Tony Gurr

From BEST PRACTICE to NEXT PRACTICE…

In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, The Paradigm Debate on 01/09/2011 at 11:10 am

Those of you that know allthingslearning reasonably well will know that I often talk of the problems associated with the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” (the Turkish translation for “borrowing, ripping off, and faking-it-till-you-make-it”).

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Peter Block tells us that cultures like that of the “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” variety are the result of the fact that our world is “answer-orientated”.

I would take this further, we also live in a world that is addicted to the notions of the “quick-fix” or “magic bullets”.

 

Despite a wealth of theory and research that has clearly demonstrated the power of adopting a “questioning insight” and questioning processes for use at the individual, group and organisational level, our first response to a “challenge” is to search for answers, solutions and best practices. Indeed, when we do ask questions, it is usually to obtain more information, more solutions and more “best practices” – and then try to “out-do” the competition to get “another 15 minutes”.

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Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that Best Practices are a waste of time! They can and do:

  • Help us gain insights into techniques, methods or processes that have proven themselves over time
  • Support institutional efforts to maintain quality through “benchmarking”
  • Promote learning

 

The problem is that while Best Practices are necessary – they are not sufficient! 

Best Practices do not always help us recognise that it is questions that drive the thinking and learning process…and, that this learning is the thing that can lead us to consider different ways of “doing business” or “Next Practice”. 

Sadly, in many organisations and institutions we are taught not to open Pandora’s Box and to avoid challenging conversations or experiences. Some commentators believe this strongly, for example, Boshyk suggests that it is often the case that people are “paid not to ask questions”.

Asking questions, for many, represents an “admission of ignorance” – we all know (especially in education) the “power of knowing” and the consequences of not knowing (or even “appearing not to know”).

This is why we focus on the “answers” others have produced – and call it “benchmarking”!

 

Block maintains that our answer-orientated world has become obsessed with the question “What works?” and fails to recognise that any important change can only take place through an “inward journey” centred on meaningful learning conversations around “What matters?”.

He begins with a concern about modern life that many of us “feel” all too much – more and more of us are doing more and more about things that mean less and less! 

Sound familiar?

 

This is a direct consequence of our answer-orientated world and obsession with one form of question that Block describes as “how to pragmatism”. Block notes that most individuals, groups and organisations approach challenges through the question:

  • How do I do this?

When we ask how to do something, suggests Block, the very question expresses our bias for what is practical, concrete, and immediately useful, often at the expense of “what matters”. The very question itself becomes a defence against action.

Furthermore, the question is also frequently used as a “tool” by those who want to “keep their heads down and stick to the rules” – rather than “acting on what matters”.

The question, maintains Block, is further reinforced by the family of other “how-questions” that inevitably follow in its wake:

  • How are other people doing it successfully?
  • How much does this cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • How do you get those people to change?

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Block’s ideas are extremely attractive at a common sense level but they raise the question of “what are the right questions”?

Block proposes that meaningful change or transformation can never come from collecting lists of best practices; it comes from asking profound questions that “entail paradox, questions that recognize that every answer creates its own set of problems”.

 

So what are these questions?

Block offers a range of suggestions that include:

  • Whom are we here to serve?
  • What do we want to create together?
  • How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of what we do today?

As alternatives to the family of other “how-questions”, he suggests:

  • What refusal have we been postponing?
  • What is the price we are willing to pay?
  • What commitment are we willing to make?
  • What is our contribution to the problem we are concerned with?

 

So, how could we draw on his insights to look deeper at the challenges we face in education?

Educators (and politicians more so in recent years) have been asking questions about our schools and universities for years. Questions like;

  • What “works” in other educational systems?
  • How do we motivate and get students to learn better?
  • How do we improve student performance levels?

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These questions have led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of pages of recommendations, policy initiatives and project briefs – as well as a very healthy increase in the number of “educational tourists” flying to Finland, Singapore and now (thanks to PISA) to Shanghai!

If we look closer at such questions and the answers recommended, we start to “sense” how we have imported the quick-fix mentality of Block’s “how to pragmatism” into our schools and universities.

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A review of the strategic planning tools and quality improvement agendas of most schools and universities reveals an absence of questions that might provoke deeper thought and real change.

We find far too few questions like:

  • What are we here to do for our learners?
  • What really “matters” in an education system?
  • What stops students from learning in our schools and education system?
  • What is wrong with the way we are currently “doing business” in education?

We still find educational stakeholders asking the “weaker” or “less stimulating” questions like:

  • What should we teach?
  • What is “good” teaching?
  • How should we improve the quality of teaching?

In short, rather than the instrumental questions of the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak”, such as:

  • How can we differentiate ourselves from other schools and universities?

 

…we need to be asking questions like:

  • What does it take for a learner to flourish in the complex realities of the 21st century?
  • What can we do to expand and improve the learning of all our students and staff?
  • What can we do to dramatically increase the ability of our schools and our teachers to learn and keep on learning?
  • How do we know this?

It is exactly these types of questions that will ensure we do not just “borrow” someone else’s “solutions” to someone else’s “challenges” (and avoid the trap of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak”).

And, hopefully…help us create “Next Practice” that is relevant to our learners, our teachers and our institutions.

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