The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice

by Joseph P. McDonald, Nancy Mohr, Alan Dichter, and Elizabeth C. McDonald
(Teachers College Press, 144 pages, $15.95) reviewed by Mary Hastings

Many CES schools have been using protocols over the past ten years for looking at student and teacher work, as part of Critical Friends Groups, or in the context of common planning time. With many combined years of practice as Coalition researchers, urban school leaders, and founders and active participants in the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), The Power of Protocols’ four authors offer a depth of wisdom and practicality that is enlightening and reassuring.

When first introduced, the practice of using protocols may feel stiff, formal and even a bit mysterious. But the authors make a compelling case for the necessity of constraining behavior to enhance experience” by placing the term “protocol” in the context of its use in other fields: diplomacy, medical science, and the social sciences. My first encounter with the term “protocol” came from my nursing background and I recalled the necessity for following specific steps in the care of patients in any number of situations. While those steps were meant to ensure the optimal response from the patient, it was also important to remain flexible and adapt our care as necessary. This is exactly what the authors encourage us to do as they present the theory and practice of protocol use in educational settings.

The four basic ideas of the book are: that professional educators should take charge of our own learning, that we should pause periodically in our practice to become students of our students,” that we understand more deeply the term “protocol,” and that we build the high performance, collaborative workplaces that will lead to student and teacher learning and success. Through gaining experience in the facilitation of protocols and the practice of exploring student work together, educators have developed an “accountability based on faithfulness to learning…that combines front-line scrutiny of student work, collective responsiveness to individual student needs, and strategic flexibility at all levels of the organization,” as opposed to the accountability imposed by district, state and federal policy makers. In other words, we can find out for ourselves much of what we need to know about our teaching and our students’ learning. And we can hold ourselves responsible for the changes needed to enhance teaching and learning in our particular school communities.

Anyone who has ever facilitated or participated in protocols and heard other participants lament, “Why can’t we just talk about the work? Why do we have to follow all these rules?” will appreciate the opening chapter’s rich description of the reasons why protocol use all over the United States and in many other countries has enriched the learning of educators and had a positive impact on student achievement.

The second chapter examines the role of the facilitator. The use of protocols requires a facilitator who will “promote participation, ensure equity and build trust” within the professional community. The structure of protocols demands these skills and also allows for them to develop and deepen as facilitators gain experience with various protocols and contexts.

The remaining chapters are devoted to the various protocols, aggregating them according to their most likely purpose: protocols for opening, intervening in, or closing a meeting; protocols for setting norms; protocols for use with outside sources such as texts or speakers; protocols for examining challenges and successes in teaching practice; and, finally, protocols for examining student work. Each protocol’s origin is described, along with its purpose, organization, process, facilitation tips, and possible variations.

Finally, the authors encourage the reader to “jump in” and begin, with practical tips for beginning and developing the practice of protocols. They also include a chart in the appendix that matches protocols with their suggested uses along with a list of other useful resources. As a Critical Friends Group coach and member of nsrf, I deeply appreciate the way this guide helped to enlarge my understanding of protocols and deepen my sense of their efficacy in teaching practice.

Mary Hastings is the Program Director of the Southern New England Coalition of Essential Schools based at the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts.