Let's Commit to Thinking Deeply About Improving Education

by Seth Saavedra │Tuesday, May 15th, 2018


Last week Harvard Business Review put up an article that piqued my curiosity: "What It Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems".

Penned by Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, the summary reads:

The problems we’re facing often seem as intractable as they do complex. But as Albert Einstein observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” So what does it take to increase the complexity of our thinking? To cultivate a more nuanced, spacious perspective, start by challenging your convictions.

Tony's solution involves three core practices:

  1. Forever challenge your convictions. Ask ourselves doubting, critical questions about the things we most believe to be true;

  2. Do the most challenging task first every day. Reserve unadulterated time to take on our most daunting problems; and

  3. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling. Monitor emotions and how they impact our thinking.

I'm drawn to this topic because almost nothing - aside from line cutters and loud talkers - bothers me more than shallow thinking. Particularly when the stakes are so high for students and educators. Policy makers and advocates, at the least, owe the field the benefits of honest, critical thinking.

This in large part explains my aversion to talking heads. If there is a field that rewards superficial problem solving more than politics, I've yet to find it. In elections years like this one, the vacuous one-liners are beyond egregious.

Education - inclusive of large portions of academia - possesses its own unique strain of empty verbosity. This includes some efforts over the past 25 years done in pursuit of reform. We see - or even author - a policy, recognize principles we hold as true, and fall right into the confirmation bias trap.

If a given approach affirms our existing worldview, then it must be right. Right?

 
 

In fact, the opposite is reality and a sure sign that an issue is in need of deeper thought. The better an education policy fits our strongest beliefs, the more skepticism required. And the more we're entrenched on an approach, the quicker we should be to reflect on why that's so.

Standing around self-flagellating about all the things we would've done differently isn't helpful. Instead, as I've touched on previously, we must harness new models to disrupt binary, "either-or" approaches. I've found the "limit and equilibrium" mental model pragmatic and helpful.

There are many bad ideas and policies, though not always as bad as we think or not bad for the reasons we'd thought. And the same is true for good policies. Simple truths are mythology. Occam - or Ockham if you're a pedant - and his Razor are aspirational lies we tell ourselves.

Simple answers make us feel safer, especially in disruptive and tumultuous times. But rather than certainty, modern leaders need to cultivate the capacity to see more ­— to deepen, widen, and lengthen their perspectives. Deepening depends on our willingness to challenge our blind spots, deeply held assumptions, and fixed beliefs. Widening means taking into account more perspectives ­— and stakeholders — in order to address any given problem from multiple vantage points. Lengthening requires focusing on not just the immediate consequences of a decision but also its likely impact over time.

As we ponder the next frontier of education evolutions, we'll be best served by thinking and reflecting on our staunchest beliefs - about Education and otherwise. The stronger we feel about something, the harder we must work to deepen, widen, and lengthen our underlying assumptions.

Part of the goal here is to reorient ourselves around problem solving. When we remain focused on solving problems - and disentangle from our sacred cows - we are more willing to change our minds and open them to new ideas. Both of which demand courage.

 
 

There's a specific bravery in changing perspectives and releasing beliefs. We don't want to appear weak or waffling. Yet, "I am wrong" remains a more powerful statement than "you are wrong". And saying it is as rare as it is necessary.

As Schwartz writes, "Managing complexity requires courage ­— the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us." I work to conjure this courage and release myself from the pattens of thought I'm ensnared in at any moment.

As rhetoric around education heats up this election year, let's question what we "know" to be true and invite in new perspectives. Even from those we've marked as sworn enemies to all we hold dear.