Tag: mindfulness

behaviour changepsychologysocial mediasocial systems

My troubled relationship with social media

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Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….

Is it still time to make the donuts?

Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).

However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.

It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.

I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.

But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.

I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.

The river I stand in

This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus

Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.

The same is true for social media.

I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.

But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.

TwitterMonthlyActive 2016-04-01 13.50.14(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)

As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.

Information overload and filter failure

Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful. 

But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.

As journalist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in many different fora, the Internet is changing the way we think.  Indeed, ‘smarter technologies’ are changing the way we live.

This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.

Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.

Emotional pollution and the antisocial media

I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?

Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.

While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.

Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.

What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.

In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.

But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.

Photo credit: Chris Lott Social Media Explained (with Donuts) used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.

 

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Designing for the horizon

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‘New’ is rarely sitting directly in front of us, but on the horizon; something we need to go to or is coming towards us and is waiting to be received. In both cases this innovation (doing something new for benefit) requires different action rather than repeated action with new expectations. 

I’ve spent time in different employment settings where my full-time job was to work on innovation, whether that was through research, teaching or some kind of service contribution, yet found the opportunities to truly innovate relatively rare. The reason is that these institutions were not designed for innovation, at least in the current sense of it. They were well established and drew upon the practices of the past to shape the future, rather than shape the future by design. Through many occasions even when there was a chance to build something new from the ground up — a unit, centre, department, division, school  — the choice was to replicate the old and hope for something new.

This isn’t how innovation happens. One of those who understood this better than most is Peter Drucker. A simple search through some of the myriad quotes attributed to him will find wisdom pertaining to commitment, work ethic, and management that is unparalleled. Included in that wisdom is the simple phrase:

If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old

Or, as the quote often attributed to Henry Ford suggests:

Do what you’ve always done and you will get what you’ve always got

Design: An intrapreneurial imperative

In each case throughout my career I’ve chosen to leave and pursue opportunities that are more nimble and allow me to really innovation with people on a scale appropriate to the challenge or task. Yet, this choice to be nimble often comes at the cost of scale, which is why I work as a consultant to support larger organizations change by bringing the agility of innovation to those institutions not well set up for it (and help them to set up for it).

There are many situations where outside support through someone like a consultant is not only wise, but maybe the only option for an organization needing fresh insight and expertise. Yet, there are many situations where this is not the case. In his highly readable book The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier addresses the need for creating a culture of non-stop innovation and ways to go about it.

At the core of this approach is design. As he states:

If you want to innovate, you gotta design

 

Design is not about making things look pretty, it’s about making things stand out or differentiating them from others in the marketplace**. (Good) Design is what makes these differentiated products worthy of consideration or adoption because they meet a need, satisfy a desire or fill a gap somewhere. As Neumeier adds:

Design contains the skills to identify possible futures, invent exciting products, , build bridges to customers, crack wicked problems, and more.

When posed this way, one is left asking: Why is everyone not trained as a designer? Or put another way: why aren’t most organizations talking about design? 

Being mindful of the new

This brings us back to Peter Drucker and another pearl of wisdom gained from observing the modern organization and the habits that take place within it:

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

This was certainly not something that was a part of the institutional culture of the organizations I was a part of and it’s not part of many of the organizations I worked with. The rush to do, to take action, is rarely complemented with reflection because it is inaction. While I might have created habits of reflective practice in my work as an individual, that is not sufficient to create change in an organization without some form of collective or at least shared reflection.

To test this out, ask yourself the following questions of the workplace you are a part of:

  • Do you hold regular, timely gatherings for workers to share ideas, discuss challenges and explore possibilities without an explicit outcome attached to the agenda?
  • Is reflective practice part of the job requirements of individuals and teams where there is an expectation that it is done and there are performance review activities attached to such activity? Or is this a ‘nice to have’ or ‘if time permits’ kind of activity?
  • Are members of an organization provided time and resources to deliver on any expectations of reflective practice both individually or collectively?
  • Are other agenda items like administrative, corporate affairs, news, or ’emergencies’ regularly influencing and intruding upon the agendas of gatherings such as strategic planning meetings or reflection sessions?
  • Is evaluation a part of the process of reflection? Do you make time to review evaluation findings and reflect on their meaning for the organization?
  • Do members of the organization — from top to bottom — know what reflection is or means in the context of their work?
  • Does the word mindfulness come into conversations in the organization at any time in an official capacity?

Designing mindfulness

If innovation means design and effective action requires reflection it can be surmised that designing mindfulness into the organization can yield considerable benefits. Certain times of year, whether New Years Day (like today’s posting date), Thanksgiving (in Canada & US), birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays or even the end of the fiscal year or quarter, can prompt some reflection.

Designing mindfulness into an organization requires taking that same spirit that comes from these events and making them regular. This means protecting time to be mindful (just as we usually take time off for holidays), including regular practices into the workflow much like we do with other activities, and including data (evaluation evidence) to support that reflection and potentially guide some of that reflection. Sensemaking time to bring that together in a group is also key as is the potential to use design as a tool for foresight and envisioning new futures.

To this last point I conclude with another quote attributed to Professor Drucker:

The best way to predict your future is to create it

As you begin this new year, new quarter, new day consider how you can design your future and create the space in your organization — big or small — to reflect and act more mindfully and effectively.

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** This could be a marketplace of products, services, ideas, attention or commitment.

Photo credit: Hovering on the Horizon by the NASA Earth Observatory used under Creative Commons Licence via Flickr

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The Ecology of Innovation: Part 2 – Language

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Although Innovation is about producing value through doing something new or different than before, the concept is far from simple when applied in practice by individuals and institutions. This second in a series of articles on innovation ecology looks at the way we speak of innovation and how what we talk about new ideas and discovery shapes what we do about it. 

“Language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication” – Abraham Maslow

Innovation is one of the few concepts that offers little benefit contemplated in the abstract. We innovate on specific things with an eye to application, maybe even scaling that idea broadly. Humans innovate because the status quo is no longer satisfying, is unacceptable or has changed so we strive to come up with new ways of doing things, novel processes and tools to make the current situation a preferred one.

Thus, we are designers seeking our client, customer and creation through innovation and we do this through our words and actions — our language. Indeed, if one agrees with Marty Neumeier‘s assertion that design is the discipline of innovation and Greg Van Alystne & Bob Logan’s definition of design as “creation for reproduction” then our language of innovation is critical to ensuring that we design products and services that have the potential to reproduce beyond an idea.

Language matters in innovation.

To illustrate, lets look at how language manifests itself in the communication of ideas using an example from public health. In a paper entitled Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems I co-authored with my colleagues Allan Best and Bob Hiatt, we looked at the way language was used within a deep and broad field like cancer control in shaping communications. This was not merely an academic exercise, but served to illustrate the values, practices and structures that are put in place to support communicating concepts and serves to illustrate how innovations are communicated.

Innovation as product

What we found was that there are three generations of cancer communications defined by their language and the practices and policies that are manifested in or representative of that language. The first generation of terms were traced up to the 1990’s and were characterized by viewing knowledge as a product. Indeed, the term knowledge products can be traced back to this period. Other key characteristics of this period include:

  • The terminology used to describe communications included the terms diffusion, dissemination, knowledge transfer, and knowledge uptake.
  • Focus on the handoff between knowledge ‘producers’ and knowledge (or research) ‘users’. These two groups were distinct and separate from one another
  • The degree of use is a function of effective packaging and presentation presuming the content is of high quality.

The language of this first generation makes the assumption that the ideas are independent of the context in which they are to be used or where they were generated. The communication represented in this generation of models relies on expertise and recognition of this. But what happens when expertise is not recognized? Or where expertise isn’t even possible? This is a situation we are increasingly seeing as we face new, complex challenges that require mass collaboration and innovation, something the Drucker Forum suggests represents the end of expertise.

Innovation as a contextual process

From the early and mid-1990’s through to the present we’ve seen a major shift from viewing knowledge or innovation as a product to that of a dynamic process where expertise resides in multiple places and sources and networks are valued as much as institutions or individuals. Some of the characteristics of this generation are:

  • Knowledge and good ideas come from multiple sources, not just recognized experts or leaders
  • Social relationships media what is generated and how it is communicated (and to whom)
  • Innovation is highly context-dependent
  • The degree of use of ideas or knowledge is a function of having strong, effective relationships and processes.

What happens when the context is changing consistently? What happens when the networks are dynamic and often unknown?

Systems-embedded innovation

What the paper argues is that we are seeing a shift toward more systems-oriented approaches to communication and that is represented in the term knowledge integration. A systems-oriented model views the design of knowledge structures as an integral to the support of effective innovation by embedding the activities of innovation — learning, discovery, and communication — within systems like institutions, networks, cultures and policies. This model also recognizes the following:

  • Both explicit and implicit knowledge is recognized and must be made visible and woven into policy making and practice decisions
  • Relationships are mediated through a cycle of innovation and must be understood as a system
  • The degree of integration of policies, practices and processes within a system is what determines the degree of use of an idea or innovation.

The language of integration suggests there is some systems-level plan to take the diverse aspects within a set of activities and connect, coordinate and, to some degree, manage to ensure that knowledge is effectively used.

Talking innovation

What makes language such a critical key to understanding innovation ecologies is that the way in which we speak about something is an indication of what we believe about something and how we act. As the quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests above, language can also be used to hide things.

One example of this is in the realm of social innovation, where ideas are meant to be generated through social means for social benefit. This process can be organized many different ways, but it is almost never exclusively top-down, expert-driven. Yet, when we look at the language used to discuss social innovation, we see terms like dissemination regularly used. Examples from research, practice and connecting the two to inform policy all illustrate that the language of one generation continues to be used as new ones dawn.  This is to be expected as the changes in language of one generation never fully supplants that of previous generations — at least not initially. Because of that, we need to be careful about what we say and how we say it to ensure that our intentions are reflected in our practice and our language. Without conscious awareness of what we say and what those words mean there is a risk that our quest to create true innovation ecosystems, ones where innovation is truly systems-embedded and knowledge is integrated we unwittingly create expectations and practices rooted in other models.

If we wish to walk the walk of innovation at a systems level, we need to talk the talk.

Tips and Tricks

Organizational mindfulness is a key quality and practice that embeds reflective practice and sensemaking into the organization. By cultivating practices that regularly check-in and examine the language and actions of an organization in reference to its goals, processes and outcomes. A recent article by Vogus and Sutcliffe (2012) (PDF) provides some guidance on how this can be understood.

Develop your sensemaking capacity by introducing space at regular meetings that bring together actors from different areas within an organization or network to introduce ideas, insights and observations and process what these mean with respect to what’s happened, what is happening and where its taking the group.

Some key references include: 

Best, A., Hiatt, R. A., & Norman, C. D. (2008). Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(3), 319–327. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2008.02.013

Best, A., Terpstra, J. L., Moor, G., Riley, B., Norman, C. D., & Glasgow, R. E. (2009). Building knowledge integration systems for evidence‐informed decisions. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(6), 627–641. http://doi.org/10.1108/14777260911001644

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2012). Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing: A Reconciliation and Path Forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 722–735. http://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0002C

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421. http://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0133

*** If you’re interested in applying these principles to your organization and want assistance in designing a process to support that activity, contact Cense Research + Design.

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Of tails, dogs and the wagging of both

Who's wagging whom?

Who’s wagging whom?

Evaluation is supposed to be driven by a program’s needs and activities, but that isn’t always the case. What happens when the need for numbers, metrics, ‘outcomes’ and data shape the very activities programs do and how that changes everything is something that is worth paying some attention to. 

Since the Second World War we’ve seen a gradual shift towards what has been called presence of neo-liberal values across social institutions, companies, government and society. This approach to the world is characterized, among other things, by its focus on personal and economic efficiency, freedom, and policies that support actions that encourage both. At certain levels of analysis, these policies have rather obvious benefits.

Who wouldn’t like to have more choice, more freedom, more perceived control and derive more value from their products, services and outputs? Not many I suspect. Certainly not me.

Yet, when these practices move to different levels and systems they start to produce enormous complications that are at odds with — and produce distortions of — the very values that they espouse. We’ve seen the same happen with other value systems that have produced social situations that are highly beneficial in some contexts and oppressive and toxic in others – capitalism and socialism both fit this bill.

Invisible tails and wags

What makes ‘isms’ so powerful is that they can become so prevalent that their purpose, value and opportunity stop being questioned at all. It is here that the tail starts to wag the dog.

Take our economy (or THE economy as it is somewhat referred to). An economy is intended to be a facilitator and product of activities used to create certain types of value in a society. We work and produce goods (or ideas), exchange and trade them for different things, and these allow us to fulfill certain human goals. It can take various shapes, be regulated more or less, and can operate at multiple scales, but it is a human construction — we invented it. Sometimes this gets forgotten and in times when we use the economy to justify behaviour we forget that it is our behaviour that is the economy.

We see over and again with neoliberalism (which is among the most dominant societal ‘ism’ of the past 50 years in the West and more reflected globally all the time) taken at the broadest level, the economy becomes the central feature of our social systems rather than a byproduct of what we do as social beings. Thus, things like goods, experiences, relations and so on we used to consider as having some type of inherent value suddenly become transformed into objects that judgements can be made.

The role of systems

This can make sense where there are purpose-driven reasons to assign particular value scores to something, but the nature of value is tied to the systems that surround what is valued. If we are dealing with simple systems, those where there are clear cause-and-effect connections between the product or service under scrutiny and its ability to achieve its purpose, then valuation measurement makes sense. We can assert that X brand of laundry detergent is better than Y on the basis of Z. We can conduct experiments, trials and repeated measures that can compare across conditions.

It is also safe to make an assumption of value based on the product’s purpose that can be generalized. In other words, our reason for using the product is clear and relatively unambiguous (e.g., to clean clothes using the above example). There may be additional reasons for choosing X brand over Y, but most of those reasons can be also controlled for and understood discretely (e.g., scent, price, size, bottle shape etc..).

This kind of thinking breaks down in complex systems. And to make it even more complex, it breaks down imperfectly so we have simple systems interwoven within complex ones. We have humans using simple products and services that operate in new, innovative and complex conditions. Unfortunately, what comes with simple systems is simple thinking. Because they are — by their nature — simple, these system dynamics are easy to understand. Returning to our example of the economy, classical micro-economic models of supply and demand as illustrated below.

Relationships and the systems that surround them

supply_and_demand

Using this model, we can do a reasonable job of predicting influence, ascertaining value and hypothesizing relationships between both.

In complex systems, the value links are often in flux, dynamic, and relative requiring a form of adaptive evaluation like developmental evaluation. But that doesn’t happen as much as it should, mostly because of a failure to question the systems and their influence. Without questioning the values and value that systems create — the isms that were mentioned earlier — and their supposed connection to outcomes, we risk measuring things that have no clear connection to value and worse, we create systems that get designed around these ineffective measures.

What this manifests itself in is mindless bureaucracy, useless meetings, pompous and intelligible titles, and innovation-squashing regulations that get divorced from the purpose that they are meant to solve. And in doing so, this undermines the potential benefit that the original purpose of a bureaucracy (to document and create an organizational memory to guide decisions), meetings (to discuss and share ideas and solve problems), titles (to denote role and responsibility — although these aren’t nearly as useful as people think in the modern organization), and regulations (to provide a systems lens to constrain uncoordinated individual actions from creating systems problems like the Tragedy of the Commons).

More importantly, this line of thinking also focuses us on measuring the things that don’t count. And as often quoted and misquoted, the phrase that is apt is:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Counting what counts

It is critical to be mindful of the purpose — or to reconnect, rediscover, reinvent and reflect upon the purposes we create lest we allow our work to be driven by isms. Evaluators and their program clients and partners need to stand back and ask themselves: What is the purpose of this system I am dealing with?

What do we measure and is that important enough to matter? 

Perhaps the most useful way of thinking about this is to ask yourself: what is this system being hired to do? 

Regular mindful check-ins as part of reflective practice at the individual, organizational and, where possible, systems level are a way to remind ourselves to check our values and practices and align and realign them with our goals. Just as a car’s wheels go out of alignment every so often and need re-balancing, so too do our systems.

In engaging in reflective practice and contemplating what we measure and what we mean by it we can better determine what part of what we do is the dog, what is the tail and what is being wagged and by whom.

Photo credit: Wagging tail by Quinn Dombrowski used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks Quinn for making your great work available to the world.

Economic model image credit from Resources for Teachers used under Creative Commons License. Check out their great stuff for helping teachers teach better.

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Bullying, the market for education and the damaged quest for learning

Dark classroom, light minds

Dark classroom, light minds

A recent study found looked into the experience of cyberbullying by university professors at the hands of their students. This disturbing phenomenon points to much larger issues beyond mental health promotion and calls into question many of the assumptions we have about the systems we’ve designed to foster education and what it means to be a learner at university. 

The university is one of our oldest cultural institutions and its instructors are considered to have among societies most respected jobs, even if not always well compensated. In the past, students often approached their professors with a mixed sense of wonder, respect, curiosity and fear and that, in healthy situations, was reciprocated by faculty to create a space where people could explore ideas, learn, and challenge themselves and others to grow. That relationship has started to change as evidenced by the rise of cyberbullying in the classroom.

A recent article in Macleans Magazine looked at the changing state of the post-secondary classroom and the role of cyberbullying. Only this was not about student victims, but students as the perpetrators against their professors. The effects of cyberbullying are crippling and professors are bearing the burden of having hundreds of eyes watching them, writing about them and writing ‘consumer reviews’ about them in anonymous and sometimes unflattering, inflammatory and questionable terms on sites like RateMyProfessor.com .

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that as students age the incidence of face-to-face bullying decreases and cyberbullying increases, which might partly explain why we’re seeing this in university settings when face-to-face bullying goes subterranean. Yet, the notion that professors that are getting bullied by their students belies some other issues that require further investigation, namely those related to the nature of education and the role of students-as-consumers.

Consuming knowledge, producing expectations

If you pay for something, should you not expected to get something rather specific for that experience or product? Aside from some rare experiences of profane/profound personal challenge/punishment like Tough Mudder and its peers or dental work, there are few things we willingly pay for that we don’t derive pleasure from or achieve a very specific (anticipated) outcome.

Education is problematic because we might not know what we’ll get from it going in, what kind of experiences or ideas will emerge, and how our relationship to those experiences will change us. That is its great gift.

Many of us have had profound life changes because of something we experienced through our education and writing as one who has completed four different degree programs and a post-doc I can confidently say that I didn’t receive a lot of what I expected in any of those programs and I am a better person for it. Indeed, if I go to a specific learning event (aside from those focused on a specific technique or technology) I am disappointed if I actually come away with exactly what I expected.

That is part of the point. We don’t know what we don’t know.

But when you start viewing education as a thing that resembles any other market-driven product or services, you begin to focus on learning as a consumable good and your students as customers. In following this line of thought, it makes some sense to focus the delivery of this product on the desires of the consumer.

Increasingly, teachers (of various stripes) are being asked to consider a range of student-related variables in their education. Things like learning styles and preferences are now being woven into classroom instruction and students have come to learn to expect and are increasingly demanding to be taught in ways that match their unique learning preferences and styles. While there is reason to imagine that this approach is useful in stimulating engagement of students in the lessons, there is increasing evidence much of it does little to enhance actual learning. Many of the life lessons we’ve gained that shape what we do and who we are were not delivered in the manner of our choosing, conformed with our preferences and were not desired, expected or enjoyed in the moment. We risk confusing enjoyment with learning; they can be aligned but one isn’t necessary for the other to take place.

However, when we are viewing education from a consumer model, the specific outcomes become part of the contract. If I come to get a degree in X because I believe that the job market demands the skills and knowledge that X brings and I am paying tens of thousands of dollars and spending four or more years acquiring X then I feel entitled to expect all the benefits that X brings. Further, I expect that my journey to acquiring X will be enjoyable, because why would I spend more money than I’ve ever seen on something I don’t enjoy.

Particularly when that is money I don’t have.

A debt to pay

In Canada and the United States, student debt rates have dramatically increased. The Canadian Federation of Students note that Canadian’s attending post-secondary education now owe more than $15B to the Canadian federal government (PDF) as part of their student loan program, a number that doesn’t include debt accumulated from borrowing from banks, family, credit cards and other means. In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the rate of graduate employment has decreased since 2001 and the overall youth unemployment rate continues to be the highest, despite the province having one of the most educated youth population in the country (and arguably, the world). And while Ontario universities continue to promote the fact that education is a better pathway to success, it is a hard pill for many students to swallow when many can’t apply what they trained for and paid for after they graduate.

Satirist John Oliver has an informative, humorous and distressing take on student debt and the state of consumer-oriented education for those who want to learn more.

None of these reasons are excuses for cyberbullying, but it does give a more complicated picture of those that might feel they are entitled to bully others and their reasoning behind it.

What we are seeing is a systems change in the way education is being produced, consumed and experienced. Even the mere fact that we can now reasonably use the language of consumerism to speak to something like education should give us pause and concern. I’ve been involved in post-secondary education for nearly 20 years and there has always been students who simply wanted the ‘piece of paper’ (degree) as a stepping stone to a job and little more than that from their time at school. They were willing to do the work — often the minimum possible — to graduate, but they knew they had to put the effort in to be successful. There was never an expectation that one was entitled to anything from going to school, although that might be changing.

Market identities and education systems

Belgian psychotherapist Paul Verhaeghe has explored the role of identity in market-based economies in his new book What About Me? In the book, Verhaeghe illustrates how we construct our identities as people drawing on the research that reflects (and often contradicts or obscures) the two major perspectives on personality and identity: the person-as-blank-slate and the person as a reflection of the environment. The former perspective assumes we come into the world as we are while the latter assumes the world makes us who we are and both have enormous amount of moral, cultural and evidentiary baggage attached to them.

What Verhaeghe does is point to the ways in which both have elements of truth to them, but that they are mediated by the manner in which we construct the very questions about who we are and what our purpose is. These questions are (for many cultural, historical, economic and political reasons that he elaborates on) frequently market-based. Thus, who we are is defined by what we do, what we own, what we produce, and how we use such things once out into the world and that the value that come with such ways of defining ourselves is considered self-evident. He makes a disturbing and convincing case when one stops to reflect on the way we think about how we think (metacognition + mindfulness) .

When viewed from the perspective of a market, knowledge and its products soon become the goal and not the journey. Indeed, I’ve even written about this in support of an argument for better research-to-action and knowledge translation. Much of the knowledge-to-action discourse is about viewing knowledge as a product even if the more progressive models also view this as part of a process and even more as part of a system. But it is the last part — the system — that we often give the shortest shrift to in our discussions. What Verhaeghe and others are doing is encouraging us to spend more time thinking about this and the potential outcomes that emerge from this line of thinking.

Unless we are willing to talk more about the systems we create to learn, explore and relate we will continue to support Verhaeghe’s thesis and uphold the conditions for the kind of education-as-a-product thinking that I suspect is contributing to students’ changing behaviour with their professors and creating a climate at universities that is toxic instead of inspiring.

Photo credit: Classroom by Esparta Palma used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Check out Esparta’s remarkable work here.

systems thinking

Thinking systemically about systems thinking

Carnaby Street

The Whole and the Parts

Systems thinking is a class of theories, models and methods for understanding human and non-human interactions as seen as wholes instead of parts. This focus on interconnections and relationships is precisely what makes it challenging for many when it comes to systemically considering what systems thinking is all about and the implications of this are many. This post provides an introduction to certain ideas in systems thinking and points to what makes it different than other non-systems thinking approaches to understanding something. 

Perhaps the most popular aphorism about systems thinking is the statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, something borrowed from Gestalt Psychology. That statement is intended to reflect system thinking’s principal focus on the system itself rather than on the actors and actions within it.

It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. For example, psychology might look at why individuals make choices and act and what implications come from those actions. Systems thinking seeks to look at the combined interaction of these interactions as a unified whole.

Boundaries

Fundamental to this way of seeing things is the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are essentially where the differences that make a difference lie. In a closed system, everything that makes a difference is clearly contained and observed within a relatively solid set of boundary conditions. Mechanical systems often function this way, making them simple or complicated in that they have the potential to be understood clearly in terms of causal connections and relations. These systems are more amenable to things like “best practices” where we can reasonably expect similar outcomes from consistent actions.

This kind of systems thinking is not as useful when applied to human systems, because they are mostly characterized as open systems. Open systems are those where the boundaries require some form of negotiation and may actually be in flux.

A general shorthand rule for setting boundaries in this kind of environment is this:

If you find yourself lost over and again in trying to understand where the influences and relationships within the system are, then you’ve probably bound your system too loosely. If you are finding too many influences laying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.

Perspective: Where you sit

Systems are all about where you sit in relation to them. For instance, let’s take the example of family and some of the boundary questions one might ask in understanding this social entity as a system.

  • Firstly, who is family? You could define family as blood relationships. But is that immediate blood relations? For example, If parents and children count, then how do we consider grandparents who are the parents of the parents? Do they count as family when you bound the system? Do great grandparents? Should we use genes and, if so, what level of genetic similarity do we share? Are we all family?
  • Can family be defined socially? For example, if people become family by marriage and that marriage breaks down, does it influence the family system as you define it? What if that marriage ends via someone passing away? What if they are not married at all, but common law?
  • What about the roles that people play? Does an “Uncle” or “Aunt” who are close, intimate friends of the family, but not of blood ties still get included in the family? How about a trusted lifelong neighbour who has been a part of someone’s life the entire time, but was never genealogically connected to anyone?
  • Can our neighbourhood be part of the family?

One can make a case for any of these conditions. In defining a system there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it, just perspectives that are more or less useful and more or less attentive to specific details.

Purposeful systems

The answers to the questions about boundaries also depend on what the purpose of the system is in the first place. Purpose is the means by which we determine the differences and how they make a difference. You can imagine that one could potentially answer “yes” to almost every one of the questions asked above depending on where someone sits in the system and what kind of purpose they see in that system.

Part of thinking systemically about systems is defining the purpose of the system and ascertaining a perspective. That means being strategic about what you wish your systems thinking to support. It is here that much of the use of systems thinking I’ve witnessed breaks down. Organizations seeking to employ systems thinking often jump in without doing the pre-work needed to ground their perspective into some sense of purpose and perspective. This requires a mindful, honest accounting of the perspectives being brought into the discussion and connecting those to the strategic intent of your enterprise.

Being mindful of what one values, what one seeks to accomplish, and what kind of activities your organization engages in (or wants to engage in), and where the reach of your organization extends is a key starting position to thinking more systemically about systems.

education & learningresearchsystems thinking

The urban legends of learning (and other inconvenient truths)

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning simulacrum, simulation or something else?

Learning styles, technology-driven teaching, and self-direction are all concepts that anyone interested in education should be familiar with, yet the foundations for their adoption into the classroom, lab or boardroom are more suspect than you might think. Today we look at the three urban legends of learning and what that might mean for education, innovation and beyond. 

What kind of learner are you? Are you a visual learner perhaps, where you need information presented in a particular visual style to make sense of it? Maybe you need to problem-solve to learn because that’s the way you’ve been told is best for your education.

Perhaps you are a self-directed learner who is one that, when given the right encouragement and tools, will find your way through the muck to the answers and that others just need to get out of the way. With tools like the web and social media, you have the world’s knowledge at your disposal and have little need to be ‘taught’ that stuff, because its online.

And if you’re a digital native (PDF), this is all second nature to you because you’re able to use multiple technologies simultaneously to solve multiple problems together with ease if given the ability to do so. After all, you’ve had these tools your entire life.

A recent article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Psychologist challenges these ‘truths’ and many more, calling them urban legends:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true.

The authors are quick to point out that there are differences in the way people approach material and prefer to learn, but they also illustrate that there is relatively little evidence to support much of the thinking that surrounds these practices, confusing learning preferences for learning outcomes. I’ve commented on this before, noting that too often learning is conflated with interest and enjoyment when they are different things and if we were really serious about it we might change the way we do a great deal many things in life.

In the paper, the authors debunk — or at least question — the evidence that supports the ‘legends’ of digital natives as a type of learner, the presence of specific learning styles and the need to customize learning to suit such styles of learning, and that of the lone self-educator. In each case, the authors present much evidence to challenge these ideas so as not to take them as truths, but hypotheses that have little support for them in practice.

Science and its inconvenient truths about learning

Science has a funny way of revealing truths that we may find uncomfortable or at least challenge our current orthodoxy.

This reminds me of a terrific quote from the movie Men in Black that illustrates the fragility of ideas in the presence and absence of evidence after one of the characters (played by Will Smith) uncovers that aliens were living on earth (in the film) and is consoled by his partner (played by Tommy Lee Jones) about what is known and unknown in the world:

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

One of the problems with learning is that there is a lot to learn and not all of it is the same in content, format and situational utility. Knowledge is not a ‘thing’ in the way that potatoes, shoes, patio furniture, orange juice, and pencils are things where you can have more or less of it and measure the increase, decrease and change in it over time. But we often treat it that way. Further, knowledge is also highly contextualized and combines elements that are stable, emergent, and transformative in new, complex arrangements simultaneously over time. It is a complex adaptive system.

Learning (in practice) resists simple truths.

It’s why we can be taught something over and again and not get it, while other things get picked up quickly within the same person even if the two ‘things’ seem alike. The conditions in which a person might learn are cultural (e.g., exposure to teaching styles at school, classroom designs, educational systems, availability and exposure to technology, life experiences, emphasis on reflective living/practice within society, time to reflect etc..) and psycho-social/biological (e.g., attention, intelligence, social proximity, literacy, cognitive capacity for information processing, ability to engage with others) so to reduce this complex phenomena to a series of statements about technology, preference and perception is highly problematic.

Science doesn’t have all the answers — far from it — but at least it can test out what is consistent and observable over time and build on that. In doing so, it exposes the responsibility we have as educators and learners.

With great power comes great responsibility…?

Underpinning the urban legends discussed by Kirschner and van Merriënboer and not discussed is the tendency for these legends to create a hands-off learning systems where workplaces, schools, and social systems are freed from the responsibility of shaping learning experiences and opportunities. It effectively reduces institutional knowledge, wisdom and experience to mere variables in a panoply of info-bites treated as all the same.

It also assumes that design doesn’t matter, which undermines the ability to create spaces and places that optimize learning options for people from diverse circumstances.

This mindset frees organizations from having to give time to learning, provide direction (i.e., do their own homework and set the conditions for effective learning and knowledge integration at the outset). It also frees us up from having to choose, to commit to certain ideas and theories, which means some form of discernment, priority setting, and strategy. That requires work up front and leadership and hard, critical, and time-consuming conversations about what is important, what we value in our work, and what we want to see.

When we assume everyone will just find their way we abdicate that responsibility.

Divesting resources and increasing distraction

In my home country of Canada, governments have been doing this with social investment for years where the federal government divests interest to the provinces who divest it to cities and towns who divest it to the public (and private) sector, which means our taxes never go up even if the demands on services do and we find that individual citizens are responsible for more of the process of generating collective benefit without the advantage of any scaled system to support resource allocation and deployment throughout society (which is why we have governments in the first place). It also means our services and supports — mostly — get smaller, lesser in quality, more spread thinly, and lose their impact because there isn’t the scaled allocation of resources to support them.

Learning is the same way. We divest our interests in it and before you know it, we learn less and do less with it because we haven’t the cultural capital, traditions or infrastructure to handle it. Universities turn campus life to an online experience. Secondary schools stop or reduce teaching physical education that involves actual physical activity.  Scholarly research is reduced to a Google search. Books are given up as learning vehicles because they take too long to read. It goes on.

It’s not that there are no advantages to some of these ideas in some bites, but that we are transforming the entire enterprise with next to no sense of the systems they are operating in, the mission they are to accomplish, a theory of change that is backed up by evidence, or the will to generate the evidence needed to advise and the resources to engage in the sensemaking needed to evaluate that evidence.

Science, systems and learning

It is time to start some serious conversations about systems, science and learning. It would help if we started getting serious about what we mean when we speak of learning, what theories we use to underpin that language and what evidence we have (or need) to understand what those theories mean in practice and for policy. This starts by asking better questions — and lots of them — about learning and its role in our lives and work.

Design thinking and systems thinking are two thinking tools that can help us find and frame these issues. Mindfulness and its ethics associated with non-judgement, open-mindedness, compassion and curiosity are also key tools. The less we judge, the more open we are to asking good questions about what we are seeing that can lead us to getting better answers rather than getting trapped by urban legends.

Doing this within a systems thinking frame also allows us to see how what we learn and where and how we learn is interconnected to better spot areas of leverage and problems in our assumptions.

This might allow us to make many of our urban legends obsolete instead of allowing them to grow like the alligators that live in the sewers of New York City.