Making Connections: Engagement Theory & Dilemma Mapping

Throughout this year I have been completing a series of professional learning facilitated by my diocese and University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership. The course, entitled Growing Great Leaders, comprises of six modules and are aligned to the student-centred leadership model proposed by Distinguished Professor, Viviane Robinson. Her books, Student Centred Leadership and Reduce Change to Increase Improvement have been cornerstone texts in my edu-reading this year, with the latter being the lead text for school leadership teams across the Parramatta Diocese in 2019. I highly recommend both as essential reading for leaders across the experience spectrum.

Engagement into Theories of Action

A pivotal component of the GGL course and the texts is the acknowledgement that practices are driven by a theory (or theories) of action. Theories may be held at the personal/individual level, or at the collective/group level. A theory of action is comprised of three elements: key beliefs or values, actions/inactions, and finally, consequences. See the diagram below.


p. 15. V. M Robinson, 2018
Reduce change to increase improvement

Robinson notes that engagement theory is where a change agent (teacher, leader, school, organisation) inquires into current and alternative theories of action, in a deliberate and dialogical manner before any possible change and/or improvement be made. Engagement is the ideal, but bypass is often exhibited.


p. 26. V. M Robinson, 2018
Reduce change to increase improvement

Bypassing current and alternative theories of action may result in patchy take up of a change or a culture of compliance or submission.

The challenge in engagement theory is that it is reciprocal in that the leader must also honour true engagement by revealing his/her own theories of action – thus being able to situate themselves as a part of the problem and the solution.

Dilemma Mapping

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter entitled Dialogic Learning Weekly. It is created by Tom Barrett, a former teacher, and now an educational consultant through his business Dialogic Learning. His work includes learning space design, pedagogical development and leadership coaching. I first came across Tom when he was being interviewed for the Design & Play podcast in 2017. I was captured by the way he was able to talk about thinking deep through dialogue, and his work in creating a culture of innovation in teams and spaces. After connecting with Tom on Twitter, I came across his blog where my interest was piqued in three articles:

  1. Are you transfixed by a proxy for learning? I had just begun my coaching work in school and I was often having the conversations with teachers around engagement & learning. Tom’s words helped me to see that we may often use a placeholder for what we think the learning is. This I believe was the beginning of my interest in evidence informed teaching & assessing.
  2. The spaces you need to innovate Is another thought provoking post by Tom. In this, he identifies design aspects of the spaces we engage with. I was most interested in the temporal space, which happened to coincide nicely with some work being spoken about at school at the time. Piggybacking on his work with design teams, Tom offers insightful provocations that may help in looking freshly at these spaces.
  3. Extending the spaces you need to innovate (Further considerations) This post builds on the original post by synthesising some of Tom’s initial ideas and offering other areas to innovate. 

Needless to say I am a big fan of Tom and his work, and I hope that one day I am able to work with him directly.

In Issue 142 of Dialogic Learning Weekly, Tom introduced me to Dilemma Mapping as a strategic thinking tool to examine opposing or conflicting ideas.

In dilemma mapping, the ideas is that individuals/teams/organisations are dialogically and methodically map the values of contrasting ideas in a chart such as this.

Screen Shot 2019-09-27 at 21.48.02

Dilemma Mapping Representation

Through a series of compromises, conflicts and negotiated requests a resolution may be found that benefits all parties. This is represented in the upper right of the chart. Tom was able to share an image that he constructed to further explain this concept.


A crossover of ideas – Equality, Dialogue, and Inquiry

Here is where the engagement and dilemma concepts merge into two ways to explore innovation and change.

Present through dilemma mapping and engagement theory is the concept equality. While bypass strategies may often be done persuasively, possibly from a power imbalance, true engagement is an transparent approach where current and established theories of action are also examined critically – this includes those held by the leader or change agent.  Rather than fervently holding down positions, participants are encouraged to process their ideas and values through generative thinking and temporary suspension of judgements.

With equality as the fertile ground, dialogue can occur. I believe dialogue to be a shared conversation/s where the acknowledgement that each party involved has a voice and has opportunity to shape and re-shape values, beliefs and ideas. I am sure there are other more concise definitions, but it is apparent that both aspects acknowledge respectful communication and collaboration with a shared goal/s in mind.

This then leads to inquiry. From my understanding, both processes involve revealing the tacit components that drive actions, ideas and behaviours.

As always I welcome your comments on my thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of what I’ve written, and spent countless hours processing this blog post for it to even make sense to me. I encourage you to connect with Tom on his socials, all of which can be found through his website, Dialogic Learning.


References and Further Reading