Monday, February 1, 2010

Delphi Technique: The art of pretending to achieve consensus

By Laurie H. Rogers

"To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects—the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner 'I stand for consensus'?"
-- British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1981

I had heard of the “Delphi Technique” being used to bring a committee to “consensus,” but before my experience on Spokane Public Schools’ most recent high school math curriculum adoption committee, I hadn’t seen it in action. Fortunately for Spokane students, most members on the adoption committee resisted the siren call of the Delphi Technique and ultimately chose the two stronger curricula as their finalists for a high school math curriculum.
Here is an example of how any committee can achieve “consensus” without actually achieving it.

  1. First, the committee is split into small groups. Each group contains different “types” of committee members. Thus, like-minded individuals are separated from each other and spread around the room, and their influence is lessened and more easily “managed.”
  2. “Rules” for behavior are set up so that real debate is disallowed.
  3. Each group contains a few people loyal to the institution’s agenda. One is willing to grab for the pen and paper and be the official recorder; another can monitor group behavior for adherence to the “rules.”
  4. Oppositional or problematic comments are eliminated. Recorders politely but persistently “interpret,” reject, ignore, rewrite or “reframe” unwanted comments.
  5. Requests for debate or discussion are ignored or rejected. Monitors politely but persistently delay debate and redirect conversations to safer areas.
  6. Each recorder produces a “summary” or “synopsis” of comments. The summaries virtually eliminate most problematic comments. Remaining challenges are dismissed as being the minority view. Even clear oppositional statements can be questioned – “What does that mean, anyway?” – thus casting doubt upon them and lessening their influence.
  7. From these summaries or synopses, the institution creates a “perception” or a “perspective,” supposedly drawn directly from what committee members said.
  8. Persistent questioners are ignored or admonished for a) operating outside of the “rules,” b) refusing to accept the “consensus” of the group, or c) being unreasonable pains in the neck.
Most people find it difficult to combat all of this. It’s uncomfortable being the odd one out. It’s exhausting to fight for every inch of ground, every word, every phrase, every idea … and then look up to find that what was said isn’t there. It’s hard to go back and do it again the next day.
(And if one’s job depends on getting along with the people who run that committee, it can be a devastating choice one makes to continually try to get a solid word in edgewise. I think most employees won’t dare fight that battle.)

And so, most people give up and get quiet – or they suddenly find they have time conflicts and must drop out. Those who remain on the committee tend to be supporters of the institutional agenda, or they’re willing to go along to get along, or they become convinced they’re being heard. Dissent evaporates, and things quiet down. The few who continue to present an opposing view are easily managed and dismissed.

Voila! “Consensus.”

The first time the members of Spokane Public Schools’ high school math curriculum adoption committee met was Sept. 29, but it wasn’t until Dec. 9 – more than 10 weeks later – that we finally were allowed to examine eight possible curricula. What were we doing on all of the other days?

We could have spent those five days discussing the new state math standards; the various curricula assessments that had been done by OSPI and the State Board of Education; the National Mathematics Advisory Panel Final Report; any math curricula that had already arrived at the district; the suitcase of data and research that I brought for the committee; or our perspectives on how K-12 math should be taught. But the standards, curricula assessments and NMAP report weren’t discussed in depth; we didn’t see any math curricula until Dec. 3; the data and research I brought weren’t discussed at all; and debates over teaching methodology were actively discouraged. Instead, we were forced to endure 23 hours of discussion on items such as the following:
  1. How to speak with each other nicely.I kid you not. Committee leaders even “redirected” our discussions as if we were 6-year-olds. I half expected them to say, “Now use your words.”
  2. “Consensus” – what it means, that it was the goal of the committee, and how committee members were to go about achieving it.But our views were diverse, and we weren’t allowed to debate critical issues. True consensus, therefore, was not reached. Dissenters were ignored, deliberately misunderstood, or worn down until they gave up.
  3. A new definition of “dialogue.”Concerned that we weren’t allowed to debate anything, I asked that “dialogue” be added to our “norms” (our rules for behavior.) The word was added, but at the next meeting, the secondary math coordinator explained at length how “dialogue” means to not discuss the issues. In each group, he said, a person was to say something, and then tablemates were to respond, one by one, each with a thought that was brief, not an opinion, and not a challenge. We were then to move on.
  4. Discussions of the district’s education “research.” The district continually gave us “research” that is poorly written; illogical; adamantly opposed to anything traditional; and uncritically supportive of reform math and extreme constructivism.
    Although they kept telling us that the field of cognitive science supports current education theory, we weren’t given anything written by actual cognitive scientists. This is probably because actual cognitive scientists say that it’s premature to base curriculum decisions on cognitive science.
    A few of us objected to some or all of this education “research,” but our objections were generally ignored, rewritten, or reframed as questions.
Early in the process, committee members were asked to discuss our perception of the current state of mathematics in Spokane, and also to state what we want things to look like. The district rewrote our feedback and then tossed out our original notes. The rewrites are different from what we said. Most comments that were supportive of a "traditional" approach were minimized or eliminated.

Despite having to suffer with this dodgy process, Spokane’s adoption committee chose Holt Mathematics and Prentice Hall Mathematics as its two finalists for a new high school mathematics curriculum. I have a preference between the two, but both align better to the new state standards; are more rigorous in content; allow for more flexibility in teaching methodology; provide students, teachers and parents with solid resources, examples, explanations, and opportunities for practice; and they align well with what students and parents said they want in a new curriculum.

I’m exceedingly proud of this adoption committee, but we are not yet out of the woods. These two choices are being piloted in the district now. Some of those piloting the curricula are opposed to their adoption. The two curricula will then go past a group of principals and a group of administrators – most of whom have not done the work the adoption committee did. I expect many, if not most of them, to vehemently oppose both curricula. In their language to the committee, district administrators have left the door open to adopting neither.

Therefore, if you have anything to say about what you would like for a high school math curriculum for your children, now is the time to speak up. If you prefer to write a letter, I recommend you write it to the school board. This might improve your chances of being heard. Please do not delay. Time, tide, and the push for fake consensus wait for no one.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (February, 2010). "Delphi Technique: The art of pretending to achieve consensus." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

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