Sunday, August 28, 2011

The "first-fit" error

We can't possibly process all the data that is available to us at any moment. Evolution's way of solving this dilemma has been to give us a strong preference for responding on the basis "first-fit" rather than "best-fit".  Choosing a "best-fit" response to each of the situations that we encounter would simply involve too time and energy.

The compromise of "first-fit" is frequently a satisfactory or good response, especially to critical situations. If we are on the African savannah and observe a very  large cat-like creature, with big sharp teeth bounding in our direction it would be wise to start with the assumption that this is a lion, and respond accordingly.

But nor all problems are like an encounter with a lion. For example, not all problematic behaviour is a result of poor social skills, even for those students with poor social skills. Personal circumstances, poor health, misunderstandings, erroneous assumptions... can also play a part.

In one instance, a school had decided that a particular student's problematic behaviour was associated with the student's contact with his father. The school psychologist was uncertain and consulted the student's incident data. As a result she was able show that the school's "first-fit" response to the student's behaviour was not valid. The school then had to look for the "second right answer".

It has been my experience over nearly five decades of working in school education that "first-fit" errors are very common.

The best way to reduce "first-fit" errors is to develop rich conversations with those involved in responding to matters needing to be addressed. Such conversations are based on insightful questions, e.g. the questions of Restorative Practices.

Conversations and supporting students


Perhaps conversations are to people what water is to fish: so ubiquitous and all encompassing that we has lost awareness of the conversations in which we are involved. But with increased awareness we will be able to make improved provision for all students.

The following propositions are worth considering:

  1. Support for students is best constructed in rich conversations between the student, staff, family, stakeholders and/or  providers
  2. These conversations are many and varied and occur over a wide range of places and times
  3. The 'data' that informs these conversations comes from many sources
  4. The 'data' that informs these conversations is increasingly unique and idiosyncratic for higher needs students
  5. Capturing and working with key data (data that has the potential to make a difference for the student) requires well matched tools and practices
  6. The conversations, tools and practices need to be consistent and coherent at, and across, all levels: individual student, class, year group, school, .... school system, external support providers and other agencies, ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Data, sense-making and conversations

We naturally try to make sense of our experiences and the challenges they contain.  In the process, we attempt to construct knowledge that will enable us to make appropriate arrangements and anticipate the likely outcomes of our actions.

Conversations are a form of action learning:
(a) Insightful questions elicit tacit knowledge including hopes, concerns, activity, experiences, observations… from the participants: staff, students, family, stakeholders, support providers…
(b)  Additional insightful questions then draw on the tacit knowledge, stored data and existing professional knowledge in an attempt to
·   make sense of what is happening, and  
·  construct explicit knowledge, actions and arrangements in response
(c) As patterns emerge in the actions and arrangements they become practices
(d) Some of the explicit knowledge, actions and  arrangements may be captured as stored data  for future use and future conversations

Fig. 1 Typical conversations leading to actions
Not all conversations are one-to-one in real-time. We communicate with others in a variety of ways to share our knowledge and make arrangements that enable us to act. The recipients of this “data” then use it to make better sense of their own experiences and to create new knowledge and understandings. These interactive processes are at the heart of the everyday conversations in which we construct the knowledge, arrangements and actions needed to respond to the challenges we face including the needs of the students we support.
Thus conversations are central to the effective use of data to inform action. Having the right conversations with the right people is critical for the effective support of high needs students. These conversations need to be informed by rich data. They also generate new data for current or future use. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

School Improvement - one student at a time

School innovations are often associated with addressing issues such as retention, behaviour, failure to learn well. That is, the leading edges of educational innovation are largely about catering for each and every student.

But why is this an innovation?

Schooling, as we know it, emerged in response to the industrial revolution - perhaps as an aspect of the industrial revolution?

So there is a still widespread use of batch processing: classes, courses, year groups, terms, linear sequenced curriculum and syllabuses, bulk enrolment and examination periods, daily timetables of lessons and other activities....

In fact, here in Tasmania, schools are the only places where more than, say, 200 people start and finish work at the same time. Our schools are the last of our 'factories'!

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with such arrangements for many students.

But what about those students for whom this approach is very difficult, impossible and/or counter-productive?  These are the students who fail to get a full and rich education?

I see Solution Focus as being a very useful tool for creating better schools that provide for all students.

Making it explicit that "school improvement is about improving schools one student at a time" can be helpful. It is likely to reduce the tendency to see struggling students as a problem.

Rather, with this change of mindset schools can adopt a more natural solution-focused approach because they know that providing for each student is simultaneously improving the school as a whole.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cost cutting - a cautionary tale

There was once a man who became so poor that he thought he could no longer afford to meet the cost of food for his small bird - his only friend in the whole world. He decided he would cut costs by training the bird not to eat.

In this he was very successful. The bird quickly learned not to eat. But then tragedy struck. Shortly after the bird was fully trained it died!!

So sad.

What lessons might we learn from this poor man's experience? For example,

  • Why did the bird die?
  • How successful was the man's strategy?
  • Do a full cost-benefit analysis of what actually happened.
  • What alternative strategies might the man have considered?
  • What other insightful questions might be asked?
Yes,  it is made up story. So why does it make sense at all? Mainly because it parallels some of our actual lived experience. Worth having in mind in times of austerity.