Difficult, Courageous, & Fierce Conversation – Pat Bassett, NAIS President

Pat Bassett

Our first ‘headline’ speaker is Pat Bassett, the current President of NAIS. His talk’s focus was described as:

“The President of NAIS presents an analysis of conversation dynamics, why tough conversations tend to go badly, and what to do to make them go better. He will address some of the essential conversations we should be having, but aren’t, such as ‘What should we teach (the curriculum/content question)?’ ‘How should we assess (the testing/outcomes question)?’ and ‘How do we embed the 21st Century school vision (the leadership question)?'”

He took the stage and started his discussion by reminiscing about his early teaching career at a small, all-boys boarding school and the lack of direction/mentorship/training that he received as a young teacher just starting out.

He highlighted the need, as school leaders, to navigate challenging negotiations and conversations with colleagues, students, parents, the community, and more as part of job as educators and innovators in education. Also, as always happens at a conference that emphasizes technology, there were technology glitches ūüėČ

The first focus he discussed is the fact that conversations between individuals where there is inherently a power differential (boss & employee, teacher & student, supervisor & subordinate, etc) there are always two conversations going on: the verbal conversation and the silent, intellectual one. So… how do we change those conversations? How do we negotiate that dynamic? How do we manage these conversations so that they’re less threatening and ultimately serve kids better?

He recommended that when we anticipate these conversations, we pause and think – go through the mental checklist:

  • Identifying the deeper issues: both sides’ sense of their own competence and goodness.
  • “Making our point because you are right” always fails.
  • Arguments are only seldom about “truth” and “facts,” they are almost always about feelings and identity.

He highlighted that there are many, many challenging conversations that are going on right now in education right now, primarily: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. Emotionally charged topics such as these can readily and quickly degrade into ugly, unproductive, and unauthentic conversations.

He recommended another quick check-list:

  • “Delivering a message” vs. “Having a conversation”
  • Developing a “learning stance” as opposed to a grenade-launching stance.
  • Sorting out “what really happened.”
  • Understanding what you and the other party are feeling.
  • Knowing why we see the world differently from others: different information and interpretations, based on our experiences, outlooks, dispositions, and assumptions — and because our conclusions always reflect self-interest.

By reflecting on what we¬†bring to the conversation, what the other speaker is trying to say and communicate before¬†taking a defensive or aggressive stance. On a personal note, as someone who was trained in Anthropology, I’m feeling pretty good right now!

He also emphasized the fact that when dealing with children (even middle and high school kids), their brains aren’t developed enough for full rational and logical thought and action – they are still (at varying stages) in reactionary, instinctive thought. Expecting children (and maybe some adults) to act rationally, is a poor stance to take. If a person feels too threatened, then “fight or flight” will take over… every time.

So, when having a conflictive conversation focus on:

  • The Wrong Questions: Who is right? Whose fault is it? Why are you doing this? vs. The Right Question: Why do we see things differently?
  • Refocusing the discussion away from blame and toward understanding, away from “winning” a conversation toward insight and finding common ground that works for both side.
  • Find common ground and empathetic understanding.

Individual vulnerabilities – our own insecurities – can be a huge hamper in difficult discussions. Instead of seeing these as opportunities for growth and development – they are viewed as a direct, personal attack. So when it comes to difficult conversations – try to step back, “Why is this conversation threatening?” Try to deconstruct the conversation. “Why are we so far apart?”

Strategy and Design of Schools for the Future

He recommended Edutopia (one of my favorites) and the MacArthur Foundation websites for ideas, concepts, and resources (both for public and independent schools). These organization highlight the current revolution and big shifts ongoing right now in education:

  • Knowing becoming Doing
  • Teacher-centered becoming Student-centered
  • The individual…. the team
  • Consumption of information… construction of meaning
  • Schools… Networks (online peers and experts)
  • Single Sourcing… Crowd Sourcing
  • High Stakes Testing (NCLB)… High value demonstration

Due to the nature of independent schools, we are able to lead the way… why? Because we are not constrained by state mandated curriculum and testing… we have smaller classrooms… we have more flexibility. Those have all been hot topics for educators – how effective is the ‘lecture-based model’? I use it, even though I don’t think it’s the best way to convey long-term learning and critical thinking because it’s the old school means of education. It’s how I learned, it’s how I was taught to teach, and it’s what is the ‘standard’ of education.’ However, kids want and need to do something meaningful. They need to create, understand, master, and produce meaningful work.

He highlighted the role of online communities, like ISENET, to collaborate with colleagues and focus on individual and progressive professional development. I can wholeheartedly agree – blogging, tweeting, and collaboration (online and in person) with my colleagues has helped me more than any ‘formal’ training I have received.

Curriculum Content/Canon 

What can we agree upon are the skills and values the 21st century will demand and reward?

  • Communication (writing, public speaking, technical fluency) – children need to be able to communicate effectively in a myriad of venues
  • Collaboration (teaming, working together, developing group projects) – “teaming” shouldn’t be done just outside of the classroom, if you can’t work effectively in a team you are damaging¬†rather than helping
  • Creativity (how do we mandate creativity?) – creativity is often going down in schools and we frequently “kill creativity” in education (except at Trinity Valley of course).
  • Critical Thinking (what do we actually mean by “critical thinking?”), the capacity to discriminate between worthy and unworthy material, propaganda and evidence, garbage and useful information, etc.
  • Character (can you teach character?) – the world is full of smart people devoid of character. How do we develop this in the future leaders of the world? What is a K-12 character track? Modeling is the most effective means by which to teach character. We also need to take advantage of “teachable moments,” help kids sort through the right thing to do.
  • Cosmopolitanism (bringing children into the world) – cross-cultural competency. In our connected world, it is smaller – we need to prepare our students for a connected world.

He highlights these concepts further on his own blog here: “The Five Cs + One” as well as in other articles featured on “Bassett Blog.”

Pedagogy – How Do We Teach?

The charismatic teacher – lots of energy, entertaining, very popular, entertaining. However, it doesn’t always meant hat they’re a great teacher. It’s good to have in repertoire, but not the core. He made the analogy of coaching – know how each kid is different, know what turns that kid on in the classroom, learn how to motivate each child differently, focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

We need to capitalize on education, science, and technology engineering. We need to capitalize on new technologies and allow them to become innovators and creators of real “products” with meaning for the kids.

Design Thinking – we nee do rethink our concepts of “knowledge.” What is knowledge? How do we develop our curriculum around this?


I think that I summarized most of his key points, but i highly recommend checking out Jonathan Martin’s blog post on the same talk here.

4 thoughts on “Difficult, Courageous, & Fierce Conversation – Pat Bassett, NAIS President

  1. Pingback: Heidi Hayes Jacobs – Essential Curriculum Now! « Indiana Jen

  2. Pingback: ISAS Teacher Conference: Resources, Action Items and Conversation Questions from Pat Bassett’s presentation « 21k12

  3. Pingback: Featured Blog Posts from Day 1 at ISAS Teacher Conference « ISAS Teacher Conference

  4. Pingback: “The Neuroscience of Teaching and Learning” – David Eagleman « Indiana Jen

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