Thinking Developmentally About Social Issues

Thinking About Development or Being Consumed By Linear Progress?

An often unstated assumption in efforts to provoke change in complex, developmental environments is that people are primed to think in those terms. That might be  a false assumption and the reason why concepts like developmental evaluation are so hard to take root. 

Difference is hard to grasp. So too, is development. Add the two together and you have a real problem. This is an opinion I’ve formed through my work in complexity science, education and health promotion.

We humans are great at categorizing things. Our eyes are in the front of our head and our bodies are designed for forward movement so we are biologically positioned to look forward. Over the last few centuries, forward has often been linked with progress. Forward imposes a directionality to it and progress imposes an evaluative standard. But what if what we were dealing with in social issues had neither of these assumptions proven right?

Romantic relationships provide an example. Classic literature to pop culture typically present relationship narratives as linear (e.g, characters meet, date, fall in love, get married, buy a home, have kids, grow old together…), which has the effect of imposing an enormous burden of expectation on society that seems out of sync with the manner in which we live as human beings. Why can’t relationships come into being, intensify, draw back, morph, fade and grow simultaneously?

There are many healthy relationships out there and the one described above might only be one example rather than the standard. The problem is that we seek to create standards — best practice – and impose these standards when they might be ill-fitting to the circumstances or context. They don’t take into account development or contextual differences, nor do they appreciate complexity.

We do this with education too, assuming that people all learn the same way. Consider the absurdity of lumping all kids together in grades based on age. Is it reasonable to assume that because you and I were born the same year that we will learn content and evolve our knowledge base about the world in the same way? We put kids (and adults — even graduate students) in rows and talk at them for hours hoping that they will all absorb knowledge and do the same thing with it. That might explain why many students struggle and teachers get frustrated.

Thinking developmentally means attenuating oneself to nuance, punctuated learning, ongoing feedback, and inconsistent behaviour. I don’t blame people for wanting to impose a simple cause-and-effect narrative on the world, but doing so doesn’t mean its useful. As I’ve argued elsewhere, unless we consider changing our thinking we may continue to spend time devising ways to do what systems thinker and management leader Russell Ackoff called “the wrong things, righter”.

It is one thing to complain about this, but another to do it. And it is here that the lens needs to be turned back on us systems thinkers and developmental evaluators or designers. Perhaps it is time to stop assuming that people think this way and shift it towards assuming the converse, yet adding that people have the capability to think this way. Of course many will surprise us by already thinking in terms consistent with development and find it very comforting, but that exception will delight us rather than inspire frustration at the thought of “why doesn’t everyone else think like this?”

With so many social narratives that point towards linear thinking about the world we should not be surprised when we find something akin to psychologist Abraham Maslow‘s often paraphrased sentiment:

When the only tool you own is a hammer, pretty soon every problem resembles a nail

A developmental perspective on things, supported through concepts like design thinking, systems thinking, and creative education and learning is something that isn’t standard in our work, but perhaps should be. Building these muscles, much like a good personal trainer does with his or her client, requires attuning oneself to where a person is at and what kind of space they are in to work.

As this 30-day blogging challenge exploring social innovation, design and creativity continues so too will this discussion. It will be, developmental.




** Photo titled dimensional change by alasis used under Creative Commons license from Flickr

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