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Volume 30, Number 4
July/August 2014

Why Meetings Matter


Every day, millions of people gather in classrooms, faculty rooms, boardrooms, and (sometimes virtual) conference rooms to tackle problems that are so big that no individual can solve them alone. How to prepare students to thrive in a knowledge economy and rapidly developing world, how to support teachers in transforming their practice, how to create policy that drives opportunity and access for every learner—addressing each of these would truly make a big difference in learning and teaching. But although some of the meetings that could take on these issues are stimulating opportunities for generating ideas and creating solutions, many are not.

The fact is, meetings matter.

When we ask people what gets in the way of improving learning and teaching, “time” is consistently one of the top three responses. Specifically, not enough time. The two of us feel that same pinch of time and that same wistful “If we just had more time, we could . . .” We often wish for a mythical day between Tuesday and Wednesday or the ability to bend the space-time continuum like the characters in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. However, we haven’t found a tesseract yet, and so we start with the time we have.

Time—especially time for adults to learn together—is a precious resource, and in lots of schools and conference rooms, time is being wasted. While the research base on the use of time is not deep, one finding is clear: quality matters more than quantity.

This is not to say that quantity doesn’t matter. It does, and you need a baseline amount of time in order to do high-quality work and learning. What that amount is will depend on context and what kind of work and learning is required. Fifteen minutes once a week, which is what teachers have in one school Liz visited, is not going to be enough for deep learning, no matter how strategically those fifteen minutes are used.

In most situations, though, the important question is not “Do we have enough time?” but “Are we making the best use of the time we already have?”

Our colleague Richard Elmore refers to time as “money you’ve already spent,” which acknowledges that when you’re paying people salaries, you’re essentially paying them for their time. If you think about a meeting not as “60 minutes,” but as “$1,000” (for example, 25 people × 1 hour × $40/hour), all of a sudden the meeting feels a little different.  (See chart below, “Estimate the Cost of Meetings.”)

Our experience is that many organizations have at least $100,000 worth of people hours (and often many orders of magnitude more) being underutilized in any given year. In fact, many school systems will spend at least that much in a single day of professional development.

Meetings as Powerful Learning Spaces

Improvement in student achievement—and most other outcomes worth caring about—depends critically on whether the adults in schools can continually and productively learn together. Indeed, one of the most powerful practices in support of organizational learning is consistently having great meetings. But that begs the question: what makes a meeting great?

Great meetings are invigorating. The purpose is clear, and achieving it is important to everyone involved. There is an agenda, often set with collaborative input, and the group moves through the agenda—not too fast and not too slow, adjusting as needed, with purpose in mind. Everyone participates in and contributes to the meeting. Even when the work itself is extremely challenging, in a great meeting there are often some number of minutes during which the group is in a state of “flow,” experiencing a timelessness that brings deep creativity and connection.4 And, at the most basic level, great meetings are fun.

If every meeting is a potentially rich opportunity for adult learning, then it makes sense that great meetings have a lot in common with great classrooms. In both, participants are actively engaged in challenging tasks, using their minds, solving problems, and communicating. In meetings, the facilitator is like a skillful teacher who plays different kinds of roles, sharing the work and meaning-making with the participants the way teachers actively engage students. And in both, all participants know the norms of behavior that they are expected to follow, and each encounter is set up to help reinforce those norms.

A meeting agenda lays out the facilitator’s map for how a group will use a particular meeting to take a few steps toward a shared but often distant goal. This is analogous to the way an individual lesson plan helps students take one step of many toward desired outcomes, like building the knowledge and skills needed for mastery. Wise facilitators use agendas not as  straitjackets but as guides to be adapted as needs arise, just as teachers often adjust their lesson plans in the moment to take into account circumstances as they unfold.

In meetings that are truly in the service of improvement, either learning needs to be taking place in the meeting, or it must be made clear how this meeting connects to learning. Examples include an intervention team working with a parent to design a student support plan, a teacher team looking at student work to assess the effectiveness of a lesson, an operations team figuring out how to make the buses run on time, or a district team discussing how to make rich out-of-school experiences widely available. In each case, to make real progress, adults need to think or act differently, and it’s easy to draw a line from the purpose of the meeting to improving learning.

If the connection between a meeting and learning is not immediately obvious, it’s worth asking if a meeting is even needed in the first place. In this world of instant information sharing, could the business be addressed in another way? After all, not everything warrants a meeting!

Or, if the information is so important, why not figure out a way to use the meeting time to make sure everyone knows it, and is not just told it? How about including a quiz with polling clickers? Or having meeting participants teach one another? Or giving small groups an opportunity to apply the knowledge to their daily work?

When people will sit through a meeting in which they’re being talked at for more than thirty minutes and not protest at all, that’s evidence that there’s a culture of acceptance of meetings as endurance activities rather than learning opportunities. If you can’t tell a compelling story that explains why spending precious time convening a group of adults on a particular issue will ultimately serve learning and teaching, don’t meet. Or if you do meet, change the meeting experience.

Four Things to Consider

For the last several years, we have worked with educators from across the education sector to identify the most important things to consider when planning a meeting. We have developed a Meeting Wise Checklist with 12 questions to plan all the ingredients for a successful meeting. The questions on the checklist are grouped into categories that capture the four aspects of any meeting:

Purpose. The single most effective thing you can do to have a good meeting is to get crystal clear about why you are meeting and what you hope to accomplish. 

Process. It is essential to be clear about what needs to get done at the meeting. But it is also critical to be thoughtful about how to engage the group in working toward the stated objectives.

Preparation. Consider what else the facilitator and participants could do in advance to make sure the meeting goes smoothly.

Pacing. Before finalizing your agenda, dive into the details and confirm that your minutes add up and that you are spending them in the right places. Then pull back to see the big picture and ensure that you feel well poised to have the meeting you truly want to have.

A good meeting, like a good classroom experience, has a clear purpose, a thoughtful strategy for achieving it, and a group working together to achieve that purpose.

None of us became educators because we wanted to become champion meeting planners, facilitators, or participants—but wise meetings will help deliver on a determination to improving learning and teaching for all the students in our care.

Adapted from Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators (Harvard Education Press 2014) by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth A. City. Kathryn Parker Boudett is Lecturer on Education and the Director of the Data Wise Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Elizabeth A. City is Lecturer on Education and Director of the Doctor of Education Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.