04 December, 2010

Finding Tipping Points

Malcolm Gladwell has written the book The Tipping Point in which he proposes a framework to better understand some complex social changes. In particular he is interested in "How little things can make a big difference". He is keen to identify these little things - aren't we all !!!

Of course in giving examples of his ideas he has the benefit of hindsight which enables retrospective coherence possible. The rest of us are trying to predict the small things that will make a big difference in our present situations - but complex social phenomena are unpredictable in anything but the short term.

Does this mean that we should disregard Gladwell's ideas? Not at all !! I like the notion that we should
    "Pick something small and try it. If it works, extend it. If it doesn't, learn from it."
But what to pick? The Tipping Point suggests that we might consider

(1) Enabling the contributions of  just a few people, but right ones - those who are
  • Connectors - people (and characters*) whose ideas and practices readily influence what they are doing in our area of interest
  • Mavens - people who have extensive knowledge in our area of interest and are keen to share it
  • Salespersons - people who are influential especially in actively promoting and support new ideas and practices
Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Law of the Few - a small number of the right people can make a big difference.

(2) Introducing small things that will make the new ideas and practices "sticky"**, that is, those small things in the situation that will cause a much bigger and sustained uptake of the ideas and desired practices.

Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Stickiness Factor.

(3) Looking for small things in the context (environment, history, purposes...) that will make a big difference in the uptake of the ideas and practices. It could be as simple as making it easier for people to know what's happening, getting the timing right...
In fact Gladwell believes that the context is often largely responsible for what happens and for what we do. He goes so far to argue that we may be far less rational and even less 'ethical' than we might like to think.

He calls this part of his framework The Power of Context.

Finding these small things that can make a big difference is not always easy. Hence the value of the "Pick something small..." idea. Similarly, Dave Snowden advocates "safe-fail experiments" - initiatives that are safe to try on a small scale because they wont be too costly to implement and can be easily undone if they prove unsuccessful.

Three questions
This is a different approach but worth some consideration. So, when we are trying to improve the social and emotional learning in our schools, Gladwell would suggest that there are basically three questions we might ask
Who are the few people who can make a real difference (three types, and don't forget the students themselves!!!)?
What will make it stick?
What contextual changes should we focus on?

* Connectors may be some steps removed from those they influence, eg, pop stars, book or film charatcers
** Stories, myths and legends are often powerful in making ideas and practices "sticky"

01 December, 2010

Behaviour - does Pavlov work?

What do we really believe about how to improve problematic behaviour?

Finding out is easy - just observe our everyday selves in action, and and listen carefully to the way we talk about behaviour - our actual beliefs are revealed in how we talk and act.

So much of the day-to-day talk about student behaviour implies that many of us believe Pavlov was right - it is all a matter of stimulus and response. That is, if teachers (and parents and ...) get the stimulus right then the kids responses will improve.


In this sense there are supposedly two kinds of 'stimulus'
  • the teacher's actions - a multitude of scripts are readily available for almost any situation
  • the so-called consequences of the student's actions 
Students are assumed to have the capacity to make sense of, and respond to, their experiences and adjust their behaviour accordingly. And of course this is true for those students (70- 90%) who have achieved  the an adequate level of social and emotional learning.

The trap!!

But therein lies the trap for schools and their staff:
  • What is logical to teachers may not make any sense at all to some students, hence
  • What works well with many students (~80%) does not work for all, and 
  • What is explicit (obvious) for the teacher may not even be tacit for student - a student may have little or no awareness of issues and expectations
  • It is easy to confuse intelligence with maturity - two students of equal intelligence may have very different capacities to act appropriately in the same situation
In addition, the Pavlovian view often leads teachers to
  • working ON students by trying to get the stimulus strong enough to make the students respond, or
  • working FOR students by making the response for them, or
  • simply NEGLECTING the student if the whole situation is too difficult
Thus, for many of our most problematic students, the Pavlovian approach is unlikely to change things much - it may offer little in the way of learning to those who make poor sense of their experience, and may further entrench problematic behaviour. "Logical consequences" imposed by the teacher may be experienced as simple "revenge" by the student

Is there an alternative to Pavlov?

The answer is yes. It still involves stimulus and response but the role of the teacher is quite different.  The teacher works WITH the student by mediating
  • between the stimulus and the student helping the student make better sense of their experience
  • the student's processing of the incoming stimulus - helps them think better
  • between the student and their response - helps them make a better response
This alternative is known as a mediated learning experience (Feuerstein) involving
  • emotional literacy for understanding self and others
  • thinking making sense of one's experiences and the way to respond
  • social skills for responding
  • habits of mind for self regulation, better thinking and more successful ways of responding
The more problematic a student's behaviour, the greater their need for long term mediation in order to achieve the social and emotional learning required.

The choice

So the choice is yours  -
  • How do you function in your role with respect to your students?  
  • Are you generally  a conditioner or mediator? Under what circumstances? 
  • And are your students experiencing greater well-being and becoming more successful in their endeavours?
  • How might you adjust your practice in order to make a greater contribution?

09 August, 2010

The problem with incentives

Today's solution can be the basis of tomorrow’s problem. 

The Australian Prime Minister has proposed substantial incentive payments to up to 1000 schools which show improvements in student attendance and results (more...). It is generally a good thing to recognise and reward achievements and the intended outcomes of the proposal are highly desirable.

However this is not simply a system-wide recognition and reward arrangement. Offering incentives with a limited number of possible recipients turns it into a competition.  Competition can certainly promote improved performance, as in sport.

At the same time, there can be unintended side effects. In any competition there will be winners and losers. Incentives work best for those who are likely to be rewarded and they tend to become less effective over time unless the rewards are increased. Very few of us commit ourselves to winning Olympic medals despite the ever increasing value of doing so.

To be competitive we need to minimise the factors that reduce our likelihood of success while maximising the factors that increase the likelihood of our success.  Other than luck, our likelihood of success is associated with factors over which we have some control.

The Prime Minister has promised that national criteria will be developed through consultative processes and measurement of performance will be overseen by an independent body. Fairness is important in any incentive scheme. But is this actually possible?

Student attendance and results are closely associated with many factors well outside the school's control including the natural abilities of individual students; family well-being; levels of parental education; and the families’ access to social capital, community resources and so on. But will the selection processes be able to measure the school’s and teacher’s contributions separately from these non-school factors?

If not, it would make sense for schools and teachers to generally avoid students who have additional needs for support and whose families are in distress; whose parents have low levels of education; and who live in communities with limited services, facilities and social capital.

Conversely it would make sense for schools to attract and retain students who have minimal need for additional individual support; whose families are in great shape; whose parents have high levels education and  easy access to material and social resources and services.

The unintended side effect is that the most successful school response to the Prime Minister's proposal could well be to avoid the very students the proposal is intended to assist.

26 July, 2010

Understanding Data

Why we need data

Data is used to construct our knowledge, actions and arrangements. In order to gather meaningful data we need matching concepts and some awareness of the context. A height of 170cm may be "tall" or "short" depending on the person's age, gender, race, group....

The application of data may, or may not, be problematic depending on the nature of causal relationships (if any) involved. For many physical phenomena, cause and effect are consistent over place and time. Thus data can be used to make reliable predictions and transfer best practice.

In most social phenomena, the relationships between cause and effect are not consistent over place and time. This fundamental reality is often masked by the fact that some observations can make sense in retrospect (after the event). The thinking error involved is, "because something can now be explained it could have been predicted before it happened".

Rather the following are often true if the phenomena are complex or chaotic:
  • cause and effect may not be related at all in any meaningful way
  • cause of effect may be remote from each other in place and time
  • cause and effect may be related but also inconsistent over place and time - repeated experiments give significantly different results, or small differences result in very different results
  • despite our best efforts, outcomes are unpredictable, messy

Data and Complex Phenomena
In complex phenomena such as social activity it is common for patterns to emerge in/from the interactions of the agents. That is, the outcomes are better understood as patterns rather than "products".
[Note: It is more appropriate to use the term 'product' in relation to the outputs of a production process, one which can be properly understood in terms of Input-> Process-> Output (product)]

The use of data in relation to complex phenomena is to enable us to identify patterns, trends and opportunities rather than to manage our endeavours as production activities. Understanding the difference between production and emergence is critical in field such as education.

Of course education and similar endeavours uses processes but they are typically iterative rather than linear, as is typical of production processes.

The implications include
  • Fail-safe (fool proof) approaches are rarely available
  • Best practice is rarely a valid assessment despite 'proven' examples
  • Some approaches may generally work better than others but there are always exceptions
  • 'Transfer' of successful practice is not a simple matter - practices need to be continually constructed and reconstructed
  • It is best to try safe-fail experiments - small scale changes that can be easily reversed if they fail to deliver the intended outcomes
  • While using data may be better than just guessing, it is much better to use 'knowledge' based on experience and relationships informed by agreed data
  • Each of the parties has unique knowledge that is critical to the current success of any working relationshi

29 June, 2010

Changing to a Solution Focus approach

There is  a central issue that has challenged me for years:
  • Why is it so difficult to get a field like education to adopt a well
    demonstrated strategy?
The issue is made all the more puzzling by the fact that there are numerous examples of where a strategy (in this case SF) has been used successfully in the field, yet it remains very difficult to achieve wider and systemic adoption. Here is my latest thinking:

Most schooling is currently dominated by the idea of a simple production system
  •  input -> process -> output 
  • curriculum -> teaching & learning -> knowledge and know-how 
Indeed in most places in the world, schools are the last of the great factories. They certainly are here in Tasmania.

On the other hand, SF is based on the idea of a complex adaptive system: one in which 
  • the interactions of those involved result in the emergence (or lack of emergence) of such things as knowledge, relationships, attitudes....
I now believe that the current domination of "production thinking" in education, particularly amongst administrators, makes it  very difficult for education to adopt a  Solution Focus  approach  on a large scale.  

The production model assumes:
  • predictability of outputs and outcomes 
  • transferability of processes ('best practices'), and thus 
  • "justifies" decision making that is remote in place and time.
One the other hand, Solution Focus 
  • is a local and real time strategy 
  • with unpredictable outputs and outcomes, 
  • resulting in  specific situated responses that are 
  • not readily transferable, and so 
  • highly problematic for administrators and governments responsible for
    policy, planning and resource distribution.
Of course, some aspects of schools and schooling can be modelled as production systems. However, most aspects of teaching, learning and improvement are best understood as complex  (emergent, unpredictable...).

In such situations it is best to understand that the challenges involved 
  • are complex, and so are
  • about nurturing the emergence of those things that are desirable in the specific situation
  • likely to be amenable to complexity-based strategies such as Solution Focus
Almost universally, the world wants teachers to change their practices to improve student learning. But teachers are caught in the middle:
  • Good teachers understand the complex nature of teaching and learning and usually respond well to SF.
  • At the same time, teachers are constrained by the erroneous 'production system' thinking of the schools amd schools system in which they work.  
That is, the well intentioned policies and accountability requirements  based on "production" thinking make it very difficult for teachers and schools and school systems to adopt well demonstrated but less predictable strategies.

IMHO, this is why there are examples of individual schools having great success with SF but no school system has yet adopted it as its improvement strategy.

See also an overview of Solution Focus and Nurturing Emergence

07 May, 2010

Understanding the "outcomes" of a restorative process

 It seems to me that it would be helpful to encourage people to consider and report the outcomes comprehensively.  And it will be helpful if those responsible for implementing RP can articulate the real outcomes -  they will need to be able to tell 'the full story' of what was achieved.
From the examples given in the workshop, outcomes can be
  • actions - "apologise", "shake hands", "make restitution", "forgive", "reconcile", "vent"...
  • experiences - belonging, being heard
  • changed relationships - changes in the way in which particular people interact with self and others during and following the meeting
  • learning and insights - a better understanding of how the world and people are, and how they work: cause and effect, flow-on effects, the experiences of others, similarities, differences, motivations,...
  • attitudes - beliefs and feelings that guide judgements and actions in relation to self, others and property
  • life chances - the ability to access opportunities that lead to success and well-being for
  • ...         (these are the one I have managed to identify so far)
And outcomes also need to be considered on a timeline:
  • immediate - e.g., concludes the issue
  • short-term - e.g., retains student at school, avoid the courts, improves the relationship between the student and others,... 
  • long term - life chances - improved likelihood of success and well being
And finally the outcomes will be unique for each of the parties involved: each offender; victim, supporter.... and all need to be considered and accounted for.

28 April, 2010

School Improvement - a conversation

Earlier this year the University of Tasmania advertised several 'New Stars' positions in various disciplines, including one for the Faculty of Education specialising in School Improvement. They couldn't recruit anyone suitable in School Improvement. This would indicate that the lack of expertise in School Improvement may be a much wider issue.
Goldratt has identified a change management strategy based on three simple questions
  1. What to change?
  2. What to change to?
  3. How to cause the change? That is, "By what method?"
Most people are confident about their expertise in relation to Questions 1 & 2, especially in relation to specific changes. The world is full of experts, who know what's wrong and how things should be.
But a gaping void exists in relation to Question 3. This usually leads to attempts to drive school improvement by
  • focusing on outcomes (MySchool, Tasmania Tomorrow...) and/or
  • mandating changes to teacher practices (often based on notions of 'best practice')
 [The continual search for best practices is based on the largely unexamined assumption that 'best practices' are universally best, and are also readily transferrable] 
These approaches tend to make school improvement initiatives
  • disparate
  • episodic
  • inefficient
  • ineffective ('after the horse has bolted')
  • lacking in overall coherence
  • often mutually disruptive: most schools struggle to meet the demands placed upon them
On the other hand, there are a whole range of proven improvement strategies available. However, they seem have little or no traction in the field of Education. Tasmania is ideally situated  to redress this situation.
 Change management strategies worth considering include
  • Action Learning* (Revans,...)
  • Activity Theory (Engestrom,...)
  • Complexity Theory (Snowden,...)
  • Theory of Constraints (Goldratt)
  • Continuous improvement (Deming,...)
  • Sense Making (Weick, Snowden)
  • Solution Focus (McKergow,...)
  • Communities of Practice (Wenger,...)
  • Knowledge Management (combines with complexity theory and sense making)
  • Key Factors (Webb)
  • and even SWPBS (Sugai,...) - as per my recent email
  • ...

The latter two strategies are currently understood to be specific to particular school contexts: the implementation of ICT and student behaviour respectively. In fact,  both have the potential to be generalised in such a way that they become applicable  and useful in improving most aspects of the life and work of the school.
Interestingly, all of these strategies are constructivist and they boil down to being Action Learning in one form or another - not really surprising!!
Thus, there is an urgent and important conversation to be had around the question
  • School Improvement -  by what method?
 And the conversation needs to be fostered at all levels and with all stakeholders.