Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

Posts Tagged ‘Attachment’

Education Reform – A Wicked Problem

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on March 16, 2011

Why is it so difficult to change the way we educate our children? We recognized thirty years ago that the existing industrial model of education won’t produce workers able to think critically and apply knowledge to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems. We have defined and measured achievement gaps between many populations with great specificity, yet we cannot close them. I’ve spent the last two decades of my life working on several STEM education reforms because I believe that engaging children in a conversation with nature can transform their lives and their relationships to our planet. I still believe that. But here’s another thing I’ve come to realize. No matter how engaging the STEM experience, if a child’s brain is hyperaroused or depressed as a result of trauma (and remember, trauma can be ordinary life circumstances such as losing a tooth, gaining a sibling, or coping with parents’ divorce and remarriage), she can’t engage to learn. I’ve written about that here. So how can we address these  and other complex circumstances in education?

Engineers recognize that how one defines a problem determines the course of its solution. They have a special term for social problems like education reform – wicked problems. The term wicked problem was coined in 1973 in a seminal paper by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, a designer and an urban planner. They described wicked problems as messy social problems that are impossible to define, understand, and reach consensus about. Wicked problems can’t be neatly defined and are always entangled with other social problems. For example, it’s often said that the education problem can’t be solved until the poverty problem is addressed. These two problems are intertwined not only with each other, but with many other social issues such as crime, child care, health care, and unemployment. These entangled problems are made even more complex because they are values-laden. It’s impossible for everyone to reach consensus about how they should be addressed. There is no right or wrong answer, and each attempted solution will give rise to other anticipated, unanticipated, and delayed wicked problems. Furthermore, each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem because of their interconnectedness. Wicked problems are never solved once and for all, just re-solved over and over again. Hence, the current state of affairs in education.

Neuroscience, behavioral and cognitive research, and systems thinking research has revealed much about how we operate as individuals and in social groups. It turns out that we’re wired for connection with each other, and that our relationships define us more than our separateness does. Neuroscience also helps us understand how our brains function to limit our grasp of and responses to wicked problems. Dietrich Dörner gives many examples of how capable, intelligent and thoughtful people fail to understand complex systems and make wise and prudent decisions about interventions in them. Psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about how our brains respond with feeling and action to situations that are intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous – and not to situations that aren’t. This was an adaptive trait that kept us alive long ago, but it short-circuits an appropriate and collective sense of urgency in the face of wicked problems like global warming and education reform, whose consequences play out day by day over decades. David Brooks synthesizes multidisciplinary research in a nuanced narrative of an emerging new humanism in his recent TEDTalk. This new humanism acknowledges what psychodynamic researchers have known for years: that our unconscious emotions give rise to our conscious reasoning, and that emotional fluency comes from attuned attachment experiences with important others early in life. The ability to form secure attachments underpins several abilities that bind us socially and are essential skills in solving and re-solving the wicked problems that face the human race. Brooks lists these as:

“Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or [oneness with the Universe]. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.”

These first three abilities appear in the three key findings about how people learn: 1) students’ preconceptions about subject matter must be engaged in order for them to learn new ways of thinking about the subject matter, 2) students must have a deep factual knowledge base that is organized for easy retrieval in a conceptual framework that makes sense for the subject matter, and 3) students are able to think about and monitor their own learning. Brooks’ last two abilities are embodiments of the three core emotional needs: 1) to feel loved, 2) to feel a sense of belonging and 3) to feel a sense of appropriate power over one’s circumstances. Schools should be places where students develop all of these abilities and experience the joy of learning through meaningful connections with teachers, peers, and the natural and human-made world. If students are to be prepared for a lifetime of thinking, playing, creating, loving and working, schools should be places where relationships are valued as essential to acquiring knowledge that is measured as well as knowledge that is important but not measured. The ability to collaborate with others to learn in formal, informal and social situations is a life skill.  Engineering experiences can provide meaningful and authentic contexts for students to practice learning in these ways. The teacher-student relationship can provide the secure base from which students can explore the joy in learning. Emotional safety and stability are necessary for the cognitive mind to develop fully.

Does anyone have a complete enough picture of the education system – from neurons to policy – to prescribe exactly how to do this? No one person does because the system is too complex for any one person to understand. The wicked problem of education reform requires transdisciplinary imagination to solve and re-solve. There are no quick fixes or silver-bullet programs that work for everyone in every context. The best hope we have of reforming education successfully is for stakeholders from multiple perspectives and disciplines who embody the five abilities above collaborate on innovative and iterative solutions adaptable for specific contexts. We must be creative and attentive to emergent consequences. Every iteration of a solution will change the lives of at least one generation of students. Neuroscientific and psychological research indicates that that educational policies and interventions should maintain and foster both the emotional and cognitive growth of each child. Policies that fail on either count could ultimately fail the child.

References:
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school.  Expanded edition. District of Columbia: National Academies Press
Brooks, D. (2011a, March 15, 2011) David Brooks: The social animal. TED Talks. retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_the_social_animal.html
Brooks, D. (2011b). The new humanism. STLtoday.com. Retrieved from http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns/david-brooks/article_364f728d-2226-50ff-b26f-2560409622e4.html
Brown, V. A., Harris, J. A., & Russell, J. Y. (Eds.). (2010). Tackling wicked problems through the transdisciplinary imagination. London; Washington, DC: Earthscan.
Dörner, D. (1996). The logic of failure: Recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.
Gilbert, D. (March 15, 2011) It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. Harvard Thinks Big. retrieved from http://hutvnetwork.com/harvardthinksbig
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

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Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 23, 2011

How do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in your life? We can’t avoid them. They’re part of being human. If we’re fortunate, we’ve had enough positive experiences with important others early in life that we perceive the world as a safe and welcoming place. We hold representations of people we love and have loved inside us – our family members, friends, teachers and others. We draw on our attachments to these people – our internal representations of them – for support and comfort when we try something new or take a risk. In this way, our attachments to important others help us flow with the uncertainty and ambiguity of everyday life.

When engineers are presented with a problem, they rarely have complete clarity about the problem or all of the information necessary to solve it. Smart engineering teams spend considerable time at the beginning of a project gathering as much information as possible in order to define the problem and create a shared representation of it inside each team member and for others to see in the form of words, pictures and/or mathematical equations and graphs. Team members draw on each other’s skills and ideas as each of them reduces for herself and for the group the ambiguity about what is needed. Once the group has tackled ambiguity and defined the problem, team members brainstorm possible solutions. Then each one of them uses systematic methods to reduce uncertainty about each possible solution enough so that the team members can agree on a best solution to try.

Engineers can never eliminate uncertainty in a solution, but they can systematically reduce it to tolerable levels. My insightful friend with several engineers in her life notices that we use this approach to solve and re-solve our lives as we live them. These can be adaptive skills for work and life.

I have worked in enough high needs schools to know that many students come to preschool and elementary school without secure attachments to important others who provide the child with an internal sense of stability. For these children, managing the uncertainty and ambiguity that goes along with school-based learning can be overwhelming, and that overwhelmed feeling can inhibit their performance in school. Teachers and administrators who are sensitive both to children’s emotional needs and cognitive needs can provide all students practice dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty by adopting engineering team challenges as part of the school’s curriculum. Interesting and meaningful challenges invite all students to engage in a variety of roles, and the systematic nature of the engineering process enables the teacher to contain the uncertainty and ambiguity of the tasks to levels tolerable for students. In this way, cognitive and emotional learning can happen together.

Next…
Fear and curiosity…like oil and water in the brain

Coming up…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom

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