Passion för lärande juni 2019: Problem, dilemman och varma grupper

Är problem och dilemma samma sak? Nej, egentligen inte. Men samma företeelse kan för en person vara ett problem och för en annan ett dilemma. Ordbokens definition av problem tar fasta på ordet svårighet och att denna svårighet är något som det krävs en ansträngning för att komma till rätta med. Enkelt uttryckt, vi vet i regel vad som bör göras, lösningen är tämligen uppenbar, men det är jobbigt att uppnå den.

Ett dilemma är något annat. Ofta handlar det om en svårt val som måste göras. Det som först såg ut som ett ganska enkelt problem visade sig vara ett dilemma – flera motstridiga viljor och krav behöver beaktas.

Nåväl, varför är dessa distinktioner intressanta? Jo, för att de säger något om våra olika förhållningssätt och möjliga angreppssätt när vi står inför situationer där lösningarna inte är givna. Hur vi hanterar dessa situationer har stor betydelse för hur effektivt vi kan lära oss saker och hur smarta lösningar vi kommer fram till. En som forskat i dessa saker är Philip Runsten, verksam vid Handelshögskolan i Stockholm. Han har undersökt vad som kännetecknar intelligenta organisationer.

Runsten skiljer mellan lågpresterande grupper och högpresterande grupper. Det finns naturligtvis åtskilliga saker som kännetecknar dessa olika typer av grupper. Men, en sak som sticker ut är att de lågpresterande grupperna ägnar generellt lite tid, för lite tid, åt att resonera. Man tenderar att alltför snabbt fastna vid en “lösning” och nöja sig med den. Risken är stor att flera aspekter förbises och att lösningen blir kortsiktig. Processen fram till lösningen har inte präglats av någon större reflektion eller tankeutbyte mellan gruppens medlemmar. Istället har en mer eller mindre uttalad hierarki lagt hämsko på idéutbytet. Klimatet i gruppen är kyligt, prestigefyllt och slutet. Mycket energi går åt att hitta fel och ofta lägga skuld på något eller någon. Konstruktiviteten lyser med sin frånvaro.

Den högpresterande gruppen lägger mycket tid åt reflektioner. Man intresserar sig för varje gruppmedlems perspektiv. Man lyssnar på varandra. Man förstår att det som vid en första anblick verkar vara ett problem kanske egentligen är ett dilemma, något mera komplext. Varje gruppmedlem vinnlägger sig om att vilja försöka förstå de övriga medlemmarnas funderingar. Man avfärdar inte, man ställer klargörande, nyfikna frågor, parafraserar, spinner vidare, utvecklar ytterligare aspekter. Tillsammans problematiserar man, utan att ifrågasätta den enskilde idéspånarens välvilliga avsikter. Man drar inte förhastade slutsatser. Man lyssnar färdigt. Man letar inte fel.

I den högpresterande gruppen är eventuella formella hierarkier ointressanta. Allas bidrag har ett värde, alla perspektiv berikar. Det betyder inte att man alltid är överens, eller måste komma överens. Tvärtom. Olikheten i sig blir en styrka och ger fler perspektiv. Konsensus är inte alltid nödvändig. Men, prestigeobundenheten är det. Endast en grupp i vilken klimatet är öppet och varmt kan utvecklas till en högpresterande grupp.

I en lärande organisation, som skolan, är dessa saker – eller borde vara – självklarheter. Men det varma och konstruktiva klimatet som är en förutsättning för den högpresterande gruppen uppstår inte av en slump. Här blir det pedagogiska ledarskapet det helt avgörande. Att sträva efter ett tillstånd, ett klimat där vi med fog kan säga till varandra: “Jag vet att du vet att jag vet att du hela tiden försöker, lyssnar, tänker, reflekterar, är konstruktiv och vill väl.” Endast i en sådan varm grupp kan lärande ske. Lärande är att blotta sig, att tappa fotfästet. Det gör de flesta av oss bara i situationer då vi känner oss trygga.

Passion for learning may 2019: Burying the Quick fix and cultivating the Slow-Grow!

Don’t we just love the quick fix? You know, that immediate, magic and brilliant solution to big problems? Of course we do!  And, true, sometimes they do happen. However, if we are honest, the quick fixes tend to deal with less than major problems – and rarely the big issues of existence. In fact, I believe it is fair to suggest that quick fixes can be counterproductive. Instead of actually solving something in the long run, more permanently, we merely postpone it. And more often than not, the problems grow, fester and tend to be harder to address. So, instead of pursuing the idea of a magic QF, join me on the journey which means burying the quick fix and cultivating the Slow-Grow!

In our line of work, education, we are often in situations in which we provide quick-fixes for people around us. They can be close colleagues, members of staff, teachers and of course our students. Doing so feels nice. Of course it does. We feel appreciated and people value our opinions. All good things for our ego. But, really, that’s pretty much it. For the individuals asking advice we merely supply an answer, a solution, a quick fix, but, in truth, little more.

The problem and the allure of the quick fix are very much the same: instant gratification. A pain relief. A magic pill, a potion to alleviate the headache. But, if we do not stop to reflect about the underlying reasons behind the problem, the challenging situation, we can be fairly certain it will occur again. And, think about it, will the person dealing with the issue be prone to taking care of it in a new way than earlier or will the person be likely to once again seek the advice of the oracle-like quick fix dealer? I think we all know the answer to that question.

So, how do we go about it? How move away from the quick fixing? I truly believe that it is really all down to the art of listening. I am certain that all of us, quite easily, can become better listeners. Moving away from the quick fixes in favour of widening questions that, at least sometimes, will lead to some sort of development. Questions that may turn into ideas that the person will try out and use.

The key for me has been to suppress the impulse to immediately say how I would deal with, or worse, relieve the person of, the problem by handling the situation myself. (That in itself is a very dangerous strategy, a slippery slope, that will only mean that you become a popular trash can for people’s problems). Of course, sometimes certain dilemmas require our partial or full attention, but more often than not the everyday issues can be, and should be, dealt with differently.

So, what have I found now when I to a lesser degree provide quick fixes? Well, it is amazing to see how rapidly my colleagues, teachers and students adapt to the new paradigm! I do not necessarily think they realize the change! They still get pretty much what they want – an idea of the next step in order to move on from the situation they feel stuck in – but instead of me having provided a quick fix they have themselves arrived at an idea, an approach they wish to explore. They are no longer unequipped, passive or alone. Instead they have a tool they intend to try out, actively, and they will get back to me to talk about how things went.

So, instead of merely having been given a quick fix, we have together planted a seed that is likely to grow. An approach which focuses on trying something out, evaluating and then trying again. Without getting the “clearance” or “approval” of the boss. You may, if you wish, call it leadership. Or burying the quick fix and cultivating the slow-grow.

“Okay then, this all sounds neat and great, almost like a quick fix, but talk to us about the drawbacks and failures” you may very well be thinking. And I agree, it is not easy, and the approach really has to be an expression of a genuine corporate culture, in our case a school culture. And in our environment the whole idea of development should be the very core of what we do. And we should all subscribe to the belief that real knowledge is not necessarily passed on from teacher to student, from leader to co-worker, but, more ideally, needs to be experienced. Knowledge that originates in the open minded approach of experimenting, trying, failing, trying again, reflecting, evaluating, is more likely to be lasting. Why? Because it has an emotional foundation.

As I said, listening is the key. Not just casually but really attentively – with an open mind. And this is the hard part. We tend to jump to conclusions, we have a very real need to have a general feeling of control, that we feel in command, that the world around us is properly organised. But very few things in our lives are neatly and conveniently presented. And I think we can all agree that this applies to people in general as well – and perhaps teenagers in particular. We’re all quite crazy and irrational when you think about it!

Life and people are complex and not predictable. So, we need to accept that. And embrace it – when we listen. We need to focus on what the person is saying rather than how it is being said. We need to hold back our own words. What I may have to say when I listen to somebody is really not relevant. Sometimes we tend to put so much energy on what we wish to say that we lose the concentration required to properly listen. Of course, that is not to say that the exchange should be one of a monologue but the conversation that follows, should be one filled with curious questions rather than clever answers. Questions that help the person to be more direct, concrete and precise. Questions that make the person reflect and focus. Not imposing your own quick fixes, but instead being a partner who wishes to share the same dilemma, who will help the person take the next step. But, not by providing a quick fix.

Let me mention an everyday activity that we all engage in, which really has become the mother of all quick fixes. A blessing at times but equally often a real problem. E-mail. How wonderful a concept. You type down something and assign a task to somebody – frequently disguised as a benevolent question. But it is, essentially, a quick fix. How often do we really consider if e-mail is the most suitable means of communication? If the e-mail is to a person we know extremely well and with whom we frequently interact in real life, and the issue is an uncomplicated one – fine. If it is a less than clear matter – it does not have to be a “sensitive” thing – it is quite likely to be better dealt with in person or over the phone rather than via a text. Communication beats information every time. But, yes, it takes a great deal more time – initially. If we are completely honest, how often do we find ourselves spending a lot of of time and energy trying to interpret what the person at the other end of the e-mail chain feels, thinks and really wishes to convey? This is a perfect example where we can bury the quick fix and instead cultivate the slow-grow. Whenever we get an e-mail from someone we know only to a limited degree, and we work in the same building, why not try to really make it a habit to find the person and have a conversation – in real life. Very often I find that mistakes and misunderstandings are avoided. Quite often we talk about other things as well and in that sense we become more efficient than would have been the case with the constant monologues that emails really are.  

I mentioned earlier the need for an emotional foundation. How do we achieve that? As leaders we tend to create and organise our activities in a neat and near-perfect way so that we need not risk losing control. Of course, this is rational and admirable, but not conducive to really understanding the frustration a less experienced coworker may feel. So, what do we need to do? Personally I tend to look to previous experiences as a student. As a young student as well as an adult. In fact, a few years back I participated in an economics course. Apart from being bored out of my senses I had a very real emotional experience of frustration. I did not feel in control! I felt like a teenager again, in school. That experience reminded me of the feeling of unease that many of my coworkers and students feel every day. I believe it has helped me to be a better listener – because I can relate to the feeling of frustration of not being in control.

So, once we feel secure properly employing the idea of the emotional foundation and not quickly providing quick fixes we can break fresh ground. Forming a culture in which we encourage exploration. Questions, curiosity and open mindedness rather than simple answers. When we allow ourselves to reflect and try new approaches we will surely realise that the kind of learning which grows slowly tends to be more lasting. It is time we started burying the quick-fix and began cultivating the slow-grow!