Sunday, December 5, 2010

When to ask divergent questions

What's the point of reading a blog if you can't apply what you find?

Application is the subject of the third question: When does it make the most sense to ask divergent questions?

As a facilitator, I probably ask too many divergent questions, just because I like to get people thinking and generating ideas. But as a teacher (and a manager of the time of others) I see two distinctly appropriate "times": early in a process, and any time you are stuck.

Early in the process
This use is almost too obvious, and there are just too many benefits to do anything else.
-Ask a divergent question to generate fresh ideas: "What are some of the ways that we could drive additional revenue?"
-Ask a divergent question to get the juices flowing: "If you had unlimited resources, what kinds of things might you do to attack this problem?"
-Ask a divergent question to get people involved in whatever you are trying to accomplish: "What do you think might make a difference?"

Nothing you can do as a leader has a potentially more positive impact than asking a divergent question to open a dialogue (or a "multi-logue"). So start the process with a divergent question, carry out whatever process you have in mind, and go to closure by asking a convergent question.

For re-starts or re-groups: When you get stuck
Your conversation (or meeting, or class, or negotiation) has gone awry. You have hit an impasse, or an obstacle, but you are not ready to give up. You need to clear the air. Or you need to change the subject. Ask a divergent question: "If you were not sitting in this room working through this, where might you have been today?" Or, if you are the more serious type: "What are some of the ways you can imagine that we might come to an agreement?"

So finally, 4 posts later, that's the core I have to offer on divergent and convergent questioning. What do you think?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Divergent Questioning: Why?

If you think about these last few posts, you probably already know the answer to this question. We need divergent questions to break out of a rut, to open up the consideration of new solutions.

Recall the counter situation: You have a system, or you have a solution, and you are happy with it. You know your current approach works; you just don’t know why one particular part is not functioning the way it was a week ago. Most likely, you want to focus, to zero in on the location of the problem, look at anything that is directly relevant to the problem, find the most likely cause, eliminate other likely possibilities, and solve the problem.

In this situation, you use convergent questions:

• Where and when is the problem occurring?
• Where and when is it NOT occurring?
• What are the possible causes?
• What possible causes can you eliminate?
• …and a few more questions that narrow down to the solution.

You use these convergent questions because you like your system, and you’re not seeking to change it; you just want to find the problem and fix it. An example might be the IT help line, and the technician who is paid to identify (and fix) the problem that is keeping a user from being able to do exactly what the system was created to do.

Let’s suppose, though, that the problem you have been hired to solve is that the current approach is not getting results. The system is working the way it is supposed to work, but the end result isn’t there. For example: everything in your racing car works, but you’re not winning races.

This is a different kind of problem, and looking for broken pieces isn’t going to solve it.

Instead, you’re going to have to revisit the results you want. Instead of focusing on the system you put into place, you will probably need to look at the problem again. And that’s why you need divergent questions: you need to look at the situation more broadly, or from a different perspective.

So if everything in the car is working, what might be some reasons we are not winning races?

This line of thinking is pushing us toward the last question about questioning – the subject of the next post: When, in a group session, might be a good time to use a divergent question?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Divergent Questions: Another Kind of Power

If you have been following the last couple of posts, you know what's coming next: making the case for the power of divergent questions.

What is a divergent question?
Think about Frost's "The Road Not Taken": Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... Divergence is the possibility of difference, of going in different directions. When we are talking about questions, we're referring to a question that can reasonably generate a variety of responses. For example:

How might we approach this problem?

Do you hear the intention behind that question? It acknowledges that there is more than one legitimate answer. We can imagine a facilitator asking that question to start a discussion about multiple possibilities. As a result, this question encourages broader thinking.

We need to answer three questions about divergent questions:
1. How do you phrase them?
2. Why would you bother?
3. When do you use them?

How to phrase questions intended to generate divergent thinking
This is the easiest part. In terms of the wording, the difference between convergent and divergent questions is subtle; in terms of the response, the results are worlds apart. Divergent questions are open to multiple responses. That's it. The easiest way to make that happen is to take a convergent question and insert a "do you think" in the middle:

Convergent: Who is the best actor on the stage today?
Divergent: Who do you think is the best actor on the stage today?

Never mind that the question, even phrased convergently, was asking for an opinion. What we're after is phrasing that opens up the discussion.

Here's another way: Change present-tense verbs to "might":

Convergent: What type of therapeutic intervention would help this child?
Divergent: What type of therapeutic intervention might help this child?

The key in phrasing is that our purpose (as described in the last post) is to use the kind of question that is right for the situation and the part of the discussion process we are in.

This is getting long again. Let's look at the why and when in another post.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Convergent Questions Have a Role

OK, so that last post took a while to get to the point. This one will be different. I’ll give you the main ideas right up front, so you can decide whether you’re interested in hearing more:

• Convergent questions are a great way to nail down the facts.
• They are like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about, in that they enable you to get an answer and move on.
• Because of those strengths, they have some limitations.
• Chief among those limitations is the tendency to stop the thinking of others, particularly creative thinking.
• What are the implications for teaching, and for a facilitator who wants to get discussion going?

Convergent questions nail down the facts. Do you watch David Gregory on "Meet the Press?" He has grown significantly in his ability to challenge his guests, and much of it has been based on his use of convergent questions to "cut through the bull." He asks a political candidate exactly what programs should be cut, and the candidate goes into the spiel about how priorities will be set. So David asks again, narrowing the question even more, "OK. So can you name one example of a program that you think should be cut?" Whether the candidate answers or not, the question focused the dialogue on specifics - a really good way to get at facts, or to determine that they are missing.

Convergent questions act like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about. Debates about issues, discussions about complex topics, and graduate theses all have something in common: they can easily go pretty far afield. In each of these situations, there should be room for that kind of dialogue. At some point, though, we want to move to closure or action. Enter convergent questions and the "up or down vote": are we going to do this, or not?

In “calling the question,” convergence works by stopping the far-ranging thinking. We are asked to vote, to decide, to choose. Yes, I agree with your thesis, or OK: I want the blue one, or Yes, we’ll change the assumptions about health care. Case closed; issue decided – at least for now. And we move on to another challenge.

So, if we are trying to make a decision, and if we have already examined our alternatives, it may be time for that convergent question, time to get the parties involved to literally converge on an answer.

On the other hand, when we begin with the convergent question, we may produce the opposite of convergence; that is, we may polarize. By polarize, I mean invite individuals or groups to take positions, positions which they will now focus on defending. The open discussion and mutual problem-solving may now be over. Fisher and Ury, in their Getting to Yes, a best-selling study of negotiation a couple of decades ago, identified this dynamic as counter-productive, although not always avoidable.

What are the implications for a classroom or for the facilitation of a learning process more generally? Let me address that question with a story.

I attended a presentation recently in which a colleague facilitated a discussion of training methodology among a group of about 20 peers, most of whom were experienced instructional designers. Even under the best of circumstances, a presentation to peers with similar experience to one’s own can be one of the most challenging to make, surpassed only by the openly hostile audience. When brought in as the “expert” among novices, one can take the role of the diagnostician, asking specific, convergent questions, and presenting, or leading the group to a conclusion. Not among peers, though, and probably not in a session intended to be “a sharing of experience.”

What happens when the facilitator in a peer-oriented session asks a lot of convergent questions?
Example 1
Take a look at the evaluation form in the back of the handout before we start. What do you notice about this evaluation form that’s unusual?
Participant thought:
Hmmm….looks pretty straightforward. Lots of questions. Not that different from what I use, except maybe for these questions about “my participation.” That might be what this facilitator is after. But I’m not sure that I want to be the guinea pig here…why doesn’t the facilitator just make the point?

Example 2
Let’s start with your design process. How do you go about defining what you’ll do in your session?
Participant thought:
That could be a loaded question. We may be on the same wavelength – starting with the outcomes & results I want; or this facilitator may be setting us up for a whole different approach. I don’t want to be the one who becomes the counter-example here.

This line of questioning is not going to generate a lot of discussion. A shame, because discussion is what the facilitator really wanted. There was no hidden agenda. The facilitator just didn’t know how to tap into that reservoir of experience in a way that would open up the floodgates of ideas. Instead of engaging my interest in the topic, the facilitator invited me to play a game of GWIT: Guess What I’m Thinking.

Alternatives? Sure – for another blog post. The key point here is that effective questioning is a function of multiple variables – the situation, the nature of the relationship between facilitator and participants, and – most important – the part of the process involved. And yes – other kinds of questions work better for some parts of the process. To be continued…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teachers, Poets, Questions

Teachers are not poets? Depends on the teacher, of course. I'm talking about the ones who get you out of yourself, the ones who get you to think - willingly and freely - who tap into your imagination. How do they do it?

One way they do it is by asking questions.

Not just any questions, of course. Police officers ask questions. And if you remember Dragnet, you know what they're after: "just the facts, ma'am." That's their job: to find out what happened, or, at least, what each individual thinks happened. If they ask enough people, triangulate, correct for skews, they just might get at that elusive essence: The Objective Truth.

Lawyers ask questions, too. But a trial lawyer asks a question for a calculated purpose: to put a fact into evidence. The lawyer asks the question to get the witness to say what the lawyer expects the witness to say. Purposeful, but not what this post is about.

Salespeople ask questions. Many of their questions are designed to lead to a particular kind of answer. The saleperson may not know what that answer is, but it's got to be of a certain nature - one that will create an opportunity - or make it much clearer that there cannot be one.

Are we getting warmer?

Scientists ask questions, too. Scientists asks questions because they really do want answers. They have to be very careful about how they ask, and what they assume when they get some kind of answer. If they do frame the question carefully, painstakingly, persistently, and logically, they move us ahead, one nano-step question at a time. Not fun - but eventually, effective.

A question defines a process - a mental process. A question is a tool - sometimes a hammer, sometimes an unfortunate screwdriver. Sometimes - when we are at our most creative, or most lucky - a question can act as a lever.

What good is a lever? In case you have not been hanging on every word of this blog for the past 18 months...a lever has at least one valuable characteristic: it enables you to increase the amount of output you can gain for a relatively small amount of input.

This is the point at which I'm going to turn to two of my favorite social scientists and get to the point: JP Guilford, Mary Meeker, and the Structure of Intellect (SOI) model. And I'm going to look at just a part of a part of their cube, to focus on two kinds of questions: convergent questions, and divergent questions.

Convergent questions are aimed at particular kinds of answers; in essence, they ask responders to converge on particular kinds of responses. There may be some dispute about the correct answer, but the ballpark you're in is well-defined:

Who were the hitters with the highest averages of all time?
Which are the largest cities in Europe?
Which cars have the highest trade-in values?

And these are the police and lawyer questions. The target for the answer may sometimes be open to interpretation, but it's a target, nevertheless. We know about where it is, approximately how large it is, and what direction we need to look to see it.

Divergent questions are different animals. Chameleons? No, more evanescent than a chameleon. A divergent question asks me to open my mind and imagine:

What hitters would you rather not face?
What do you see as the most interesting cities in Europe?
How do you value your car?

These questions are divergent because individual answers can diverge greatly - in fact, move in completely different directions - and still be reasonable responses to the same question. They are questions that lead to questions, to ideas, and perhaps - to new thinking.

Divergent questions are the levers of great teachers...and of poets. Shall I compare thee (this increasingly frigid MN winter day) to a summer's day?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Walking the Talk: The Power of Recursive Modeling

I had the bad fortune yesterday of rushing home to participate in an East-coast webinar, sponsored by a not-to-be-named ASTD chapter, on the topic of eLearning. ELearning? No, not really.

The webinar was a counter-example of everything it claimed would work. Engage the participants? Sure - let me tell you why you should do it. Polls? Yeah, you should use them (but we don't have time). Monitor the chat? Yes, very important (and I might try it if I were not so busy...) and on, and on, multiple, repeated examples of the bad parent - do what I say (don't notice what I do). And this thing was promoted nationally on a social media site.

After 30 minutes of non-stop Death by PowerPoint, I was tempted to drop out. It would have been smart. But I thought I would just give the guy a chance.... Twenty slides later (50 minutes into the webinar) he began to "take questions." Is there any wonder that "training" people are getting laid off by the dozens? I wasn't angry; I was embarrassed. For all of us.

I was ready to turn in my ASTD membership card then and there.

But a member of my local chapter also was offering a Webinar today - on a very specific topic: How to create Facilitator Guides. Now, I know Steve. He's not a polished speaker, although he communicates well. He's not a flashy guy, but he knows his stuff. I gave up my lunch time to participate, and I could not have been happier. Steve didn't have the online bells and whistles that the other guy had, but he had a chat capabilty. And he used it:
- Polls by chat
- Questions by chat
- Running commentary by chat
- Monitoring the connectivity by chat
With considerably less fanfare, and considerably more value, Steve restored my faith in professional trainers.

Why? He walked the talk. He didn't tell me what to do - he did it, and I saw the value. He didn't hype what he was talking about - he focused on specific key elements and demonstrated each one, clearly and succinctly. And he showed me. And he answered the questions that came in by chat.

Steve's participants used the chat box. And at the end, they all chatted "thank you."

It's not that hard: All we need to do is to walk the talk, show a modicum of respect for our adult learners, and be serious about solving problems.

Thanks for the reminder, Steve.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Logic of Collective Leadership

Democracy used to mean something...something about equal opportunity for all, for example. Our democratic principles used to suggest that anyone could run for office -- still true, perhaps -- anyone with $5M to blow, or at least that much pledged from vested interests. Jeffersonian democracy used to imply that the common citizen, given a chance at a decent education, could develop the good judgement to vote in his own interest (and yes - in those days, it was his, not hers).

Today, the common citizen is probably doing a lot of head-scratching. People taking hard and fast positions on either extreme have made our democratic processes look anemic when it comes to getting something done. But as my 11th grade history teacher used to say, the flaw may not be in the principles so much as the execution.

University professors Stephen Preskill and Stephen Brookfield have taken a shot at a different approach. Their new book Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice (Jossey-Bass: 2009) suggests another way around this barn. The book is well worth the effort to read all the way through, so I won't attempt to summarize, but I would like to highlight one small part of the chapter on collective leadership.

In corporations and state and local governments, the lone, heroic leader has been the model for most of our lifetimes. Even a casual reading of corporate by-laws (not to mention the US Constitution) should make it clear that this was not the intended model. Non-profits, not-for-profits, and cooperatives - and not just in the United States - have pioneered a different kind of leadership, and Preskill and Brookfield have put their finger on it:

"When collective leadership is being authentically practiced, all group members are committed to creating and implementing a shared vision. All assume some leadership responsibility. All have an opportunity to play a leadership role. All are willing to subordinate themselves to the group's goals and interests."

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and other non-profits and cooperatives around the world have been living and learning this model of collective leadership for years - some perhaps closing in on a century of striving for this model. NRECA teaches board members of rural electric cooperatives to set aside their differences to work for the common good of the consumer-members. The Mondragon cooperatives in Spain (see April post) have created their own unique cooperative economy based largely on this approach. Collective leadership is not easy (just think about the "subordination" part of the preceding quote, for example) but it can be learned and practiced. What's more natural to the American character, to the pioneering spirit, to "In God WE Trust?"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Jim Bouton and the Power of Reflection

Most baseball fans who cared probably read Ball Four forty years ago. Back then I was too busy doing my homework to take the time to read a baseball book, especially a "bestseller" that purported to "tell the truth about the game." In case the name of the book doesn't immediately ring a bell for you, Ball Four relates the personal experience of Jim Bouton, a former World Series championship pitcher for the New York Yankees, who has turned 30. For the 1969 season, seemingly nearing the end of his short career, he is headed to the minor leagues to develop a knuckleball in order to work his way back to the major leagues.

At a distance of four decades, Ball Four offers unexpected insights, and not just for baseball fans. It was the nature of the book, rather than the content, that held my attention these last couple of weeks. Not that the content is not interesting. The book has historical interest, for example.

In 1969, players had limited options if they wanted to play in the Major Leagues. Once they signed a contract, the club that signed them controlled their negotiating power by means of a provision then known as baseball's "Reserve Clause." If you know the history, you know that players have since turned the tables on management. The clubhouse in 1969, though, was a different world.

Ball Four, though, chronicles more than the events of the season. Bouton, a bit of a square peg as a thinking player, thought critically about the prevailing feelings and attitudes - of other players, as well as management. He recorded his thoughts each day, so the narrative has an immediacy that few memoirs can achieve. His daily recordings became increasingly reflective. As the season wore on, Bouton questioned almost every aspect of the league, the clubhouse, and the prevailing "wisdom" of the players.

About the same time that Jim Bouton was writing this book, I was writing daily journal posts, originally as an assignment for Michael Zajic, my high school English teacher, and later, as a personal pursuit that I kept up for years. As I read Ball Four, I could not help seeing Bouton's thoughts grow deeper, more profound, more intellectually honest. In Bouton's narrative, I recognized the personal transformation that I had gone through with the journaling process, although for me, it took far longer than a single baseball season.

If we stick with these daily reflective writings about our world (both external and internal), the process can ultimately help us increase our powers of observation, and eventually, our understanding of ourselves. Bouton does not disappoint in this aspect. Since high school, I have read many, many baseball books. For the development in his reflective thinking, and for his ability and willingness to share his reflections with us, Bouton's ending is my favorite.

His last musings begin with hearing about the fate of a fellow former major league pitcher whom a taxi driver tells him is now pitching in the Kentucky Industrial League. I'll let Bouton say the rest himself:

"Then I thought, would I do that? When it's over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.

"Yes, I would. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

The Jim Bouton of the opening pages of the early season would not have allowed himself to think that, let alone to express it with a poetical flair. Coming at the end of Bouton's season, it demonstrates the power of daily, disciplined reflection to ultimately penetrate layers of tough surfaces, helping us find our essential truth.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

We could have learned from Mondragon

William Foote Whyte, coauthor of Making Mondragon (Cornell University/1988), wrote about Ana Gutierrez-Johnson, one of his students and co-researchers for the book:
"She deserves particular credit for pointing out the importance of the equilibrio principle in guiding the development of the cooperatives. Ana phrased it in terms of the contrast between digital and analogic reasoning. Digital reasoning frames choices in either/or zero-sum terms, whereas analogic reasoning frames the choices in terms of both/and, guiding the actors toward balancing interests and needs."
The man who inspired the Mondragon cooperatives, a priest named Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, saw the politics of organizational structures in a spectrum, with cooperatives in the middle, as a balanced form of organization. In contrast to socialism on the extreme left, in which the welfare of the workers is always the primary concern, and capitalism on the extreme right, in which return to shareholders is always the primary concern, worker cooperatives provide for the welfare of the workers by achieving a balance between their needs and the organization's economic requirements.

It is surprising and disheartening to me that here in the United States, where we put such emphasis on freedom and openness, so many of us respond to the words "cooperative" or "socialist" as if they were curses, with no attempt to understand what they actually mean. Legislators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan proposed that cooperatives be another alternative means of providing health care insurance. Rather than exploring that alternative - a self-supporting organization that would cost taxpayers NOTHING - our media, legislators, and a significant portion of the public chose to remain polarized, insisting on what Ana Gutierrez-Johnson would have called the "digital" solution, and making us all poorer as a result.

What has happened to our democracy? And what has happened to our values, which used to support open dialogue, debate, and thoughtful decision-making?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why We Are Here

Let’s think hard about this one. With all due respect to philosophers and theologians who have debated this question for centuries, is it really that tough to figure out?

Not when I have my friends with me – and I have brought a few along for this post: Billy Kilmer, Oprah Winfrey, and Emily Dickinson. I’ve also brought along my private inspiration who is always with me: my mother.

Billy Kilmer came to the Washington Redskins in the 1970s as a veteran (read: old) quarterback with a suspect arm. Fans had to wonder why a team that already had a great veteran (Sonny Jurgensen) and a wealth of young prospects needed someone like him. They wondered until he stepped in for Jurgensen during the Redskins first Super Bowl season. He didn’t throw that well, didn’t run that well, just didn’t look that good in general. He wasn’t a fun player to idolize. But he did one thing that made him a champion: he knew how to get his teammates to perform. He knew what they needed in the huddle, and he knew how to get the ball to the right individual. And when the old-timers from that 1972 team get together, they don’t talk about how great he was; they talk about the great things they accomplished together.

Enter Oprah Winfrey and her empire. I will admit that I don’t spend a lot of time watching her show or reading her magazine. Never have. But when I do pay attention to what she does, I am struck by one aspect of it: it’s all about us -- what makes us happy, what makes successful, what holds us back. Stars come and go; teachers, leaders, companions on the journey – they stick with us.

And then there’s that forlorn soul, Emily Dickinson, a strong, brave, but desperate voice, virtually unheard during her lifetime – my counterexample. She wrote great poetry, tapping into the big questions of life, death, and yes, meaning. But her peers and contemporaries had no idea; she was one of those poor souls appreciated only after her death.

I have had a few successes in my life. I have always felt that I earned my successes by working with others to make something bigger or better than what I could have created on my own. Where did that come from?

My Mom is a pretty humble person in terms of her resume. You might wonder why friends and family from all over the country make a point of calling her on a regular basis, just to check in. You might wonder why an 80-year-old who appeared to be mostly a “housewife” most of her life would inspire that much interest and loyalty. I don’t wonder for a minute, just as I am no longer surprised when my Mom (1000 miles and a time zone away) happens to call just at those critical times when something important is happening in my life.

It’s really pretty simple: people who spend any significant time with my Mom are better off. They’re happier, they’re healthier, and they feel better about themselves. She knows how to help people be their best, even when the things around us are at their worst. Most of us aren’t even aware of what’s going on unless we think about it afterwards. We just feel better.

So back to the question of why we are here: it may have taken me five decades to figure it out for myself, but I think I’ve got it now. Someday, Mom, I’m going to catch up to you.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Hundred Year-Old Gift to the People of St. Paul

How can I have lived here for 12 years and never visited this library?

As a marketer, an educator, and a citizen, I have been missing one of our city’s finest gems – the James J. Hill Business Reference Library, in the same building as the St. Paul Central Library on Rice Park.

This vault-ceilinged, classic room is complete with reference resources from every imaginable industry, and a bank of computers loaded with free access to an incredible wealth of online information. But the best resource of all is the on-duty reference librarian, who will find out what you need and guide you to the right link on the computer that puts a wealth of information at your fingertips.

I spent a rewarding 90 minutes in the library today; I’ll be back.

The Hill Library is supported partly by voluntary contributions. I am planning to make one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Bush Foundation Teacher Effectiveness Initiative: Research isn't the only reason

The Bush Foundation, established in 1953 by former 3M executive Archibald Bush and his wife Edyth, announced a $40M initiative a couple of months ago that aims to produce 25,000 capable teachers in the next 10 years. You can read more about the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative on the Foundation’s website,

Also on the website is a link to MPR’s January 14 Morning Show, featuring Susan Heegard, the Foundation’s VP and Educational Achievement Team Leader. Both the broadcast and the website feature a solid research base for the decision to spend the money on preparing and supporting teachers. As a former teacher who did get great training, I think that the grant is a great opportunity to make a difference, and that the Bush Foundation has a well-thought out approach to finding some leverage in the system.

Listening to the broadcast, though, I was struck by the journalists’ singular appeal to abstract reasoning and the lack of any reference to personal experience. Unfortunately, the recording cut out about halfway through the broadcast, so I don’t know whether the discussion got around to the “heart” in the issue.

Setting aside the rhetoric, the debate, yes, even the research (temporarily), what is the starting point for making a difference? These are students’ lives we are talking about. No one would question the general connection between competency and earning power. No one would question the importance of education in the economic well-being of nations. No one would question that learning is the mechanism by which progress occurs. And yet, we question the strategic importance of the teacher’s capability?

This broadcast led me to reflect on my personal experience. My first role models (other than my parents)? Teachers. My favorite classes and later favorite subjects? The ones taught by my best teachers. My initial career goal? Become a teacher. My biggest disappointment in the lives of my kids? Not enough capable teachers.

And yet, I was one of those who left the teaching profession early in my career. It had nothing to do with the classroom, which I have always loved, and little to do with the students, who were the center of my existence. It had everything to do with the way that teachers were afforded plenty of blame, plenty of uninformed criticism, and little respect. I told myself I could always go back, since I was “permanently certified.” But I didn’t.

If the grant can accelerate the return of talented students to the ranks of capable teachers, I believe that measures of success will demonstrate that capable teachers do make a difference. And perhaps, long-term, more of our citizens will remember how important their best teachers were in their own lives. When that happens, perhaps our politicians, regardless of party, will be more comfortable supporting the most important investment that any nation can make in its own citizens.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gut Feelings: Tell Me What You REALLY Think

Every once in a while I find myself more receptive than usual to ideas that I may have rejected in the past. This may be one of those times.

A couple of years ago, cognitive psychologist and researcher Gerd Gigerenzer published a little paperback that (I'm betting) most of us missed. I would have missed it, too, had I not lived up to a promise my wife and I made to ourselves many years ago. The promise was that anytime we browsed a small, private bookstore we would not walk out without buying at least one book to support the enterprise.

At any rate, I walked out with Gut Feelings, partly because of its intriguing title, partly because of its small size (easy to take on trips), and mostly because of the blurb on the back cover: "Are logic and reasoning overrated?" But I didn't actually start reading it until I needed a book to fit into the front pocket of a binder on my most recent consulting trip - something that I might make a dent in over a long weekend around a customer visit. And I have never been more pleasantly surprised with an little known book.

Let me give you a small sample:

"The Benefits of Simplicity. In an uncertain world, simple rules of thumb can predict complex phenomena as well as or better than complex rules do."

I ask you to think about this. On the one hand, we tend to revere the mathematicians, physicists, and economists who can describe in apparently precise terms the exact quantitative relationships involved in the "complex phenomena" that we deal with increasingly in our daily lives. Yet Gigerenzer can cite multiple studies that demonstrate, for example, that simply dividing up your dollars evenly among multiple investments produces at least as good a long-term result as the most highly rated economic advisors.

Not earthshaking, you say? Maybe not. But in a blog dedicated to thinking, with a lot of space devoted to the virtues of analytical thinking, there are ideas in this book to prompt some re-thinking.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Analytical Skills? No Big Deal

We can teach this stuff. No; correction: we can help learners become aware of the analytical capability that they already have, probably already use in some realms, so that they can use those skills consciously to solve problems in other realms.

What exactly is analysis? I think it is the making of logical distinctions. Ah, and what is a logical distinction? Depends on the nature of the problem.

One kind of logical distinction is abstract, based on characteristics or qualities we attribute to something. So, for example, we think of Italy as a warm climate, Sweden as a cold climate. Warm and cold - adjectives - are words that describe qualities we attribute to things (in this case, places). So here's a simple analytical problem: Classify the following as warm or cold countries: Mexico, Canada, Norway, Ethiopia, Brazil.

How hard was that? If you can do that, you can analyze. More to come.