Beware outside consultants? – Part 3, me (and others)

I’ve been thinking a lot about my previous two posts regarding Drs. Willard Daggett and Ruby Payne. Both make a great deal of money and have built mini-empires out of their speaking engagements, writing, and/or consulting enterprises. Both have serious, serious concerns attached to their work. When phrases like ‘riddled with unverifiable assertions’ or ‘[as] full of crap as a Christmas turkey get used, that’s not good…

Daggett and Payne aren’t the only ones to experience some criticism. For example, I have tremendous respect for Dr. Rick DuFour and the work that he and his team have done on professional learning communities. I’ve learned a boatload from their books and use On Common Ground as a required reading for my data-driven decision-making class. But I’ve been hearing from some educators across the country that they feel that the presentations are starting to get stale, that there are only so many times the Faces of Hope video can be shown before it loses its impact, that after one institute there’s no need to go back for more. Miguel Guhlin also points us to some criticism of Marc Prensky (whose ideas have been useful to me).

A number of folks in the educational technology community serve as speakers and/or consultants. Will Richardson, David Warlick, and Angela Maiers, for example, do this as their primary vocation. Others such as myself, Doug Johnson, Sheryl Nussbaum-BeachMiguel Guhlin, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez, and Wesley Fryer occasionally do this on the side in addition to our regular employment.

What obligations do we have as speakers / consultants?

For those of us who do some professional speaking or consulting, this excerpt from the National Speakers Association’s Code of Professional Ethics is probably a good place to start:

Article 1. The NSA member shall accurately represent qualifications and experience in both oral and written communications.

Article 2. The NSA member shall act and speak on a high professional level so as to neither offend nor bring discredit to the speaking profession.

Article 3. The NSA member shall exert diligence to understand the client’s organization, approaches and goals in advance of the presentation.

Article 4. The NSA member shall avoid using materials, titles and thematic creations originated by others, either orally or in writing.

Article 5. The NSA member shall share knowledge and experience with others.

Article 6. The NSA member shall treat other speakers with professional courtesy and dignity.

Article 7. The NSA member shall limit services to those areas in which the member is qualified to serve, taking into consideration available opportunities for the member to develop new materials or undertake new fields. When unable or unqualified to fulfill requests for presentations, the NSA member shall make every effort to recommend the services of other qualified speakers, agencies or bureaus.

Article 8. The NSA member shall maintain the trust of clients, and fidelity concerning the business or personal affairs of a client, agents and other speakers who may reveal confidential information.

Article 9. The NSA member shall protect the public against fraud or unfair practices and shall attempt to eliminate from the speaking profession all practices which bring discredit to the profession.

Article 10. The NSA member shall not be party to any agreement to unfairly limit or restrain access to the marketplace by any other speaker, client or to the public, based upon economic factors, race, creed, color, sex, age, physical handicap or country of national origin of another speaker.

But these may not be specific or comprehensive enough. For example, the primary criticism of Daggett is that he just makes up stuff. Does that come under Article 2? Article 9? Or not at all? The primary criticisms of Payne are that she is overly stereotypical and makes unproven assertions. Under which article(s) do those fall?

Here are some key things that I think we speakers/consultants owe the organizations with whom we work:

  1. Accuracy. Our work should be truthful and accurate. If we make an assertion, it should be based on a source that’s reasonably trustworthy. If it’s an opinion, it should be clearly indicated as such. If we don’t know, we should admit it. Can we make an occasional unverifiable assertion? Sure, but that shouldn’t constitute the bulk of our work. Does everything need to be ‘research-based?’ No, absolutely not, particularly given the inconclusive nature of educational research on many topics.
  2. Currency. Our work should be as up-to-date as possible. This is tough, both in terms of monitoring numerous channels of information and in terms of finding the time to update one’s materials. It’s also difficult sometimes to take new approaches to older work; I empathize greatly with DuFour’s challenge of continually needing to find new ways to present, expand, and build upon what’s been done before. I think we owe it to the groups we’re serving to continually update our material and make it as relevant as possible to each organization rather than repeatedly doing the same schtick regardless of audience.
  3. Transparency. If we make mistakes, say so. Publicly. If we’re wrestling mentally with an issue or otherwise are not sure of something, admit it. Is there a major line of research contesting our assertions (as is the case with Payne) or do we have a particular ideological bent? Acknowledge it so that the organization can make informed decisions about our work. The more transparent we can be, the better.
  4. Service. It’s about the organization, not us. Professional development time and money usually are quite scarce. We can charge whatever we think our time and expertise are worth (and the market will bear), but we should be providing something of value. Usually that means something practical that members of the organization can start using and acting upon tomorrow. Oral presentations, written materials, and other resources should be professional, engaging, and helpful. [Note: I confess I have trouble with the “I was buried by an avalanche in the Himalayas for 2 weeks with nothing to eat but my clothing” or the “I was down and out but now I’m successful and at peace” speeches. Sure, they’re inspiring (and often quite expensive) but they don’t really help me do my job any better…]

This list is not meant to be conclusive but rather a starting place for conversation. What else should I have included?

16 Responses to “Beware outside consultants? – Part 3, me (and others)”

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for this series of posts. It seems that quite often, speakers are hired based on the popularity of a written piece or because they have been hired by so many others. Being popular shouldn’t be enough.

    Those in the position of hiring a speaker have a responsibility to take the time to really look at a person’s previous work and think critically about it. Those who hear the speaker have a responsibility to think critically about what they are hearing vs. taking it at face value. Those who speak have responsibility too. I think the NSA guidelines are very good.

    What I would add is that IMHO, this should apply to all speakers–big names hired for big events to everyday presenters speaking in a small training session. Critical thinking/evaluation is key, but too often neglected.

  2. The core of the issue regarding consultants, I believe, is how they view themselves and how their audience views them. The consultant-as-the-expert is quite different than the consultant-as-a-facilitator.

    The consultant-as-the-expert, as the sage on this stage, is often revered by the audience. Later, he or she is spoken about with great fervor around the water fountain with comments like, “Wasn’t she or he amazing?” The consultant as the facilitator allows participants to walk along side and then in front of him or her. The workplace atmosphere, in this case, becomes, “Aren’t WE amazing?”

    The consultant-as-the-expert might be remembered in years to come as a good speaker, motivating, etc., but his or her specific content may easily be forgotten. The consultant-as-a-facilitator may be easily forgotten but his or her messages, strategies, and skills live on through the day-to-day practices and operations.

  3. Scott:

    I strongly agree with your four points for consultants. I would expand to also suggest that organizations need to develop operational guidelines when using professional consulting services. In no particular order:

    1. Balance. Has the organization adequately researched the topic to understand the variety of perspectives associated with a specific topic? Sometimes school districts can become enamored with a certain consultant and their ideological and/or philosophical perspective. It is important to seek out information on the same topic that is slightly or significantly different.

    2. Situation. Has the organization adequately researched what makes their organization unique from others? A school district needs to identify the uniqueness of their own situation to determine the validity of a consultant’s recommendations. I believe strongly that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to making significant change in a school district. We are sometimes too quick to adopt an entire list of recommendations without recognizing the local presence of the parameters that are necessary for a successful implementation.

    3. Capacity: Has the organization adequately assessed their capacity to implement the recommendations? Considering change without a clear picture of the organizational capacity as it relates to the implementation is silly. There are areas in every school district that are weak and/or stressed, so implementing recommendations that rely on weak and/or stressed areas may become difficult to successfully accomplish.

    4. Alignment: Has the organization adequately developed strategic and/or tactical plans that focus on specific organizational outcomes? To avoid constantly “jumping on the bandwagon” with the latest fad, school districts should have a clear picture of what they are trying to accomplish. The whole language versus phonics debate comes to mind. Figure out what you believe in, find a consultant that can help, and then make sure the recommendations are aligned to the strategic outcomes of the district.

    That is a pretty quick list and I am sure there are others. Thanks for your thoughtful work on this topic!


  4. Both of you have posted profound statements. I have heard and read so many different speakers over my career, some who are remembered for their skill as a speaker and other forgotten yet so influential on my thinking. I think the key is to evaluate your experiences and dig deeper in areas of interest or confusion.

  5. I checked out an audio book for over the winter break period, and listened to it over the weekend. It was called “The Leadership Pill” by Ken Blanchard and Marc Muchnick. The main point of the Leadership Pill book is that there’s no magic pill for true sustainable change. Yet consultants are often engaged by schools to provide the magic pill.

    For my own use, I do find listening to consultants like Payne and Daggett as mentally refreshing. It helps to hear well articulated views. But consultants don’t wield school improvement silver bullets and they won’t do the education leadership heavy lifting that Blanchard and Muchnick talk about (integrity, partnership, affirmation).

  6. @Greg Davis: This is an interesting observation, Greg. Some of us would like to help more with the ‘heavy lifting’ and have deeper, ongoing relationships with school systems. But districts only ask for the ‘quick fix’ or the ‘sit and get’ instead of something deeper or longer or more impactful. That may be purposeful, a lack of resources, or both (or something else)…

  7. Great thread-

    Just as a point of clarification you said, “A number of folks in the educational technology community serve as speakers and/or consultants. Will Richardson, David Warlick, and Angela Maiers, for example, do this as their primary vocation. Others such as myself, Doug Johnson, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Miguel Guhlin, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez, and Wesley Fryer occasionally do this on the side in addition to our regular employment.”

    Just as an FYI- I work at Powerful Learning Practice, LLC as Co-founder and CEO ( and 21st Century Collaborative, LLC as President ( both are PD consulting companies and serve as my primary vocation. My adjunct work at William and Mary is on the side.

  8. @Sheryl: Thanks for the clarification and transparency. I thought your primary vocation was still full-time doctoral student. Sorry about that!

  9. @ Greg
    two great books on ‘leaderhip’ and ‘change’… 1. Leading Change, by John Kotter
    2. Good to Great, by Jim Collins

    Geared around ‘corporate’ america, but as schools turn to leaders outside of education for larger schools and schools try to be the ‘innovative’/’early adopter’… very relevant

  10. I’m going to see you in New Jersey January 9th–I am very excited and hope to meet you.

    Seeing these recent posts only whets my appetite.

    I’m about as old as Sputnik, so my brain still gets jolted when I run into mythological on-line creatures. Kind of like running into Sonny Fox when I was still a kid.

  11. Howdy! A few thoughts here about your post:

    Tingling Currents of Thought

    Warm regards,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  12. Some additional points to ponder:

    1.) Schools and districts must address the need for the consultation. They can identify the need based on Classroom Walkthrough data, School Improvement Plans, Adequate Yearly Progress subgroup data, and Teacher Development Plans and teacher surveys. Districts and schools should balance teacher wants vs. needs. How is conducting the needs assessment a part of the outside consultant’s role?
    2.) Ongoing support and follow-up are where the real training take place. What process does the consultant have in place for ongoing support to schools and districts? Is ongoing support for all participants who participated in the event or for designated “facilitators” within the schools or districts? What’s the difference?

    3.) Where is the connection between transfer of knowledge from the consultation to teachers applying the skills within the classroom? In other words, how do you know whether or not the presentation is effective?

  13. Scott,
    Thank you for this series on outside consultants. It provides much food for thought–both for the district administrators who retain the consultants (hope they’re reading), and those who seek to offer professional services in this way.

  14. @Scott,

    Moved from doctoral student status to doctoral candidate status last year. Working hard on the dissertation. Quit teaching at W&M last year to focus on PLP.

    Thanks again.

  15. I think most people who do this work fulltime, do much of this research on their own or at least spend great portions of their preparation digging deeply into various studies.

    My work/ideas are totally dependent on the work of others, mixed in with my personal experiences, stories and interpretations. I do try and verify studies but admit I often take things at face value based on the credentials of the person or organizations. So much for information literacy. 😉

    I remember a few years back touting the South African curriculum wiki format only to find out later, that the gov’t themselves never really adopted it, it was only done by a select group of teachers who named it in as a national document.

    As I reflect on what I recall from Daggett in particular, was his emphasis on statistics and studies. I definitely try to balance that with things I know to be true because I’ve witnessed or experienced them. If I’m going to make a case for a shift in teaching and learning, I have to do it myself; thus I’m grateful to still be teaching regularly,albeit in higher ed, the principles still apply. This is why I’m most drawn to teachers who are doing this everyday. Those that can present/communicate effectively tend to be the most reliable, interesting, motivating speakers.

  16. Good posts, good analysis. I think the whole issue must be considered at several levels – if the speakers/consultants are essentially making stuff up, how do they have any credibility after their first few consultancies? More importantly, is their analysis of an individual situation at all valid? How can it possibly be worth anything to the educators who hire them? It is certainly easy enough to research the background on someone you’re considering spending money on, so why don’t they?

    The issues facing the educational system are too complex and deep seated to have quick, shallow answers, Of all people, educators should know that.

    And the video of the student’s critique was telling…

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