, people want to know what we think on a topic. They want our advice. I welcome the opportunity to provide insight, however every time I engage in this activity a little voice speaks to me and asks the following questions:

  • Why are these the chosen questions?
  • What presumptions are being made by asking these questions?
  • When I think of the topic at hand, would these be the questions I would ask or are there others that I would like to explore before I tackle these?

It is not that I’m a contrarian. I’m not a troublemaker. I want to be part and I want to be included. I appreciate that I get asked to participate. However, I am always cautious about not the questions at the table, but why we’re at the table in the first place. What brought us here? Who is here? What do they want to know? Why is my voice important or valued in this arena of conversation?

It is not just necessary but it is critical to invite people together. I strongly believe that coming together to exchange divergent viewpoints is the very fabric that weaves together the rich and strong tapestries that make us whole. However, these opportunities must be carefully crafted. We need to make sure that diversity, not singularity is the order of the day. We need to have education and quality information as a key precondition to the conversation. We need to give space for divergent voices, time to think and room to explore alternatives.

I find myself most unsettled when everyone around the table is of the same mind. These moments where everyone is absolutely certain of the right thing, the direction we should go. In these cases I always feel like this is the time we could make the biggest mistake. Why? Because who is holding us accountable for the direction we are setting? What makes us believe our moral ground is THE moral ground? What questions should we be asking ourselves to explore other possibilities? What would those most impacted by the question or the decision have to say about the direction we are headed?

In education circles in the past few years, we continue to monitor and debate the international results emanating from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). In many situations in the past year I have sat at tables and heard people talk about our global results. I’ve watched people fly to Finland in pursuit of finding out how they are leading the world in education. All of this because clearly we must all believe that PISA is the absolute gold standard of measuring educational performance of a system and Finland must be the best system in the world. If someone ranks higher than us in PISA, then I guess they must be better than us. That seems to be the conclusion that we read and hear about.

The performance analysis of a social system is very difficult. I believe we struggle, as a province and as a district, to establish a transparent, inclusive, reliable and predictable way to measure the performance of our system. It’s an enormous and complex task. It is a task that would require the best minds, from all walks, to gather and make a commitment to finding a way. In our province, the Advisory Group on Provincial Assessment is tackling this problem of large and small scale assessments as a way to inform us on our progress. I respect and value their work. Why? Because I don’t believe that they aren’t all of the same mind but I do believe that they share a common hope.  I believe that they are at the table to pursue a tough topic together with integrity and purpose. This is very important and highly complex work with implications for the whole system. Since they pursue a tough question, I do not expect a quick answer. I also do not expect consensus. However, I think it is reasonable to expect that divergent views have been heard, honoured and respected.

It seems that we have so easily come to the conclusion that PISA is the standard of international assessment to which we should all ascribe. I have no reason to discount PISA, I just think there is a question worth asking and, for my comfort, I haven’t heard enough questions. I feel the time is right for a robust conversation about this massive international assessment that is driving many of the national and international agendas in education. No matter how you look at it, this is a large program with international recognition and impact. When the PISA results come out, the whole world in education seems to watch and policies are put in motion as an outcome. Once again, as I watch the conversation, I sit and wonder which questions should be asked, who should be asking, and what some of that new conversation might be.

PISA is simply one example on a large scale where it appears that there is widespread acceptance and directions are set. There are many more examples. So the next time you are around the table and you’re all feeling you’ve landed on exactly the right direction – just pause and evaluate: who is at the table, what questions have you asked, what presumptions have you made to get to where you are? The person who is across the table passionately debating your points may not be the unwelcome guest, they may actually be the most important voice at your table. Rather than thinking they may be unreasonable, maybe they are perfectly reasonable but just not with your reasoning! Many of the topics we explore in education are not right vs wrong, they are competing rights and who is to say that your viewpoint is the dominant one? Is consensus what you actually want? What is your group’s definition of consensus (that’s another blog)?

Often, as I’ve written in other blogs, the most important thing I believe you can do when you are around the table is simply listen and ask clarifying questions. Sometimes the trickiest things to unearth are the presumptions and constructs that people have when they enter a conversation. So as you listen and consensus is close, pause and consider which views are heard and what space has been purposefully constructed for those who are not as vociferous as others. An interesting closing question simply might be, how do we know we are right? If the answer is – well we all agree – I would suggest you can do better than that. Agreement certainly does not mean you know the truth and the correct path forward. It simply means…you agree (or worse, people are tired and just want to go). Our education system deserves better than quick consensus on things that really matter and that impact so many. Finally, as always, for topics that really matter, it takes time to get to where you need to go and by a process that truly is inclusive. You will find that time on process is time well spent and slowing down at the table may in fact allow you to get to the ultimate destination a little quicker in the end.

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