Tag Archives: pedagogy

Language Shifts and The Snowplow

14 Apr

I was thinking today about the influential book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Lisa Lahey and Bob Kegan. It suggests ways that slight shifts in tone or nuance or perspective can more or less instantly transmute a difficult or problematic context into a productive one.

The shifts come in the realm of language. Lahey and Kegan suggest you can move easily from a way of talking that’s less productive to one that’s more productive. There are multiple pre-fabricated language movements you can make. My favorite example? Complaint.

With very little effort, the language of complaint (limiting) can be modulated into the language of commitment (inspiring). How? Well the leverage point or hinge is to know that both languages have buried in them a sense of values, a longing, an ethics, a desire for a certain way of life, a need to be connected or valued. In the language of complaint these virtuous components are kind of hidden or implied, but in the language of commitment they are the message itself.

For example, let’s say I don’t feel like my boss gives me enough opportunities to take charge of a project, to show what I can do, to stretch, to lead. If I focus on how bad that makes me feel, and if I don’t talk to her about it directly–“My boss won’t let me try anything new, she doesn’t value me, etc”–that’s the language of complaint. But the point here is that wanting to be trusted with leadership roles, that’s a positive thing, that’s a virtue buried in the complaint–and that’s worth talking about. It shows a path towards a different kind of relationship with your boss, one your boss might even like. Or at least be willing to try out with you. Rephrasing in terms of commitment would look something like this: “Hi boss! I would really like to have a chance to lead a project. I feel I can do a good job for the organization, and it would feel good to see the organization supporting my growth. I realize there’s some risk here because I’ve not led a project before. Can we discuss it?”

The second option, though it has the same, as it were, problem-DNA (not getting to lead a project) as the original phrasing, has a different solution-DNA: it posits a completely different world view. One where organizational and individual growth are both possible. As opposed to one where the organization is seen (by the complainer) to proscribe the individual’s development possibilities.

The shift is as simple as using different words! Ok, it’s more complicated than that. Of course, you’re thinking, there is a different way of thinking going on in the two languages. A different way of thinking, a different way of being with people, a different comfort with risk, a different role for the self, a different assumption about what should happen at work . . . a lot of things. It is a language shift, because you are changing the words you use. But much more is shifting, too. In this way it reminds me of downhill skiing pedagogy. When you learn to downhill ski, you are often taught (among other things) to just look where you want to go–that is, you turn your head to face the place you want to go–whereupon your legs and feet and hips and skis and the slope all align as it were magically to get you there. This language shift is like that. You shift your words, and the rest clicks in. The point is you get there.

I will speak to one other point, which seems important, if tangential. One of the things governing the language of complaint is fear; the language of commitment exposes fear to sunlight, and that can be scary. When we complain, something is bothering us. We don’t feel good. But, importantly, there’s the potential of a worse feeling resulting from any action that keeps us from doing anything about it. In our example, the complainer doesn’t like not being trusted to lead. But if he talks about it with the boss, he might find out that the boss really doesn’t think he’s capable. That would be hard to bear. Worse still, if he asks to lead, he might get to lead! And then there’s a chance he might publicly fail. And that would be the hardest to bear of all. Hard enough to bear that even the specter of the possibility of having to experience it keeps the complainer comfortably tucked in his language of complaint, even though it’s no fun either. It’s a known and manageable discomfort.

It would take quite a little bit of introspection for our complainer to catch himself in this loop and work his way out; Lahey and Kegan’s “language” shift offers him an easy get-out-of-jail-free card. He can look back from having successfully led a project and wonder how he got there.


Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part B)

16 Mar

This post is the second part of an excerpt from a talk Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I gave at NERCOMP 2012.  (See Part A for lots of context and links to professional development events, surveys, and road shows).

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (continued)

5. Space and safety matter

Space plays a big role in learning. On the one hand, you need what Amy Edmondson calls “psychologically safe” places to learn: places you can be vulnerable, where it’s ok to be wrong as you work your way through challenging information, where the feedback is appropriate and not threatening. Only in such a space will you feel comfortable surfacing and retooling your guiding assumptions and processing all the wonderful points of tension between yourself and your environment.

But space can also as it were train you in how to interact with the world; in one influential school of thought, the Reggio Emilia model, space is known as the “Third Teacher.” On a simple level, clearly you will do better in an office with good lighting, no ear-splitting machinery whirling nearby, and a comfortable chair than you would do in a kind of smoke-filled, physically dangerous Dickensian sublime. We can go beyond that and point to the kind of activities an atelier-like, art studio might inspire as compared to the classic 1980s-era cubicle farm. In short, if the person designing the space expects you to basically write emails all day, you’ll get a chair and a fixed computer and not much else. If the designer isn’t sure what you’ll be doing, but is inspired by your potential, you’ll get freedom to mix and match various possible components of your work, and work in different phases, in different ways, with different tools, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes alone. The first, proscriptive design boxes you in to a way of thinking and being. The second one is a space that teaches you to be the author of your surroundings and reinforces your engagement in what you’ll do and how you do it.

4. Classroom learning theory and design apply to work, too

Many of us spend a lot of time (rightfully) understanding how people learn best in formal settings; what we seem to sometimes forget is that all the lessons about learning in classrooms can also apply to the workplace. Probably because basic laws of human learning are behind both. That is to say, if intrinsic motivation, active learning, experiential learning, and so forth, are important for adults in one setting, they probably are in other settings, too.

The supervisory relationship is a great example of one aspect of the workplace that is ripe for revision–just as the sage-on-the-sage has lately come under the scrutinizing eye of the progressive pedagogue. If extrinsic motivation, as Alfie Kohn has convincingly argued, effectively kills learning, what does it mean that in the workplace bosses generally tell their reports what to do, even unto the tiniest minutiae? If rewards and punishments don’t work (as Kohn also argues), what is left for the supervisor to actually do in those individual meetings required by the HR department? The same line of questioning may in part explain the surprising results of Google’s internal study on successful management, which found that staff wanted managers who were not subject experts (!), and who didn’t tell them what to do (!), but basically talked to them about themselves as people (!), and asked helpful questions (!), without the ever-present proscription (!).

3. Collaboration helps you learn more than cooperation

In a previous post I discuss at a little more length the distinction in the educational literature between collaborative and cooperative learning and what that means to the workplace.  In short, we think this distinction is crucially relevant.

To summarize, collaboration is how people work together when they have to figure out during the work what the goals and roles are. Communication, feedback, adjustments, and learning are intense. It can only happen for relatively short periods, but it is nonetheless the necessary style of working together used during times of change or when new work teams come together; during collaboration you are building and rebuilding your assumptions about the world. It’s transformational.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is when everyone knows the goals and their roles, and interactions are less intense and more predictable. It’s used during periods of stability, when the nature of the work is relatively static; it reinforces existing assumptions about how the world works and so doesn’t tax the mind or the social dynamic. It reinforces and comforts. It’s transactional.

We think the workplace will need to increasingly encourage open collaboration if it is to constantly rethink itself. But we recognize much of work will remain cooperative, even in a learning organization; so what we expect is an increased sophistication in the workplace in thoughtfully adopting and supporting the right approach in the particular context.

2. Individual and team learning are linked

Have you ever experienced that common phenomenon where you go to a great external learning event of some kind, you feel yourself evolve new skills and a new outlook, you return to work ready and excited to be a different and better person, it all fizzles, and you’re dragged back down by the culture into the way things always were, just like Al Pacino in Godfather III?  Or the reverse phenomenon, also common, where the team decides it wants to do something wonderful, but the individuals resist, effectively continuing in their moment-to-moment actions their routine behaviors, and nothing happens?

If, as we suggest above, individuals and teams operate according to hidden programs that are formed and exert control on a subconscious level, and if these programs essentially interlock when we’re at work, then this makes sense. You can try to change your program, but your colleagues and your team are invested in doing things the same old way, and part of that investment is in you being the same.

For this reason, we think the most effective learning organizations will find ways for teams and individuals to change simultaneously: for the team to serve as the safe place for all its members to work on their improvements, while at the same time, the improving individual members of the team work collectively on improving how they interact and perform as a unit. Easier for me to let you explore a different way of being if you’re letting me do the same, etc.

1. We need to invest in learning.  And view learning as an ecosystem.

If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you’ve probably sensed our main idea: that we should increasingly cultivate the learning in our organizations—individual and team—as we might a beautiful garden, the growth of weird worms on deep-sea sulfurous vents, or other complex ecosystems.  As if it were a system as complex as our computer networks or library circulation systems.  The Kellogg Foundation developed a famous “Logic Model:” a way to visually represent your organization as a kind of machine of production—we think we’ll soon be developing logical learning models or other similar attempts to represent visually the sophisticated learning and development in our organizations, looking for ways to connect the various little dots and dashes of learning here and there into a coordinated and healthy whole. The learning dashboard, if you will.

This will require us to think differently—to put the system of our learning up on the boardroom wall along with the other systems we manage. To dedicate people to the development and management of the learning, to set new kinds of metrics, to design and implement changes and assess their effect, and so forth, just as we currently use a variety of systems engineers and wiring staff and supervisors and external auditors to maintain and grow and improve our digital connections to each other.

Which means we need to be ready to invest. Schein notes that a learning culture requires that part of the culture look at the culture, which is to say that there needs to be at a macro-level a new kind of feedback loop that we currently do not have. Google is famous for allowing its staff one day a week to explore their own interests: such a 20% investment of the resources of the organization, we think, might just be about right.

If that seems like too much, compare the resources we give to the development of a student in formal education. Take one semester in college and add up the dedicated teachers, the carefully constructed curriculum that connects modularly with all sorts of other curricular pieces, the support staff working to help the teachers be more efficient, the carefully maintained physical spaces, the psychologically-safe learning group, the supporting course materials, the variety of advisory staff ready to help the individual learner, the multitudinous levels of feedback available to the student, the surrounding culture and expectations of learning, and so on. By comparison the average staff member might get say .01% of that–a 2-day conference per year and a book.

Which is not to say that we should retool work to be just like formal education. But we should expect the investment of our resources in work-based learning to begin to come closer to what society invests in formal learning. For the things we will need people to learn on the job in a continuously-adapting organization that is proactively engaged in an environment of constant and complex change will perhaps be even more difficult to learn than the things students generally learn in the classroom.

Pedagogical Space and Political Space

18 Jul

I am reflecting on the difference between pedagogical and political space. I tend to prefer the former; I don’t think you can escape the latter. My thoughts below.

Pedagogical space is where people organize themselves to learn. It has what they call “psychological safety.” You can be vulnerable and wrong. In fact, that is the point–to be wrong, to reflect on it, and to adjust. You do messy things like encounter challenging new information and try to make sense of it, or surface your assumptions (things you believed but didn’t know you believed) and adjust them. All with a group of people doing the same thing. There is multi-directional communication, but it isn’t out of control: everyone gets a chance to (and has to) talk; no one person dominates. Reflection and feedback are the coins of the realm. Not just “I love it or I hate it” feedback, but careful, generative, constructive feedback that tells you what you understand well and where you can think a little bit more. File assessment under the feedback category: in pedagogical space, assessments are going all the time–informal, formal, and in-between–of your learning, of the group’s learning, of the teaching, of the interaction, of the value of the information the class is working on, on the goals of the course. Oh, and you buy in and have say, but you also have responsibilities. You have the chance to CHOOSE to be in the space, and to choose the particular way you’ll go about your learning (from a discreet list, likely), but you also have to help uphold the norms. Pedagogical conversations incline towards wondering–sharing data with proposed interpretations. Finally, pedagogical space leaves more capacity in its wake (because people learn, are more developed, have relationships, know better how to learn).

Political space is different. The goal isn’t to learn, it’s to influence or control. Communication is generally unidirectional–from the person who wants to do something to the people who are suposed to let her; the communication is minimal (just enough to get approval) there is little chance for feedback. When feedback happens, it’s stilted, shrunken, a critique (with an ulterior purpose) or a sycophantic agreement. There is less choice–you’re there because it’s your job, say, or it’s the place you use to tell people what to do. Vulnerability is to be avoided (because people will use that to divert your plans), and the last thing you want to do is reflect on your own assumptions. You also desire not to be wrong, and not to admit it if you are. Your gaze is outward, towards the external world you intend to change. There is no real assessment of the team or its conversation or its purpose–if there is assessment, it’s usually of the product of the work of the team. Political conversations incline towards the dogmatic–positions or interpretations without evidence. And, finally, political space leaves the same or less organizational capacity in its wake.

Having said all this you probably can’t have all one or the other, and any group or conversation probably only leans one way or the other. Neither is completely bad or good. Political space, for instance, is what you want when you don’t need to learn, but just need to act. It’s efficient. On the other hand, if you want your team to do some new work it’s never conceived of before, or grow in some important way, or takle a challenging new problem, political space isn’t going to work on its own. Political space does seem to be the societal default, but it doesn’t need to be; by contrast, it seems the great leaders use pedagogical space to great advantage to convey their message. One thing that does seem clear: the people involved need to know what space they’re in. A part of the team following the rules of one when the rest of the group is in the other would be awkward. So maybe the ultimate goal is to let the team pick the one you want based on what you are trying to do, and be open about it.

The Conduit Metaphor

13 Oct

Kurt Fischer noted (in passing, at a Mind, Brain, Education Institute) that the Conduit Metaphor of Learning is defunct. This is the idea that education is essentially a kind of pipe whereby knowledge travels from the mouth or mind of a more- to a less-learned person. That the learner is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Learning, it ends up, is actually much more complex. And knowledge is apparently not a paper package of data tied with string moving across the meat counter. Which is just as well, because the Conduit Metaphor taken to the extreme leads to students thinking of the “product” of their learning as a purchasable thing, like a refrigerator, and the instructor as a functionary, and they (the students) as having no role in the construction of the refrigerator, whereas in reality they must fabricate their own compressor.

The Conduit Metaphor also governs how IT and library staff interact with our communities. It’s ready to be replaced there, too.

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

The Conduit Metaphor might be OK in a static world. But the world is not that. If there was ever an age when people were willing to be pigeon-holed, it isn’t now. If there was ever a time you should be feverishly looking for ways to build community with your academic community, to be seen as people engaged in learning, it is now. Now is when your library and IT staff should use every opportunity they can to learn about how to be relevant and meaningful in the digital age. The conduit doesn’t help us do this, and so we must emerge from the conduit.

What does service in the post-conduit age look like? Efficient online help tickets? Artificial intelligence-based answering machines instead of staff? Probably not.

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.

There won’t be a community over there and a service organization over here and a box office window in between with the sliding door seemingly always either closed or about to close. There will just be a community.

A few thoughts by way of postscript. I suspect some base fear is behind all this desire to protect ourselves from the community. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous and pernicious slippery-slope fear of being overrun by a horde of ravenous users, checking out all the books! or asking for more help than we can give!, making us work too much! (For my part, I say let your users overrun you. It means you’re meaningful.) The great gift of the bureaucratic mentality is to milk the Conduit Metaphor of Service Provision almost infinitely to stave off users from disrupting the administrator with their needs. One can even reason oneself right into wishing for what I call the “Administrator’s Dream,” which is–a sad Holy Grail–to find a way to provide a service to no users. The other day I heard it said that library staff love more the book on the shelf than the book in the users’ hand (I really don’t think this is true, but if it were, it would be an example of the Conduit Metaphor taken to a pathological extreme–the Closed Conduit).