As an educator, I know that the work we are doing to change education is vitally important for our future success. Most agree that today’s educational organizations are needing some significant overhaul and while there is earnest effort and some amazing pockets of transformation, it is a very big system to shift and the work is uphill and sometimes difficult to define.
I recently came across a piece from Jump Associates called “Thriving in Ambiguity” (2016). They begin by telling the story of a family that goes camping and is need of setting up a tent. They have no instructions, but they have a shared understanding of what a tent looks like and how it functions. It may take them a little longer to accomplish the goal, but they are successful in the end. In education, we are good at solving tent problems. We have a shared understanding of how school should work so we work from those experiences as we problem solve. We may design a more creative tent with some bells and whistles, but it still maintains the basic functions of a tent. What if a tent is no longer meeting our needs?
The other category of complex problems that the article presents are presented as Lewis and Clark finding a path to the Pacific Ocean. While they had a general sense of direction, the path was unclear and they had no idea what they might discover or need along the way. Their problems were ambiguous and ill-defined. Their questions would continuously change and they would need to adapt and pivot quickly. This type of problem solving is what makes up an Exploratory Organization.
In education, we are comfortable with tent problems, however today’s learners are requiring us to solve more ambiguous problems. How might we individualize our instruction so every student gets exactly what they need when they need it? How do we define learning in today’s context? How might we truly embrace equity? Why must we help students become adaptable and flexible thinkers and learners? How might we best prepare them to be a Lewis or Clark? In education, we find the exploratory approach challenging, not because we are adverse to wanting to try something different, but because we have become path dependent.
“Often, the same systems that help companies solve tent problems can prevent them from solving more ambiguous problems. Instead, these problems require intuition and emergent thinking to go beyond what is currently known and reveal something new. As often as they require rigorous analytics, ambiguous problems require leaps of faith.”
So, how do we hold space for ambiguity and move towards becoming an exploratory organization? Jump Associates offer up five characteristics that these companies embrace.
Foster Empathy - “...the best Exploratory Organizations cultivate a rich sense of empathy throughout their teams, enabling them to judge their work from the perspective of those who matter most.” In education we know that it’s our students who matter most however we often solve problems based on what’s best for the adults. The “Shadow a Student Challenge” has recently gained traction and has many educators spending some time walking in the path of a student for a day or part of a day. The insights gained from this experience have been incredible as administrators and teachers come away with a new understanding and empathy for the reality of student learning experiences. How often do we stop and ask students how school could be different? If it’s meeting their needs? Developing that empathy skill is crucial for informing your intuition and helping you make that leap of faith.
Let answers emerge over time - “One of the fundamental benefits of addressing ambiguous problems is unearthing questions that you didn’t even know to ask…” Often in education we want our questions answered immediately. As a teacher, you feel the need to “get through the curriculum” before the end of the school year so you rarely allow students the time to explore curiosity and struggle. As a leader, you have parents, staff, and community who come with constant questions that all feel like they need immediate solutions. While management requires and needs timely answers, there are those ambiguous problems that need space. With the world’s rapid rate of change, how de we best prepare students for an undefined future? What skills will be most important? How do we help teachers adapt and thrive in this constantly changing learning landscape?
Reward the learning, not just the results - “The less a team explores, the more likely it is that it will rehash known ideas.” We sometimes get so focused on the assessment data that we forget to celebrate the journey and the learning that got us there. We are quick to look for explanations and reasons for not succeeding, but even within that data there are critical learning moments. Failure teaches. Are we defining those moments so we can understand and move beyond them or are we just making excuses around student capabilities and environments as we continue the same practices? Are we gathering feedback throughout the process or just waiting for test results? Are we empowering our students as learners and letting them inform our processes? I feel that exploring these questions help us honor and understand the journey to those results.
Create a culture of team players, not individual superstars - “Teams are far more effective in pushing the boundaries of current thinking and bringing multiple perspectives to bear on a problem.” Many of our current school systems offer some type of planning time for teachers. Much of that time is often spent on school logistics and organizing materials. Staff meetings are usually full of need to knows with a few discussion items thrown in so people feel like they are part of the bigger process of district decisions. What does it really mean to build a team? Are we providing time for those conversations and building experiences to foster a team feel? As someone who embraces design thinking processes, I have learned to appreciate the practice of improv. There are many improv activities that take minimal time, and starting a meeting with something that resets the day for everyone and brings people together in a fun and creative atmosphere can completely change the conversations that follow. Our innovative and risk taking teacher often feel alone and on the front lines as they work around those that are resistant to doing things differently. Creating meeting spaces that allow for those deeper conversations give space for those moments of discourse where we can work to understand each other.
Hire hybrid thinkers who can connect the dots between multiple disciplines - “Hybrid people are the rare folks whose expertise and interests cross multiple disciplines.” One of the most important skills that we can help our students with is connecting the dots. So much information is readily available at any given moment that knowing how to assimilate and make sense of it all is critical to our decision making. Our students must have both divergent and convergent thinking skills and so must our staff and administration. We can not silo our thinking but must continually look at our entire system to evaluate how all the pieces are connecting to our overall vision, not just within our own organizations, but to the overall educational system.
Lewis and Clark knew where they were headed, they just didn’t know what the road looked like. I feel that way working in education. We know that our students will need a different skill set that is less about compliance and more about a commitment to learning, but the road forward is a bit foggy. When we open the box of tent pieces, they no longer look like a tent that we’re familiar with. I look forward to the conversations that move us into more of an Exploratory Organization as we work together, with some sense of urgency, to create new roads in education.