Inductive Program Development: Rules and a Corollary

31 Aug

I think we often approach new programs or new interventions or just any new thing in what I think is a backwards way. We want to have it assigned or endorsed or approved or deduced from overarching principles before we do anything. Or we want to have it fully planned out.

Maybe we are trained to think this way as children by watching parents and teachers, who often seem to have everything worked out in advance. The curriculum is in place before the first class starts; Dad knows what’s for lunch before I even know what lunch is, etc., so we start to get a sense that somebody somewhere thinks everything through, that this is the way it always works, that there is a kind of overarching superstructure of planning approval or procedural rectitude maintained by a select group of mysterious people, maybe, which might be symbolized like Justice or Liberty by a statue of a woman in a billowing robe holding in this case not scales but a Gantt chart, etc.

The problem is, I don’t think you can really plan like this very often. In any human environment there are too many moving pieces, too many interconnected, inter-influencing nuances to be able to sort and distill. The times you can prepare exhaustively are outweighed by the times you can’t by a ratio of 2041 to 7, according to my figures. But the feeling of needing to apply procedural rectitude, which works well for the 7 things, still hovers over the 2041 things, and that tends to be detrimental. “You want to do what?” People are always saying. “And you haven’t taken into account this particular detail I just thought of?” Whereas what they probably should be saying, 2041 times for every 7 times they don’t, is “How could we possibly know all the possible variables and outcomes? Let’s try it out!”

I am here to advocate the opposite to this top-down approach: what you might call Inductive Program Development, which has three rules (one of which is also a principle), an unexpected effect, a corollary, and a literary referent. The basic idea of Inductive Program Development is that instead of waiting to establish a direct line between a conceived action and high-level principles and permissions, answering all possible questions, you just see if you can do a little bit of it. Not a whole lot of it, mind you, but just enough to prove whether it works or not, which is rule one: just dip in your toe.

Inductive Program Development replaces the pre-planning and vetting always expected by everyone with a different criterion, which I call the neatness principle, and this is rule two. The neatness principle decrees that if somebody says “Wouldn’t it be neat if we did Z,” then that means you definitely should do Z. As fast as you can, before you convince yourself not to. That was rule number three that just went by: act fast.

You want an example. OK. One day you’re walking down the street and you think, Wouldn’t I love to take a class on amazing and novel subject X? But X doesn’t exist or isn’t offered? And I’m not qualified to teach X? And there is a process through which new courses must go to be approved? And maybe I’m not really even in the education sector at all? OK. Render unto Caesar: let the normal processes be followed wherever that needs to happen pursuant to X coming to be understood by all as a good thing. In the meantime, somewhere else away from that place, you should just write the X syllabus. Maybe with a colleague. Then find someone to take the class with you. Maybe it’s not a class per se. Maybe it’s more like a club at first. Maybe it’s a syllabus draft at first. In any event, writing it would be fun, and make you learn more about it, and afterwards you would have a more structured idea about what X is and how to go about learning X. And if people started taking your class with you, you would have some data towards the validity of the syllabus that might then influence the course approval process.

Which brings me to the unexpected effect. By a weird transmutation of the laws of physics that happens in the Inductive Program Development approach, by not waiting for a thing to be approved or connected to the strategic plan, you usually end up actually discovering that very connection or influencing that approval. If you just do a little bit of the thing, you’re learning more about it, you’re getting information that lets you iterate and improve it, you’re able to reflect on it, you’re forming all sorts of connections and associations, you’re continuing to live and see how it might fit into other areas, and you’re working your way into procedural rectitude, backwards, through the emergency exit. Similarly to writing the outline after you write the paper.

Can I just say that the paper with the ex post facto outline almost has to be a better paper than the one with the outline a priori? But I digress.

Inductive Program Development corrects a gross unfairness that has been perpetuated forever. People when they look at your cute little activity without any plans around it are wont to judge it by comparing it to a fully-fledged plan, yet that is an asymmetric and unfair comparison. What they should compare the fully-fledged plan to is the plan you will subsequently induce from and around your cute activity. When you’re in inductive program development mode what you’re doing is committing to string together an activity with associations and thoughts and experience and perhaps other activities and future plans and principles and feedback in an cyclical way, like drafting a paper, until you have produced a beautiful and comprehensive program that is already actually in effect and doesn’t need to be approved. This is how you should see your little test: not as an isolated, whimsical or willful, unexpected, and disconnected thing, but as a thing that will have its connectedness grown around it organically as you go forwards. It is by the value of the connected and comprehensive program it will one day become that your program should be judged–that’s where your program can be compared fairly to the 7 plans fully fleshed-out according to the laws of the billowing-garmented specter of preparatory rectitude, etc. And your program will actually triumph in that comparison, because, as I said, you really can’t plan for everything and so you have an advantage–you aren’t limited to what you can think of in advance, but you’re spurred by actual life to observe and record and reflect upon the complexities and vicissitudes and swirling saliences of human activities as they happen and grow and inter-engender each other. I’ve belabored this a bit too much.

Let me go back to the neatness principle for a second. By going with somebody’s instinct that the thing will be “neat,” you’re building in intrinsic motivation and learner-centric learning into the activity. You’re also privileging curiosity and risk over stability, though the risk is mitigated by the keep-it-small rule. You’re telling people “our primary purpose is to experiment with and engage the world around us. And figure out how to make it better; not be guardians of similitude.” You’re building into the environment discovery, wonder, creation, and you’re removing obstacles to these. The more I think about it, the more that feeling of “it would be neat if . . . ” or “what would happen if . . .” (which is another way to say it) seems to be the beginning of everything good. I should blog about that.

When you think of everything that is laudable about developing a program in the inductive way, you might ask yourself why we ever plan the other way. Why we would bother to try to understand all things in advance and not just jump in and know we’ll work it out later? Witness Tolstoy, who in War and Peace suggests that in repelling the Napoleonic invasion, the most effective people were those who didn’t try to understand or make sense of things happening around them but just acted according to their self-interests, in their local theater of operations, according to their skills and knowledge. (This is the literary referent.)

I won’t go so far as to say we shouldn’t ever plan. Or imagine how things will unfold. Or visualize the future. (Ha!) Of course we should! But we should also be OK with plans that are more like a documentation of wonder than a prediction thereof. A plan can be more like an ethnographer riding in a sidecar, if you will.

And now to the corollary, which I offer in place of a conclusion. It’s an adaptation of the 80/20 rule, which famously says that everything is mostly something. My adaptation of this, which you might call the Wedaman rule, is that what you’re doing is 80% OK. You already know most of what you need, most of the things you do will be good, most of the times you take risks you’ll succeed; if you jump in, you’ll be 80% fine. So try it out!


3 Responses to “Inductive Program Development: Rules and a Corollary”

  1. Barbara May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    And while this kind of flies in the face of backward design, the only design principle I can tolerate because I feel free to design toward a goal without other prescriptions, it describes what I just about always did in the classroom. Most of my teaching was a series of small failures that were a lot of fun and in which we learned something even if the original plans went awry. I’m not afraid of that kind of failure in education (probably why I can tolerate Second Life still). I always had an initial “wouldn’t that be neat” moment and dove in and never regretted it. I don’t think it pleases people whose job it is to review your teaching to try to figure out why you are always trying something new, and so I moved where it made more sense–faculty development and instructional technology. It’s too bad that this isn’t the norm in education; maybe it is in kindergarten and we could take a lesson from that, and an afternoon nap.

    This must be reblogged.

  2. Barbara May 24, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    Reblogged this on Mostly Technology & Teaching and commented:
    A nice alternative to thinking from the end backwards, and a thumbs up for those of us who just like to dive in and see what happens.

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