Your mission, should you chose to accept it....

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Years ago, the television show Mission Impossible always began with a scene in which the team leader, Mr. Phelps, would receive a tape describing his next mission. The tape invariably began, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." No matter how silly the rest of the show became, this single line reveals a keener understanding of human nature than is displayed by most product development organizations.

Elite organizations have always appreciated the importance of voluntary choice when seeking individuals to take on challenging missions. For centuries, military organizations that have asked their members to take unusual risks have all been voluntary. This wasn't an accident. The military knows that people are always more committed to a path that they have chosen themselves than one assigned to them. Religious orders asking their members to make unusual sacrifices have known the same thing: volunteers are more committed than those simply assigned a job.

Why is this the case? The normal human psychology for us is to exaggerate the wisdom of the choices that we make for ourselves and to question the wisdom of choices that are made for us by others. For example, have you ever noticed how hard it is for you to turn around once you have begun traveling down a wrong path? In contrast, we will quickly question the wisdom of going down an avenue that someone else has selected for us when even the slightest obstacle emerges. This is due to a very basic principle of psychology. People prefer to feel good about themselves. Part of this preference includes viewing their own choices as superior to those of other people. This inherent bias that's present in all cultures distorts our perception of reality.

In 1975, psychologist Ellen Langer reported the results of a classic experiment in which $1.00 lottery tickets for a $50.00 prize were given to two groups of people. The lottery was then cancelled and ticket holders were given the opportunity to sell back their ticket. Those who had the opportunity to pick their own ticket wanted an average of $8.67 for it. Those who were simply given a ticket wanted an average of $1.96. In this case, the value premium associated with making one's own choice was eight times higher than that of nonparticipation. Obviously, people are more committed to choices that they make for themselves.

What does this have to do with professional learning? Quite simply, if you want team members who are committed to the goals of a school, then have them see themselves as volunteer for the task at hand. This isn't a question of management style. Whether you're a participating manager or a dictator, you will get better outcomes when people volunteer for their jobs. Where successful PLC's are in place members will see themselves as empowered to make decisions that affect them, they will identify the goals and objectives for their work, is essence they will act as volunteers not conscripts.

It may seem fanciful that schools should or could get people to volunteer? But I'm sure on reflection we will all recognise that mush of the 'extra' work done by teachers is essentially volunteered. Some object that the extra work it's time-consuming and leads to burn out, these are the conscripts. A little extra time it takes to sell people on the opportunity to work together with colleagues will more than repaid itself by an increased willingness to work harder on a choice they arrived at themselves.

When establishing PLC's with an expectation that all staff will be involved then some Principals worry that everyone will want to volunteer for the same group and some volunteers will be rejected and demotivated. This seldom occurs if the choice is seen as fair and rational.

Other Principals object that nobody will want to volunteer for the pointless, boring, and doomed projects. This may be true, but it isn't necessarily bad. Rather than coercing people to work on such projects, it makes more sense to provide them with meaningful, interesting, and realistic work.

Schools that adopt a whole school approach to the implementation of PLC's and that have an expectation that all staff are involved in a school improvement initiatives will find that the reluctant participant will be in the minority and in the end peer pressure and success will be almost universal acceptance of the value of working together on meaningful and contextualised professional development.

Do you see yourself as a volunteer in aspects of your work? What makes you volunteer your time?

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