Mediating Uncertainty with Patient Inquiry

 

By Giselle O. Martin-Kniep

 

“The most effective people are those who can ‘hold’ their vision while remaining committed to seeing current reality clearly.”

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

 

Patience, as defined by the Marrian-Webster dictionary

1: bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint
2: manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain
3: not hasty or impetuous
4: steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity

“What can and should we expect from students, teachers, and parents at this point in time? How should we communicate with students? How do we keep them meaningfully engaged with learning? How do we maintain a sense of sanity and community? What is most essential for teachers and students to do?” These questions arise from principals and leaders and they are looking for answers.

Because our experience during this COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented for all of us, even districts that have been better prepared to provide online learning in the past have struggled to live up to expectations or may not feel fully equipped to do so. We are navigating the simultaneity of being parents, educators, counselors, coaches, caregivers, home cleaners, friends and partners. We are sorting out how and when to shift roles and how to help those around us respond to these shifts. Our professional response to this pandemic has been impacted by our individual ability to cope with ongoing uncertainty and its resulting stresses and our first impulse is to be caregivers. However, leading during this period requires a great deal of empathy, an even greater amount of patience. Now is a time when leaders can benefit from practicing the behaviors and habits associated with systems thinking—thinking about the whole and recognizing how the parts of the whole have impact on the whole. Systems thinking requires inquiry and modeling the results before action. Given our sense of urgency, this will be difficult. Some of the habits of a systems thinker require the patience to:

  • Seek to understand the big picture
  • Surface and test assumptions
  • Consider how mental models affect current reality and the future
  • Change perspectives to increase understanding
  • Consider short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions

The following are some possible questions you might ask:

Observing and listening to understand the “big picture”

We all see the contexts that surround us from our own vantage point. Using an inquiry stance by investigating the lived experiences of individuals and groups who are deeply impacted by our decisions and actions can help us understand “the big picture.” Consider the benefits of pursuing the following questions:

  • What are parents, teachers, and students doing during this period?
  • What are they expressing and manifesting?
  • What is engaging their attention and curiosity?
  • What is giving them comfort and solace?
  • What brings them closer to each other and to us?

Changing perspectives to increase understanding

Because our own mental models and assumptions influence our perceptions of what we can and cannot expect from ourselves and from others, we need to tap different stakeholders’ perspectives and experiences. Teachers, students and parents’ first-hand knowledge of this pandemic and its repercussions are different and as important as our own. Ascertaining their input at this time affords us the unique opportunity to co-create a collective understanding of teaching and learning at this time and in the future.

Our decisions about what to expect and provide for teachers could be greatly enhanced if we gathered their responses to questions such as:

  • What are the most satisfying aspects of your work with students right now?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of your work with them?
  • What support from the administration would you find most useful?
  • What are your students asking you for?

Asking students questions such as the following ones could inform current policies and practices related to online learning and could increase the odds that our eventual return to school is an improved version of what life in school used to be.

  • What are you learning during this time that matters to you?
  • What are your teachers doing that is working for you?
  • What do you want your teachers to know about you right now?

Given the new demands that homeschooling is placing on parents, leaders could tap parents’ perspectives and experiences to elicit their insights about their children’s education and promote a genuine partnership with them. Questions such as the following might be useful:

  • What resources are schools providing that are helping you support your children?
  • When and how are your children asking you for support or guidance as they are learning?
  • If you have worked on scheduling how your child(ren) engage with schoolwork, what schedules have worked best for your child(ren)?

Identifying possible consequences and leverage points

We are in the midst of a grand social experiment in which we are transforming the meaning and location of schooling. One of the gifts during this period of forced isolation is that we have the opportunity to revisit the question: How shall we teach and learn? Leaders have the opportunity to access and use the expertise we are all gaining in our own unique school contexts by sharing insights and lessons learned from interventions and failed experiments as they are unfolding. While it is indisputable that some districts are far better equipped than others, it is probably also true that technology is only one of several factors, and perhaps not the most important one, in terms of accounting for the most fulfilling and rigorous interactions between students and teachers. Imagine what might be gained by pondering the following questions:

  • How have we modified our distance learning structures to address students’ and teachers’ emerging needs or tensions?
  • What is working in our efforts to reach every student?
  • What is working in terms of how we are monitoring student engagement?
  • What is working in terms of how we are supporting teachers as individuals and as a collective?
  • What is working in terms of how we are attending to parents’ needs and questions?
  • How have we adjusted the demands we are imposing on teachers, students or parents based on what we have learned?

The questions posed have no easy answers but the time is ripe for leaders to explore them within their own system and with colleagues from different schools and districts.

 

Here are some resources on systems thinking that have informed my work and might be of interest to you:

Meadows, D., Booth-Sweeney, L. (2010) Systems Thinking Playbook: The Ways of a Systems Thinker, White River Jt., Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishers.

Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P. (1998) ‘The Practice of Innovation’, Leader to leader http://pfdf.org/leaderbooks/l2l/summer98/senge.html

Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith, B. (1999) The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, New York: Doubleday/Currency).

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and Kleiner, A. (2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York: Doubleday/Currency

 

Dr. Giselle Martin-Kniep is the Founder and President of Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd. Giselle has a background in program evaluation, organizational change and political science and has several graduate degrees from Stanford University. She has worked with schools nationally and internationally in the areas of strategic planning, curriculum and assessment, educational policy, Neuroleadership, and systems thinking. She can be reached at gisellemk@lciltd.org. Read more from Giselle.