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My System-Seeing “Problem”…

My system-seeing “problem”…


I’ve finally realized that it’s not what I knew that has been important, … it’s been my way-of-Seeing.  A capacity that helped me “know” (or believe I did) by providing a way for me to see through organizational complexity to its simple root causes.

So, what’s wrong with that?  After all, Oliver Wendell Holmes deeply longed for that capacity:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity,

but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

“My problem” is not that I could do that…but that I believed what I saw.

The cartoon above perfectly captures how those Belief-creating, Eureka, sense-making epiphanies that integrate “seeing” and “believing” happened for me… and subsequently became a way-of-thinking that impacted the professional roles I found myself playing in the spaces between “Theory” and “Practice.”

  • Metaphorically, the continual “Eureka”-generator for me actually was the cartoon’s “mirror.” A tool that created a sense-making “frame” around my way-of-seeing, …and then thinking, …and whose “glass” offered a different reflective surface.  This soon became both a “lens” to frame my understanding of the present and future, and also a “mirror” whose different shape and nature influenced my “reflective learning” by portraying the past in ways that made sense of why things worked or didn’t.

Its major value proved to be its portrayal of organizations as already connected systems.  Those of us who urge others to be “systems thinkers” often overlook the perceptual paradox facing those who lead and manage organizations:  the fundamental element that makes a system a “system” — relationships among its parts— in most cases, can’t be seen.  We accept their existence based on “theory” or “faith” (the latter considered a belief in the unseen.)

So, what’s my “problem”?

  • On the one hand, the nature of that “mirror” has enabled me to bridge the Theory-Practice gap in my own thinking because I had found way to “see” and address those connections in practice. Based on a “Theory” (interestingly from Biology, not Social Psychology) it could make connections visible and generate, “light-bulb moment” epiphanies that could break through the mind’s “see-what-we-believe/believe-what-we-see cycle that generates and limits sense-making.
  • But, on the other hand (as Tevia would say), this unique value is what became “My Problem.”  As Galileo earlier discovered — who similarly had a “lens” that enabled him to see theory (Copernicus’) as fact – “What has been seen cannot be unseen.

This condition had direct consequences for the rest of his life. For me, it’s become an on-going, frustrating struggle I once expressed in a blog:  Copernicus’ Curse and Galileo’s Pain.

“… as this became my natural way-of-seeing and understanding, it enabled me to ask “different questions,” and also to see, first why some schools “different answers” were working; and then, how many of those answers were interdependent and connected.

But, as I learned, those who could not “see” those sense-making connections had trouble understanding how these “answers” related to the “larger” (and inter-connected) problems they were dealing with.”

So, to help others see what I believed (and could not unbelieve), I’ve sometimes employed metaphors such as another “mirror” — Alice’s Looking Glass.”

What does Alice see?

Possibly forgotten by many who only know Alice from her “Adventures in Wonderland” is that her learning adventures didn’t end there.  Lewis Carroll in 1871 wrote a sequel — Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

This time, Carroll used a mirror as a portal through which he could present a different view of in-the-room reality – one that also could expose truths that weren’t obvious before. This site, similarly, is purposefully structured around a different portal or window (see Welcome Alice) that, like Alice’s Looking Glass, is intended to elicit different questions that can point to potential answers already “in the room.”

Alice’s thoughts that will be reflected in this series of occasional blogs come not just from the different theory ground into that lens, but from experience continually viewing through it actual practice in a major school system –the Montgomery County MD Public Schools. That story is told elsewhere on this site.


And at other times tried to address its holistic purpose as a different way to make sense of schools… to connect-the-dots
…get-out-of-the-box to find a different Big Picture…through the website.

  • Today however, my frustration has a new urgency and intensity as the complaint in education that “The system is broken!” now is directed at the larger social and political systems of which it is part.

Fixes in all sectors are required for present practices and through this “lens” one cannot just “see” better ways for fixing them, but already effective practices in some sectors that people don’t think are relevant in others.

  • More frustrating however is that those who could help them understand that – the community of Systems Thinking practitioners (of which I am part) – still suffer from the perceptual paradox that King Solomon’s “wisdom” overrode in his intuitive belief that natural systems already are “indivisible wholes.”

A concept that Systems Thinking’s guru, Peter Senge, once cited as the essential missing element limiting today’s practitioners — The lack of a perspective of an organization as an “indivisiblewholes-within-wholeswhole.”  He called this new way-of-seeing a 6th Discipline and cautioned that it would require “direct experience” to translate the theory into practice.

But today it’s no longer a “theory” and can be found embedded in the mindsets of some World Class CEO’s and other system leaders whose direct experiences enabled them to break through their “See-what-we-believe/Believe-what-we-see” vicious cycle to accept the indivisible scope and nature of their organizations as “givens.”  The starting point for their effective strategies and practices.

So what’s “Our” Problem?

Galileo would have had to wait 300 years for others to “see,” and accept as fact, what he couldn’t “unsee.”  That learning curve is no longer an option.

Lew Rhodes

December, 2016


How’d it happen?… Ask a Frog!

(The story of this story)

  • I had started Election day trying to google the email address of the historian Michael Bechloss so I could share an out-of-the-box premonition I had that someday historians would honor Trump for serving as the catalyst for flipping the national mind set from one within which we can only see “broken systems” to one that can serve as a frame for connecting people in new ways to achieve their common purposes.
  • I was thinking “someday” because I figured it would take time for historians first to consider how something like this campaign could have happened.
  • And then about 11pm I realized…

(1) that “someday” was now, and

(2) everyone was trying to figure out how it happened… who did what wrong, etc. (That’s what pundits are doing right now as I write this,) …and, while that’s a natural response, it can blind us to why it happened. And then importantly what can be done now about it.

  • So, at 11:30p last night, I started writing:


How’d it happen?… Ask a Frog!

Today wasn’t a “revolution,” but an “evolution.” One that we missed as we focused on the campaign’s content — the words, actions, craziness, etc.—and missed the real message hidden in its context. And it’s so deeply buried that a metaphor is required to surface it.

If you consider how our minds serve as “containers” within which we process the experiences of our daily lives, then we might learn something about what just happened from the old story of the frogs in a pot of water who weren’t aware that it was gradually getting hotter until it reached the boiling point.


With that as a possible metaphor, consider that we’re not dealing with a metal pot like the frogs’, but a mental one – a common mindset within which, for some, there was an evolving core of felt pain and pressure, noticed by others, but not seriously addressed.

Only some of them were directly feeling its “burn,” …most others didn’t notice or ignored it. True, while some claimed they also felt a “Bern,” it was largely on an intellectual level. They helpfully made us aware of the 1% on the top controlling the wealth and getting the benefits, while popular books like the “Hillbilly Elegy” made us aware of the decline of the middle class.

But at the same time those who were actually experiencing the burn felt even more angry –betrayed by Wall Street, and frustrated with a government that didn’t seem to hear them, because if it did why weren’t they doing something about it.

Seeing “the system” as the enemy, they begin to lose hope in the future … a hopelessness that began to transform to helplessness and powerlessness…(an intolerable psychological condition that produces a desperate search to “Just do something.” … change it all and change it now.

…And then this election (which in the end had little to do with Trumps’ words and actions) offered a seemingly-simple way to totally get rid of that boiling mix whose burning they felt.

And they did.


  • It’s now 8:30am, 11/9/16, the next morning… and my own sense of hopelessness, helplessness and despair is now beginning to grow as I begin to think about what this could mean for the future, I realize that, just as with 9/11, I’m totally experiencing a “paradigm shift.”

What’s the 1st clue that a “paradigm” – the mental window through which we make sense of daily experience – has “shifted?” … The unthinkable becomes thinkable. The impossible … not only possible, but already here.

In an instant, an accepted way-of-thinking about reality is wiped away… and we have little to fall back on except our fears about what will replace it. (Something generations conditioned for “evolutionary” change have never experienced, and now we’ve gone through two of them…. (One on 9/11 and the other, today, on 11/9)

So on this first day of a “newly-perceived” world, I’m directly experiencing that “Shift Happens” … and this one leaves me fearful, angry and especially sad about the “what if’s” (such as what a liberal Supreme Court might have meant for the continuation of our democracy.)

  • Yet, I’m also aware of how much it was needed – desperately needed… Maybe Macbeth was right: “If it were to be done …, then it would be better if it were done quickly.” But it’s going to be painful because we’re the ones who will have to live through it.

(But wait, there’s more…)

  • Just now, amidst all the discouraging words on TV and in the press about what could have gone wrong and about what this all means for the future … my old “Pollyanna” mindset re-surfaced and heard three hopeful sets of words.

–1st, from communications consultant Frank Luntz:

“This could be a very good day for democracy”

And I agree, since this was the future possibility I had hoped to share with Bechloss yesterday morning. ….before it became a present need.

–2nd, when an early morning pundit called for a “deep, profound autopsy” about the need to develop a new “pot” – a replacement way-of-thinking –.” My hope is we can keep it focused on the “system” in the “pot,” and not the people. Because, we’re going to be the ones in the new pot that will be feeling the “burn” – anger, fear, frustration hopelessness and helplessness. And I believe we can use the conditions that this new setting will raise for us, as catalysts to organize around the needs all us “Frogs” have in common.

–And 3rd, here’s something a friend just forwarded from Andy Shallal, the Iraqi-born owner of Busboy and Poets.

“I don’t usually write annoying angsty shit ….

But damn it, today, I need this. I need to know that America is better than this. Last night in the wee hours of the morning, I felt my soul sapped, my spirit crushed and my hope vanish. This morning I feel betrayed, violated, and angry. I am especially angry with the media, they are the true spoilers in this election. They tricked and teased us, cajoled and used us knowing all along that they are the true winners no matter who the hell gets the most electoral votes.

Today, I will cry a little (actually a lot), lick my wounds, take my time brushing my teeth and taking a shower and getting dressed. I will cancel my subscription to the Washington Post, hang out with close friends, exercise, eat well, get a massage, pick up a good book, read a good soothing poem – out loud. And I will write.

Tomorrow I will remind myself of all the accomplishments that we have fought for. Marriage equality, healthcare, prison reform, black lives matter, worker rights, transgender rights and so many more victories. I will make sure that I remember these things and swear that I will fight to uphold them. I will gather, plan and organize. I will know that I am not alone and remind myself over and over again that “to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” God, I love Howard Zinn.

It’s time for us to be the change we want to see in the world.

Andy Shallal

  • Andy — I’m glad we’re in the same “pot” … and don’t cancel your Post subscription… the media (except for Fox) are not the message.

Lew Rhodes
Silver Spring, MD

The “One Thing” of Connectedness

In 2004, The One Thing… a Simple Proposal revealed the key to Joel Barker’s success as a Paradigm-Shifting Guru. Then, after sharing that secret, it ended with a simple, and clear charge:

“At a time when schools have neither the capacity, nor the societal support, to “fix” themselves, we have to develop and initiate processes that support capacity development as a practically simultaneous, inside-out, knowledge-development process.

That requires changing everyone’s mental model of schooling and, fortunately, we now can use the “simple rules” imposed by what we already know about how the human mind works as it processes information to solve problems that get in the way of making a difference.

• First individuals must have a compelling reason to change the way they look at, and understand, the three interconnected processes of learning, teaching and schooling.

• Then driven by the motivating power of understanding why new alternatives may be necessary, they need to have the means and support to work within that new paradigm.

• Finally, they need processes to derive from their work experiences the necessary knowledge and culture to sustain that way of functioning for all students.”

Today, 12 years later, we offer below some of what we’ve learned about that process… and why some wrongly think it is systemically impossible.



“Everything-is-connected-to-everything-else” seems to be the slowly-developing ah-ha emerging from the minds of those trying to understand the era in which we’re living.  But that doesn’t help much to understand how to escape the webs of interconnectivity in which we find ourselves tangled. What’s missing so far is the question that comes in response to the rest of the insight… “but connected to what?”  For, as Joel Barker, the guru of paradigm-shifting, once pointed out, the answer to that can be found in the mental map or worldview that bounds and gives meaning to all the connecting relationships within it.

What Barker did to help people understand the profound differences such a different map or paradigm could make, was to ask his “impossibility question:

“What one thing is impossible to do today, which if it could be done, would fundamentally change your organization for the better?”

For instance, what if I could call upon the ghosts of two old “paradigm-shifters,” Copernicus and Galileo, and ask them that same one question?

If anything were possible, was there any one thing you could have done when you were alive that could have convinced everyone that your way of understanding the nature of the solar system described the way things actually were?

I would imagine that, with the benefit of hindsight, they would tell me that they would have liked to have been able to take people to the surface of the sun. There they would tell them to look up… and from that perspective see how the planets actually moved.

Now there would no longer be a conflict between what people could see with their own eyes and the new, hard-to-envision theories from science about the actual nature of their world. From that time on, the “see-what-we-believe/believe-what-we-see” vicious cycle would become a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle, as understanding of possible actions would be developed by looking through the same lens of understanding.

Moreover, that perspective’s usefulness back on the ground would come from the fact that it offered a common lens ground from personal experience reinforced by scientific fact. — one emerging from a common belief about reality at its center.  It would define the boundary of its scope, and the nature of its connecting relationships.


In education today we face the need for a similar lens-reinforced paradigm shift. But while its significance can be as profound as Copernicus’, we don’t have 2-300 years to wait for it to evolve.

So what if we were to ask ourselves the same Impossibility question about the Schooling universe we navigate?

“If anything were possible, what one thing might we do that could convince everyone that what we observe as a school district already is an indivisible system within which all its parts have natural relationships to a common “fact” (or scientific knowledge-based) center-point?”

What might convince everyone that what cognitive science is learning about the biological functioning of the brain already provides the core building block we don’t get to vote on, …but whose acceptance makes it possible to understand relationships that we currently can’t see, and therefore use, as we try to make sense of what the work of schools’ must deal with each day?

Our answer might be similar to that of my imagined ancient scientists: We would like everyone to be able to stand at the “center” of the educational system – a child’s brain — and look out at the surrounding real world of experience that it interacts with as the mind’s capacities develop through the process we call learning.

From that perspective they might “see” a natural world operating according to “simple” natural principles.

But here’s the problem. We have the “science,” but don’t think we have the personal systemic experience that can give it meaning.

As an example, from what cognitive biology tells us about how that brain interactively supports the mind’s “learning”-from-experience,” we have sufficient “facts” that make it possible to describe the common learning capacities that schools must develop in all children.

That’s what the Common Core Standards are all about. But unfortunately, with that as theory, its application in practice has suffered from the lack of  a “lens” with that individual learning process model as its center that would enable seeing and understanding it’s direct relationship to the daily actions of people and organizations as they respond to the always-present nature of that brain-driven individual learning process.


   The Sabusense site offers an opportunity to tap into that type of personal and organizational systemic experience. Among other things, it includes the story of a major American school system transforming itself from the inside out… as seen through a different lens — one that has the biological nature of the individual learning process as its center.

   For almost two decades, this 150,000 student school system had attracted the attention of committed foundations and reformers seeking a benchmark for whole district change.  These included the Annenberg, Stupski, Panasonic, and Broad Foundations; the Harvard Business School (which produced several case studies and a book); and it received national recognition such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.  Each attempted to benchmark the “What’s” and “How’s of the system’s work.  

   In the meantime, this lens’ different view offered a way to dig deeper to the “Why” that gives meaning to the other two.  And it found the answer in the ways-of-thinking they were developing about themselves as a connected system.

Moreover, while conceived as a response to Barker’s “Impossibility Question,” this lens’ different “One Thing” perspective, soon led to understanding the nature of “Possibility Answers.”  And eventually pointed to the “Probability Answers” necessary for sustained change.

For over a decade and a half, its on-the-ground usefulness has come from:

(1)  the fact that it is a lens ground from personal experience reinforced by scientific fact. It reduces the conflict between what people see with their own eyes in schools and the new, hard-to-envision ideas from science about the actual nature of that world.

From that time on, understanding of possible actions could be developed by looking through the same common lens of understanding. And

(2) it directly addressed Systems Thinking’s major “blindspot.”  Its most essential aspect  — the connecting relationships among its parts and purposes that make it a “system” — can’t be seen and experienced. 

   Together this way-of-seeing and thinking offers a theory about practice that can help raise questions whose answers can empower society to sustain systemic improvement of the processes and products of its schools.



…Stay tuned to find out what happened when Peter Senge discovered how the “One-Thing” Connectedness of his seminal 5th Discipline way-of-thinking was contributing to the learning disabilities currently plaguing the system’s thinking movement.


Kids, horses, teachers …and other living things

I hadn’t thought about Monte Roberts for years, and that’s why last week after seeing the Lincoln Center’s production of WarHorse, I was surprised to see in the Lincoln Center Review, how much they credited him for the success and power of the play.  It differs from the current film in that all the horses are full size “puppets” controlled by actors inside them. But their behavior is so realistic that even living horses have believed they were real.  How could that be?

For those not familiar with his history, Monty Roberts became known for his revolutionary work with horses, Possibly because of a novel and movie by the name, many people refer to him as a “horse whisperer.”  But the actual title of his book refers to a Horse LISTENER — The Man Who Listens to Horses” – and as it turns out it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Roberts and his approach to “teaching” has special relevance to me and the story of the Montgomery County Public Schools told on this site because in February 2000, I co-led along with Peg Howell, a leadership development course for the MCPS —  “Boosting Productivity Through Coaching” that drew on Robert’s approach. (He since has gone on to apply it himself in teacher and leadership training for schools, and management training for business and industry.)

Here’s how, at the time, we described and used it to raise questions that would provide a different context for the content we would offer.


The difference between a “Horse Whisperer” and a Horse LISTENER is the real power of what Robert’s work means for all of us who attempt to influence behaviors of living systems.  How much of teaching is “talking” and how much is “listening?”  Think of the teachers who most influenced you.  Was it the content they delivered or what they seemed to understand about you?  How, and where, are those two “teaching skills” connected?

•   Note that the key to Robert’s success as a “teacher” was that first he listened and found out what the horses could tell him about how they learned.  Roberts’ knew he always was dealing with a “whole horse” … that had a mind of its own. And because he had figured out its learning process, he knew “what it wanted.”

By going with the flow of the process already pre-wired in the brain he proved that changed behaviors can be effective, sustainable, and accomplished in far less time (from three-months down to 30 minutes) than any of the traditional way’s people have used to teach (or “break”) horses.

•    How does his Join-up process –(first engage, and establish trust; then use that trust to support interaction; and out of these interactions begin to develop an intrinsically-driven relationship that becomes the support of all “work” that may follow) — compare to what you know about effective teaching and coaching?

•    How does his “simple” logic — starting with the learner you have with its already embedded learning structure, then reinforcing it, and using that capacity to develop what you don’t have — relate to the beliefs and strategies underlying other effective approaches to individual and organizational change?

For instance, doesn’t developmentally-appropriate education start with a similar “catch-them-doing-something-right” principle?  And if you know about organizations and communities using OD approaches such as Appreciative InquiryAssets-based Community Development, or Positive Deviance” … aren’t they starting at the same place?

•    How does this approach to intrinsically-driven changes in behavior relate to the management goal of “continual improvement?”

•   In his book, one can see that to develop understanding and acceptance of his way of “breaking” horses, Roberts had to address several conditions that similarly get in the way of understanding these learning/teaching processes in schools.

The old ways still “seem” to work.

They take longer and cost more though, and increasingly people are beginning to realize that they have “consequences.”  For example, what is “broken” in traditional horse-breaking is not the horse, but its “will.”  The consequence is loss of the horse’s spirit.

We may not be used to thinking of schools as will-breaking institutions, but the structures and processes we ALL have accepted as the scope and nature of schools can produce that consequence.  As Peter Senge points out:

“The young child learns very quickly that school is not about learning. School is about avoiding mistakes.  School is about gaining approval and avoiding disapproval.  These are the same lessons the first time worker learns.  Don’t screw up, do what you’re told, if something is screwed up make sure you don’t get blamed, at all costs look good.”

In these post-Littleton days more people are recognizing that children are largely disconnected from the two institutions that are supposed to engage and nurture their growth – the family and the school.  And both lack a “join-up” process because the need for it hasn’t been seen as “essential.”

Most people don’t understand the nature of learning as a natural process.

Until the advent of scanning technologies in recent years, we’ve had no way to “listen” to the brain.  School structures we have all accepted, and continually try to improve, turn out to be like almost all other organizational structures — they require unnatural behavior of consenting adults…and children.

Unfortunately, this new knowledge isn’t easy or natural for many people to accept because it requires a shift of fundamental beliefs.  Today, as the public and profession have been learning about how the mind learns — the fundamental truths about the “wiring” of living beings — it is primarily believed to be something that applies to children’s minds.  Just another “theory” that adults need to be “trained” to apply.

But if, like Oz’s Scarecrow, adults in schools discovered they too “had a brain,” how could this knowledge be applied to intrinsically drive needed changes in teaching and schooling processes?

Support of credible “believers.”

Roberts’ book tells the fascinating story of the key role played by Queen Elizabeth in moving his concepts to the fundamental belief level throughout a nation.  One can’t read it with out seeing connections to the types of resistance to educational approaches that derive from lack of acceptance “at the top” of a fundamentally-different way of seeing and understanding the problem.

Importantly. the book also contains critical insights for overcoming that resistance.  Most relevant,  the Queen’s transformation – now there was no way she would allow any of her horses ever to be trained the old way — was “results”-driven.  But, as opposed to education’s focus on disconnected results, the Queen could see “results” and the consequences of the results.

Yes, it also was important that the process was reduced from three-months to 30 minutes, with obvious cost savings, but the consequence for the horses spirit provided the convincing data.  “Problem” horses that had been sent to Roberts for “remediation” became World Class “winners.”

Where, outside of schools today, can one find credible believers to make the case for approaches whose consequences are an integral part of the results being monitored?

Which approaches today have consequences important enough to bring people to the leap-of-of belief similar to the Queen’s?

How might they be mobilized to help schools and communities recognize the immediate relevance of these ideas for their children?


Re-reading these words and questions today, after twelve years watching that system of kids and adults exploring their own answers, I had some new personal ah-ha’s.

1.    While others have credited me with being a “system’s thinker,” I had seen myself as more of a pattern-seeing, “system’s see -er because of the particular lens I had been peering through.  Elsewhere on this site it’s described as a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens and referred to metaphorically as Alice’s Looking Glass.

But now I could see that, like Roberts, I had become a system –listener.  My hundreds of pages of notes taken over the years were driven by two questions:  “What’s happening here?…and Why?” And it was clear that the power of the processes they developed to support the work of learning and teaching were driven by their capacity not just to listen to each other, but also to prove by their subsequent actions that they had heard.

2.    And recalling Roberts’ beliefs makes me even more convinced that the type of top leadership change that causes other school systems to default to traditional ways of doing their work isn’t going to happen in Montgomery County.  Especially now that the new superintendent has initiated a series of community and school system wide “Book Clubs” aimed at developing the capacity to “listen” and understand what it is that “comes naturally” to children and adults.

As an example, their first two books —  Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, and Daniel Pink’s  Drive: A Whole New Mind – The surprising truth about what motivates us — share in common  the intent to develop a way of understanding required to be able to “listen” to human being’s doing what comes naturally. The hope, I surmise,  is for them use this understanding as a new way-of thinking to frame the work they do. And then, within that new “paradigm,” to develop better ways to continually sustain and support those “given” intrinsic, natural processes.

3.    And, thats why this new initiative might be on the way to finding an answer to the “impossibility question” that the guru of paradigm-shifting, Joel Barker, would often ask to help people understand the profound differences a different lens or paradigm could make on ways-of-thinking:

“What one thing is impossible to do today, which if it could be done, would fundamentally change your organization for the better?

Check out the above “One Thing” link for some of my old thoughts that suggest why MCPS may be on the edge of that possibility.

So stay tuned… (I know I’ll be listening.)

Where’s the Picture on the Box top?

While we are continually urged to get “out-of-the-box” so we can find new ways to “connect-the-dots” within it, our continuing difficulties finding those more effective dot-connecting relationships might suggest it’s time to revisit the idea of “boxes” as containers for ”dots” that need to be connected. Consistent with this site’s use of metaphors to tap into understanding how much we already know in other settings but seldom apply to schooling, it might be helpful to think about how we sometimes use the “box” itself to help us reconnect the pieces it contains.


I’ve discovered that one occupational hazard of an  “ol’ dog’s” learning how to be a “warm, sensitive new-age male” is that you often “feel the pain” of others.

Most painful for me these days is the deep frustration of those who believe we know more about fixing what’s wrong with schools than we are using… and yet can’t figure out what to do about it… except blame those who aren’t doing what they “know” needs to be done.

A painful example occurred during a recent TV discussion by three national journalists* who

(1) seemed to understand the interconnected nature of the social and economic conditions that the US currently struggles with, and that education was the single common issue influencing all of them; and

(2) seemed to have the depth of thought to understand also that a fundamental issue influencing education’s problems was a “failure to communicate” at its core level. Schools don’t engage and then develop the already-embedded creative capacities of each of the today’s kids.

One of them concluded that the “saddest thing is that we know what to do… and yet don’t do anything about it.”

Theirs wasn’t a new awareness. In 1996, the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools in its report — Using What We Have to Get the Schools We Need:  A Productivity Focus for American Education — pointed out that “America already knows enough and has sufficient resources to fundamentally change the ways schools function…”

Over that 15-year time span, however, few seemed to ask why that gap between knowledge and action still seems to be true?  What is it that we think we “know” about the “box” called schooling… and how has applying that knowledge been working for us?

What if there were something we didn’t know that could better explain it?  And what if we already “knew” it but didn’t know we did?  The 1996 report offered a clue to that possibility when they suggested that the problem was that our society needed to look at its schools through a different lens.   “Without a sense of the whole, we end up with what has become a familiar cycle of patchwork improvement and disappointment.”

The Schooling “Box” and its Puzzle pieces

How does the problem offered by a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces relate to today’s painful, frustrating searches for insights about how to solve the problem of doing more with what we already have?

Most of us begin to solve the puzzle by first studying the picture on the lid of the box — the end-product of our problem-solving effort. Periodically — at least in the early stages of assembly — we return to the picture for guidance. First, it gives us some confidence that there is a way that all the pieces ultimately fit together, and second it offers clues for how they can fit together.

Unfortunately, without this orienting image, the work of schooling today has become a random search for meaning that seems to fit the 1996 prediction of “cycles of patchwork improvement and disappointment.”

That is why this website’s three inter-related purposes focus on providing an “orienting image” that offers ways to “see” and understand the “box,” the “dots” in it, and how they actually “connect” in the daily work of schooling.

1.   As noted at the top of the Sabusense homepage, it offers a more meaningful way to “connect- the-dots” and see how what we “know” must be done… can be done.  This “different lens” we metaphorically call Alice’s Looking Glass.

2.   More importantly, that lens was used to capture key elements of the story of a major 140,000+ student school district as it successfully created a new box top picture in the minds of its 19,000+ staff who on a daily basis have to fit together the pieces of a puzzle far more complex than those cut by any jigsaw.  This was a school system “box” that could integrate  and sustain the interdependent dot-connecting processes of learningteaching and schooling.  Validated now by national research it meets the “box-top picture” criteria —  offering confidence to others trying to solve the same  puzzle that there is a way that all the pieces ultimately fit together, and then providing clues for how they can fit together.  And finally,

3. To share what I, as an embedded learner, learned along with them about how to do it.  Many of these thoughts can be found with this site’s articles and  20,000 ft Memos. One in particular–Picture on the Jigsaw Puzzle Box (2004) – captures some on-the-go thoughts and learnings as the ways-of-thinking about the “box” at all levels of the district’s work began to change.

It’s interesting to re-read some of those thoughts seven years later now that the district is reaping the results of having embedded a meaningful box-top picture in a sufficient number of minds.

For example, there is much that can be learned from the ways they used the power of the Baldrige processes to influence how people see their work relating to personal and organizational results.  And also about the nature of external support that is needed to override the deeply-embedded box top picture that most people bring to schooling’s puzzle-solving tables.


The journalists: Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times), Eugene Robinson (Washington Post) and Margaret Carlson (Bloomberg)

The MCPS “Bathtub” is not leaking…

In a posting earlier this year – An Old Dog plans new tricks… I picked up on a fearful concern expressed, both inside and outside Montgomery County, about the consequences of the community’s selection — during a time of diminishing state and local resources — of a replacement for the superintendent who was retiring after 12 years and leaving behind what had been acknowledged by local and national observers to be a district that uniquely had worked collaboratively as a system.

At the time, falling back on this site’s usual metaphorical approach to understanding, I then cautioned that superintendent turnover traditionally results in a “Throwing out the Babies with the Bathtub” condition… and how the neighboring Washington DC schools offered a continuing example.  Every time they threw out a superintendent (seven of the “best and brightest” in the last decade) they also threw out the “bathtub” in which the community’s children (and their teachers) “swim” everyday.  That “bathtub” — the school district — is the holding space that serves as the container of supportive processes and practices that keep people throughout the system “afloat” as they perform their daily work with and for children.

Continuing the metaphor, I raised some questions about how (in a general reform culture that tends to view school districts as an “enemy” to be flattened and disempowered) the MCPS story could serve to raise questions for the search committee about the superintendent’s role in developing a sustainable “Bathtub”–

•    as the systemic container created with a single purpose:  to develop and support the learning capacities of all the children whose learning lives it encloses…

•    and as a connected container which must hold everybody (the children and adults) and everything (what they do alone and together in managing learning and teaching) needed to achieve that single focus…

•    and within which trust serves as the “water” that supports them – the medium that makes it possible to create and sustain over time the supportive connecting relationships required to achieve both individual and collective purposes.

Back to the present… The Board chose a new superintendent – Joshua Starr – who took on the system leadership role only six weeks ago.   Yet, never having met him, I still feel confident to predict that the MCPS “bathtub” will not leak – and that the Board and community will not be ”throwing out its babies” to create a new “bathtub.”

The “data” that supports this preliminary conclusion comes from the talk and walk of both the Board and the new superintendent.

•      The Board’s actions — that went against the grain of what “experts” say a new superintendent should be expected to do (see the DCPS reference above for how well that worked for them) – seem to validate the theory emerging from my 14 years of observing this Board’s learning process that MCPS had been on a journey that had changed their way-of-thinking about themselves, how they fit together with the rest of the system, and why.  They appeared to have developed an operational perspective that, in an analysis I did for the Stupski Foundation’s study of MCPS, I had termed “Systemic Governance.”

And, for me, their choice of Starr fit.

•      Why Starr?  Again with no personal knowledge other than press interviews and reports, here are some of his words and actions that tell me his way-of-thinking resonates with the MCPS way-of-thinking that I had been benchmarking for 14 years in order to dig down to a level of understanding that answers the root question – Why do we do what we do… and in the ways that we do it?  This had turned out to be a framing perception that gave meaning to the valuable benchmarking of MCPS’ “What’s” and “How’s by others – (e.g., Harvard, Panasonic, Stupski, APQC) interested in applying them to their own reform efforts.

More significantly, not only did he seem to fit MCPS’ way-of-thinking, he fit mine.  What I’ve heard or read suggests to me that he understands both the nature of the “territory” he has to help the community “navigate”… and the key role that only he can play in the journey.

(To better understand why I purposefully used the term “navigate,” see Total System Management: The Leader as Convoy Commander, and then for how that “theory” played out in MCPS’ “practice”  – The Convoy Revisited: How did it Steer and Develop its capacity at the same time?)

I’m sure that one of the criteria for Starr’s selection had been the “talk” of his “vision” (the attracting “light at the end of the tunnel”).   But the initial steps of his “walk” recognizes that system leadership requires a complementary vision to create light at the “end of the tunnel” where the journey starts that is comparable in scope and nature.  And which must be based on information that accurately illuminates that reality.

“I also have established a transition team made up of both internal and external leaders who are helping me learn, as quickly as possible, about the areas that need the most focus to accelerate our progress in closing the achievement gap and raising standards.”

“He has arranged meetings with key people in schools and the community “to sit down and ask questions and find out what would they do if they were in my shoes,” …

“A transition team composed principally of his long-term mentors and former and current county schools staff members is also delving into school system data and research. The team is planning focus groups and developing a report about the system’s challenges and strengths. It will be delivered in the beginning of the school year.”

“In the fall, the school system plans to start a series of “listen and learn” events across the county for Starr to hear from parents and staff members. He also will convene online town hall meetings with students and host public talks about books that reflect his educational philosophy.”

So at the risk of mixing my metaphors of the school system as “bathtub” or “convoy,” at this point I feel good (both as an educator and as a Montgomery County taxpayer) that Starr will be the person with his hands on the “faucet” or “wheel.”

Validating “Alice’s Looking Glass”

At the 23rd Annual Baldrige QUEST for EXCELLENCE conference (April 4-6, 2011), as I listened to the team from the MCPS (Montgomery County MD Public Schools) tell their story of what had been happening on the road to their 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, I realized how it was  validating the power of Alice’s Looking Glass as a way-of-understanding.  For 13 years I had been focusing the biology-based way-of-thinking incorporated in the lens on MCPS, and feeding back what I “saw” in 20,000 ft. Memo’s. And, as a way-of-understanding, thinking and predicting …it worked.

But, as told elsewhere on the site, it’s been working as a personal mental model for me for a much longer time. I realized how long recently when, in going through a box of old papers, I ran across something I had written 40 years earlier -1970. Then, near the beginning of my career, I was not a professional “educator,” but was (what would be called today) an “educational technologist.” And I can see in the article  —Misfits in the Public Schools — the ways this perspective helped me understand the actual context of schooling – and then what technology’s fit could be in it.

What’s also interesting about the article is that it’s a review of a book about special education but it was published in a magazine read by people only involved with educational technology.

For example, I can see the lens’ perspectives reflected in its opening and closing paragraphs:

“The trio of authors, all recognized authorities in special education, communicate the frustrations and second-class-citizenship feelings of professionals dedicated to individual human development who must work within a larger system which tolerates, and often seeks to protect, “mediocrity and endless ineffectiveness.” A reader in any of the other sub-systems of education could substitute the name of his field every time the words “Special Education” appear and be highly pleased with the relevance of this book to his concerns.” They examine “the roadblocks to effective education for the exceptional child and in so doing, deal with the problems of effective education for all. The system that can be truly responsive to the needs of the exceptional child has the capacity to respond to the needs of any child. The solution to the problems of introducing innovation into schools is seen as the immediate task for all concerned educators.”

And it concluded with

“For the technologist, the challenge today is to create in society an awareness of the basic role that communications technology, in particular, must play in facilitating the above institutional and human processes. The authors suggest that it is basic that any innovation be understood in terms of its consequences. This may be difficult because of the stimulus-orientation of most viewers of technology that causes judgments to be made on the basis of what stimuli are carried rather than the effect they create in a recipient. The consequences of the appropriate use of communications technology to “link” human beings together in more broadly based, effective systems, however, CAN be the self-renewing institution of education oriented towards the common objective of individual human development.”

I don’t know if this is just a case of “everything looking like a nail to a hammer,” but that was exactly what I had been “seeing” MCPS doing as they capitalized on the relational uses of communications technology to develop and sustain the process scaffolds that are enabling them to better respond to the needs of each child.

So, Alice’s Looking Glass “works” (for me)… but that means it also has the potential to serve as a practical and predictive tool for effective planning for others. Could it serve as the “window” Peter Drucker was alluding to when he said– “I never predict. I just look out the window and see what’s visible—but not yet seen.
… I look for things that have already happened, and have not yet had consequences
… and I foresee them.”

I believe it can, which is why when I set up this site’s basic structure I set aside a “space”– What can be seen…and learned?to hold any possibly new understandings that emerged from the way-of-thinking the lens supported, with the hope that  they might be used as catalysts for continued thinking and learning dialogues with those who wish to join in as thinking partners and co-learners.

At this point, the following five have been loaded in it:

New Understanding: The Complementarity of Policy and Practice

New Understanding:  Decision-making relationships

New Understanding:  A needed Role map

New Understanding: The X-factor at work

New Understanding: The Zen of data-driven decision-making

As the What can be seen…and learned? page indicates, there’s more to come….  stay connected.

The Broder/Baldrige/Montgomery County Connection

Since his recent death, David Broder’s eulogies seemed to cite a common insight about his unique success as a reporter. He could move back and forth between in-the-clouds issues faced by policymakers in Washington, and the on-the-ground issues faced by practitioners around the country …and at both “levels” his stories seemed to capture their meaning for the people involved.

Broder’s dual focus played a unique role in the development of this Sabusense site’s content about the journey of the Montgomery County Public Schools that led to its recent recognition as the recipient of the 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for “performance excellence through innovation, improvement, and visionary leadership.” And, at the same time, to its acknowledgment as a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education as one of the five best large districts in the nation for improving student performance while narrowing academic achievement gaps.

Here’s the story that several articles that Broder wrote in 1999 and 2000 “helped” write.

When you are a “big picture” thinker viewing problems from a 20,000 ft. perspective, one of the slow-to-recognize truths that emerges is that, regardless of the different relationships and patterns your “bigger picture” enables you to see, you are still looking at what’s happening everyday “on the ground.”  And it’s often hard to connect the two.

That’s why several articles that Broder wrote in 1999 and 2000 produced a light-bulb moment that helped me make sense of a problem I was having making that connection.

Because of his deep interest in education and effective governance, he had visited two “Baldrige”-using school systems —  the Brazosport School District in Texas and one school in the Pinellas County Schools in St. Petersburg, FL. – the  Azalea Elementary School.

In Brazosport he saw how Baldrige processes had influenced the thinking and actions of those usually thought of as the “Top” of the system. At Azalea, he reported on the thinking and actions of those usually thought of as at the system’s “Bottom.” (This “Top and Bottom” thinking is a problem in itself because a naturally-connected system doesn’t have a “top” and “bottom.” This misperception is addressed elsewhere on the site.)

But in both, a reader could understand both policies and programs in term of their meaning for kids and the adults who interacted with them every day.

At the time I led AASA’s Quality Schools Network, and was on the Executive Working Group of National Alliance for Business’ BiE IN (Baldrige in Education Initiative). In both roles, I had been struggling with how to address the bipolar perceptions of what the Baldrige process was — i.e., some saw it as something to impact what the system does, and others to impact what the kids do.

One product of those struggles and ruminations was development of a thought piece that I hoped might help others think about why it was so hard to understand how the Baldrige process might relate to their needs – Making Sense of the Baldrige A View from 20,000 feet.”

I didn’t realize at the time how Broder’s insights would impact the scope and nature of my own work for the next 13 years when I shared that paper with the Montgomery County MD Public schools then new—superintendent, Jerry Weast. But from our initial interactions developed the unique role I’ve played in subsequent years as an embedded learner in the system, described elsewhere on this site. (Catching them doing something right)

This role offered an opportunity to observe “both ends” of the system simultaneously through a single lens that focused on a common level of action that drove the stories of how they were trying to make a difference. (Making Sense Through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens)

It’s interesting to look back now at how that year 2000 thoughtpiece began and ended.

It began with:

“People who care about children today, and those who care about how they must be to survive tomorrow, get excited when they see certain things happening in school systems that say they are “doing” or “using” Baldrige. They see “results,” not only test scores but in changed relationships and roles, especially for children and teachers.

Quite naturally this excites them because they would like to see that happen in all schools. But when they turn to finding out what is causing those effects, they run into an interesting barrier to understanding what people mean when they use term “Baldrige.”

They are trying to make sense of what they are seeing happen around “the Baldrige.”  And while they like what they see, they can’t quite connect it into a coherent, meaningful picture that can explain why it’s happening. And without the meaning that understanding provides, effective collaborative action is impossible.

Specifically, schools are being asked to “buy-in,” and totally accept, something called “Baldrige” by significant others who can’t clearly tell them what this “thing” is. Baldrige advocates point to classrooms, or school sites (and in only a very few cases districts) where significant and different results are apparent.

These “results” are not only test scores, but the way children joyfully take control of their own learning, and teachers creatively find they can meet needs of all children, not just some.

What, beyond faith, is the connection between those observable results and a set of paper “criteria for performance excellence” being advocated by business and government? And, oh yes, aren’t those “continual improvement” tools and processes that are integral parts of this approach the same ones that used to be related to that “fad” – TQM?  Moreover, with all the pressures on school’s today, who’s got time and resources to compete for an “Award?”

The Making Sense of Baldrige paper then concluded with:

“The challenge is that at this point in its application to schools, a structure or infrastructure that connects teaching-as-a-process to learning-as-a-process is still missing. The question now is how this thing called “Baldrige ” can serve to create a way of thinking and interacting that can enable a school system to make a difference in results for all children by enabling its people to make a difference in the results for each.”

And then the paper “promised” in a footnote that there would be answers to that challenge in a subsequent section.

“(The next section of this In-Process think piece addresses how a school district could leverage the Baldrige processes to develop an Integrated Learning Management System — an infrastructure, or scaffold, that would support its continual improvement from the inside-out.

This infrastructure would be driven by each person’s intrinsic need to continually improve their own capacities to make a difference for children, rather than by the extrinsic pressures that present conflicting demands for “change.)”

Well it’s taken 12 years to fulfill that “promise” but that’s still a good description of the nature of what the MCPS developed to bridge and sustain interaction between its “two ends.”

And while unfortunately I don’t have David Broder’s reportorial skills, I’ve used what he taught me about how to make sense of the actions of people trying to make a difference through seemingly disconnected policies and practices to tell the story of its development as a single story that doesn’t have “tops” and “bottoms” but as a connected whole. It’s a story in process, but for those interested, leads to much of it are embedded already throughout this site.

And what I’ve been learning is that this type of coherent story-telling isn’t as easy as David Broder made it seem. But that’s why we honor him.

An “old dog” plans “new tricks”…

based on…

A New Year always offers an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve been doing and, if not satisfied, resolve to do better. That’s why I’m applying that learning process here to the continuing development of this Sabusense website … I’m frustrated.  This cartoon captures one reason why.

…I’m an “old dog” trying to learn “new tricks.” And my “nagging thought” is how am I doing?  So I asked myself:

  • How far along are we in terms of its fundamental purposes?
  • What is different now than when we launched it?
  • And what, if anything, can we do about it now?

… this posting captures my “answers.”

The purposes haven’t changed…

Sabusense is intended as a response to an almost universally-felt – but seldom acknowledged — problem today. A glance at today’s news headlines reveals a common characteristic underlying the nature of the most critical economic, social, political, international problems that challenge the problem-solving abilities of policymakers, pundits and practitioners – they can’t make sense of the seemingly-disconnected events swirling around them.  They must respond to conditions that were unthinkable in the past, yet often lack a capacity to think about the unthinkable.

Some folks, when they call for “paradigm shifts” and ways to “get-out-of-the-box,” recognize that development of solutions that can respond to the actual complex nature of today’s problems requires thinking that can escape the paradigm prisons that keep us focused on what we believe is “possible.”

As the statement at the top of the Home page declares, supporting them is this site’s mission.  By:

(1) Helping people make sense of what they see and hear happening in today’s schools by offering then a different way-of-thinking about it; and then to offer ways

(2) To use that way-of-thinking.  Specifically,

–      to “connect-all-the-dots” — so they can make sense of a way-of-working together to develop the learning capacities of each and every child in a school system.

–      to tell the case-story of how the Montgomery County, MD Public Schools (MCPS) has actually been doing that …but in a way that challenges the prevailing beliefs that being able to “connect all the dots” to systemically address the learning needs of all children is an “impossible dream.”  That shows how its not just an idealistic visionary “hope” requiring time and resources schools do not have, and which will shift the focus of available resources from the urgency of the problems some children face today.

–      and to present that story in ways that focus on the body of systemic practices developed by MCPS  which demonstrate that the scale and nature of this systemic transformation is not only “possible” …but can be “probable” in any district setting.

…but their context has…

Several significant changes in the world we’re trying to influence require rethinking how to proceed to achieve those purposes. Both differences in the world “out there,” and differences in the world “in here” (I’ve changed — more about that later.)

Most relevant is that the school district that serves as the reality check on the ways-of-thinking embedded in this site, now can be formally “outed.”  We’ve purposefully downplayed its name until now to not lose the attention of those who might discount their efforts because of their demographics, the quality of the personnel they attract, or the belief that their success can be explained by the “Great Man/Woman” theory of leadership.

•      The  “outed” school system is the Montgomery County MD Public Schools (MCPS).  Until recently, it’s accomplishments – termed “miraculous” by some because they were unexpected in a district of that size, complexity and diversity — had been the subject of separate research by foundations and reform groups trying to understand and promote systemic change (among them – Panasonic, Annenberg, Stupski, Harvard Business School, American Productivity & Quality Center). Yet, their attempts to benchmark MCPS’ “What’s” and “How’s” have thus far not proven useful for the wider transfer of knowledge they had hoped for.  The otherwise-excellent content of their studies and reports (several are included in this site’s Resources section) seemed to lack a needed coherence that could connect all their “dots” and “results” to the common “Why” underlying the purposes of all schools.   One common reason: their Theories of Change lacked a “theory” that could explain the scope and nature of what was changing.

(See “In the Tangled Jungle of School Reform Harvard… and Sabu find a “Classroom” Teaching Different Lessons”)

But several months ago the means and the ends came together when MCPS received national acknowledgment for the ways they have been systemically achieving those unexpected results.  As a recipient of the 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the district was recognized for “performance excellence through innovation, improvement, and visionary leadership.” And as a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, they were identified as one of the five best large districts in the nation and honored for improving student performance while narrowing academic achievement gaps. No district had ever received both honors.

…Creating new problems … that raise new questions

Now the systemic nature of their success raises new problems and new questions in which urgency becomes a critical factor.

  • Questions for those on the national level who recognize the need for systemic reform that can start now, but still can’t find a way to do it.
  • Then questions for the MCPS itself… if their success is to be sustained after the current superintendent retires this year.
  • And finally new questions for me, because I need thinking partners interesting in engaging in a dialogue about ways to help mine the collective wisdom currently accessible in this district and community, and then how best to communicate it in ways that make sense.

New problem #1:  The MCPS example moves the oft-hoped for goal of “systemic change” from a someday possibility to body of knowledge that offers today’s leaders the greater certainty of probability — a belief in the likeliness that something can occur.

This is more than semantics. Few leaders of “whole systems” are willing to bet children’s survival on statistics and research about some effective “parts” of the system. That may be why the “What Works“ research on new “possibilities” is seldom sufficient to initiate systemic changes that in the process could put the “whole” at risk.

The MCPS experience, however, suggests that there are effective ways to develop the confidence and capacity needed for a community to support and sustain that risk-taking.

…New Questions:

Right now, there’s a unique body of critical knowledge in Montgomery County about the actual nature of systemic governance, leadership and management that I think of as their collective wisdom. Its value derives from its vertical depth from the classroom to the boardroom, its horizontal breadth across all professional and non-professional roles, and its practical base of experience-tested knowledge.

  • How can the collective wisdom developed in the system and community be tapped before it erodes?
  • How can this knowledge be generated and made understandable to those in government and foundations who today are putting major thought, effort and funding into more immediate systemic change and have no sense of how MCPS’ approach (a strategy that used the Baldrige process as a catalyst to change thinking) actually relates to their most pressing concerns?
  • How can the MCPS Baldrige award’s “significance” be leveraged when despite increasing pressures on schools for “change” … (1) there’s been a lack of interest by national reform leaders in Baldrige as a tool for re-forming school systems on-the-go. (2) Many education professionals who claim their concern is for the “kids” think of it as a “business” practice?

Ironically, Montgomery County demonstrates how Baldrige’s “power” actually lies in its capacity to make the work of child-focused teaching the school systems’ “business.” Clues to this nature were evident back in 2002 when an MCPS elementary principal and I attended the Baldrige annual Quest conference where the first school district got the award. Yet she found more to relate to with the “business” sector winners than education’s.  The latter, she thought, didn’t really “get” the nature of using Baldrige as a “way-of-thinking” for systemic change that was beginning to take hold in Montgomery County.

  • (3) And over the past several years there’s been a continuing decrease in superintendent and Board participation in this annual Quest conference which offers a valuable and unique learning experience where current and past awardees share their knowledge.

But not all school systems lost interest. Two years ago, like MCPS, the Iredell-Statesville NC Schools award winner also used the Baldrige process as a catalyst to develop a common way-of-thinking about the work of learning and teaching.

One of the products of that way-of-thinking in both districts was a development strategy that focused on structures that affect all students, and used the needs of some students as the initial focal point for the district’s continual learning/improving cycle.

In both cases that development created an aligned collaborative management structure that could support the sustainable growth in effectiveness of those across the system whose work impacts the processes of student learning. And that may be the reason, I believe, that both districts subsequently received federal Race-to-the-Top I-3 grants to nurture it.

  • And when (4) Proposed 2012 budget cutbacks are forcing the Baldrige program itself to rethink alternative strategies for support. Getting out of the “box” of their present view of Baldrige as a way to improve organizational performance (which it is) might be easier with an understanding of MCPS’ use of the process as a way to improve organizational thinking – the critical context required for creating and sustaining that organizational performance.
  • Who needs to hear these stories, and in ways that can help them learn from it?   What, if anything, can this site do to facilitate it?  Please share your thoughts…

New problem #2: The Montgomery County superintendent’s pre-announced retirement after 12 years, comes at a time of diminishing state and local resources. How can the community’s selection of a replacement be informed by an understanding of the nature of the connected system that must be sustained to continue holding it all together regardless of the quantity of resources?

Traditionally, superintendent turnover results in a “Throwing out the Babies with the Bathtub” condition. The neighboring Washington DC schools offer a continuing example. Every time they throw out a superintendent (seven of the “best and brightest” in the last decade) they also throw out the “bathtub” in which the community’s children (and their teachers) “swim” everyday.  That “bathtub” — the school district —  is the holding space that serves as the container of supportive processes and practices that keep people throughout the system “afloat” as they perform their daily work.

…New Questions:

  • How can the MCPS story serve to raise questions about the school district as “Bathtub” – the necessary systemic container created for a single purpose:  to develop and support the learning capacities of all the kids whose lives it touches

–and which, as a single connected system must hold everybody (the children and adults) and everything (what they do alone and together in managing learning and teaching) needed to achieve that purpose…

–and within which trust is the “water” that supports them – the medium that makes it possible to create and sustain over time the supportive relationships required to achieve their individual and collective purposes.

  • How can this collective wisdom be tapped before it drains out of the “bathtub?” Who needs to understand MCPS’ answers to those questions and how it relates to the requirements for the next superintendent? As Alice’s Cheshire Cat might point out: “If you don’t know what you Need… then any superintendent can get you there!”

What, if anything, can this site do to facilitate it? Please share your thoughts…

The internal context …. I’ve changed:

I’m one year older…  and as that cartoon suggested… an “old dog” trying to learn “new tricks.”  What were my old tricks, what did I learn from them, and what “new tricks” might help others also learn them?

My “old tricks” involved an learning-generating “process,” and two tools: Alice’s Looking Glass and The 20,000 ft. Memo

The process:  As described in more detail on the site at “Catching Them Doing Something Right,” my embedded “Worker/Lurker” role in the MCPS enabled me to

(1) generate information by continually seeking answers to two questions: What’s happening here? …and why? And then

(2) process that information by filtering the answers through a “different lens” that had the capacity to focus on how people function at a common biological level where the brain acts much like an “information pump” that, like a computer’s OS (Operating System), takes in information through the senses and delivers it to the mind’s “software.” (Serving a basic function similar to ways the lungs and the heart are the biological engines that “pump” two other nutrients a body needs for survival – air and blood.)

On this site we metaphorically call the lens Alice’s Looking Glass.  (It’s discussed “in depth” in several other places on the site, including  –  “Welcome Alice,” “Beam Me Up, Seymour and “Making Sense Through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens)

The resulting “map” of MCPS’ common natural “territory” then served as one way to understand the common  why of what I was seeing, hearing and trying to make systemic sense of.

As a diagnostic tool it was like a CTscan or MRI of a “whole elephant” that showed not just the outer skin and all its visible external “parts,”  but at the same time the networks of (information-exchanging) connections beneath the surface that, by interconnecting all the “parts” (that the “Blind Men” are held individually accountable for) enable it to function, develop and survive as a whole.

The 20,000 ft. Memo has been one vehicle for “packaging” and sharing the systemic implications of the simple core principles the lens portrayed.  (Many of these can be found under “20,000 ft. Memos in this site’s Resources section, along with related articles and reports)

Over 12 years these “old tricks” generated significant take-away insights along the way about the processes of schooling and how to transform them.  But now as I review their possible significance I find myself dissatisfied and wondering whether there are some “new tricks” I might use to make them more accessible?

Why do I need “New Tricks” now?”

I’m frustrated. Especially after this year-end reflection on how far along we are in terms of Sabusense’s fundamental purpose to support re-thinking.

I suppose I should be satisfied just playing Copernicus by offering a different mental “map” so that “someday” there will be a paradigm shift based on a different belief about the scope and nature of a “system” …that had been there all along.  Or Galileo who offered a way of seeing the truth of Copernicus’ map without having to wait.

But I’m not. Missed opportunities for action “today” are at the roots of the frustration. On an almost daily basis I read or hear about current struggles between well-meaning adults who originally entered education to make a difference for children …and still believe that in their efforts they have children’s interest at heart.

Now, however, the major energy, time, and resources they devote to their often well-researched and even sensible approaches unfortunately can’t produce the systemic “answers” they hope for because of a flaw in their assumptions about the fundamental “question.” I used to find solace in humorist Josh Billing’s 19th Century observation about that flaw:

“It’s not people’s ignorance you need to fear…
it’s what they know which darn well ain’t true
…that causes all the problems

At least this wasn’t a “new” problem. Unfortunately that recognition didn’t help me deal with the reality that much of today’s passionate dialogue is ultimately meaningless because its based on assumptions that also …“ain’t true.”

And, in fact, is much like the condition Copernicus faced, when the “ain’t true” knowledge dealt with a core truth about the center or aligning point for “connecting all the dots” among the parts of the “system” people at the time tried to make sense of.

How could that still be a thinking problem?  Well recently, centuries after both Billings and Copernicus, a physicist raised the question of whether “truth” really matters if, by accident, it sometimes works?

(Ah-ha! Can this be one of the reasons why Einstein noted the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?)

The scientist had noted that the computer programs used by aeronautics engineers are all based on the Bernoulli principle of fluid mechanics – a theory that can’t explain why or how planes can do what they do.  (…with my underlining)

“Now here’s the significance. The computer programs used by aeronautics engineers all work… by accident. They do not describe what actually takes place in terms of the aerodynamics of flight.

Simply put, they are based on a relationship that is congruent with reality, but that isn’t what really allows this 757 that I am riding in as I write this to stay in the air.  The programs will continue to be used for the design of aircraft in the future because they work.  They’re just not true.”

….In principle, all of this is pretty simple. How many times have all of us thought we understood what was going on in a particular social situation? We observed from a distance, fabricating a framework of reason that made perfect sense, based upon a lifetime of experience. We KNEW why a certain person was doing what they were doing. It was internally consistent. Someone else had even suggested the same reason. We had lots of experience to back up our reasoning.

And then, we find out the truth. There was something we weren’t aware of or hadn’t thought of (someone was getting married the next day, had failed a test, was operating under the conventions of a different culture, etc.), that fundamentally changed your understanding of the whole rationale for the behavior.”

… Maybe significant chunks of what we believe, work… by accident. And if the external context changes, or we make new discoveries, we may have to quickly redesign our understanding of pieces of reality.

That may not be easy. Some people will find it hard to give up the old, familiar, comfortable paradigms. They’ll fight the change, defending the old ideas to the end.  Many will do it without even considering the possibility that they might be wrong.”

Now this seemed to capture one cause of my frustration. For the past five decades new educational approaches have been designed and implemented according to “Theories of Change” based upon assumptions about why things have worked in the past, without considering the possibility that they were “wrong.”

(Finding ways to challenge core beliefs and assumptions without making people feel “wrong” has always challenged me. — see THE TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES TEST: A Belief-changing Tool and Right Paradoxes, Wrong Paradigm: Thinking about Getting it ‘Right’ from now on)

But now there is new urgency to the challenge because at all levels of the society we seem caught up in a condition best characterized by the author Walker Percy as “an age of not knowing what to do.” And because the immediate conditions causing the major economic, international and social problems on the plates of leaders today were unthinkable less than a decade ago, “knowing what to do” today requires a capacity for thinking about the unthinkable.

•      Adding to this frustration have been some personal learnings the “old tricks” generated. In particular, since I’m still an “old dog” I’d like to focus my remaining energies on a role I seem do best – serve as a “thinking partner” to those have to respond to today’s urgencies.   But, on what should I focus, and who needs to be engaged?

Challenges requiring “new tricks”

•     Making the unthinkable thinkable

At first I figured that Steven Covey’s advice should help me here. He noted that since all the problems, challenges, and opportunities we face fall into two areas, that’s where we should focus our time and energy:  Our Circle of Concern (things over which we have little or no control) and our Circle of Influence (things we can do something about).

But for me that creates a tension rather than a simple “either/or” choice. For a “big picture” thinker it’s hard to shrink my 20,000 Ft. Circle of Concern since that serves as context for the specific factors in my Circle of Influence that I want to do something about.  That’s because when I focus my “big picture” lens on the on-the-ground needs of those dealing with every day’s “smaller picture,” it reveals that the fundamental problem limiting their daily effectiveness is a personal “big picture” deeply embedded in the thinking that shapes their actions.

This unquestioned “big picture,” which theorists and scientists call a paradigm or mental model, is formed by beliefs about what we think we see happening in schools that seem to work…  but which, as noted above, “ain’t true.” Practices often may be working for other reasons, not because they have at their core a fundamental natural ”truth.”

This condition is so deeply embedded that few people even notice it when truth-tellers such as Peter Senge and Larry Cuban think the “unthinkable” and note its consequences:

Many confronting the deeper nature of our problems cry out that the solution lies in ‘fixing education.’  But you cannot ‘fix’ a structure that was never designed for learning in the first place.” — Peter Senge

Schools not “designed for learning”… unthinkable.

“Teaching is impossible, yet teachers teach. Expected to give individual attention to EACH child, the teacher knows that it can’t be done.” — Larry Cuban (when he was superintendent of the Arlington VA schools in the 70’s.)

Teachers coming to work each day “knowing” that what is expected of them, and which they want to do, is “impossible” … unthinkable.

•      New tricks needed for a new medium.

I’ve often been criticized for the nature of the ways I’ve communicated over the years (and many times still do) – too abstract, too directive, all head/no heart, very few personal stories, and “keep it simple, stupid.”  Eventually, they force one to consider why.

Having spent a career “pushing out” information through print, film and video where “space” and “time” provide boundaries that force editing decisions, I’ve been trying to learn how to use this virtual medium that lacks “those” limits, but has a more important one.

With the old “push” media, I had to jam as much content as possible into each one because I might not have another chance. (You’ll find many of the documents in the site’s Resource area reflect that approach.)

But now, with a medium from which users control what they want to “pull,” the content first has to engage the reader’s mind. After that, the potential for subsequent interaction can provide the platform for offering additional, and more reader-relevant, “content.”

As I look now at this site’s 18 or so blog postings over the past 2 years, It seems evident that I still haven’t mastered that process. My “new tricks” must include ways to make them shorter, more frequent, and more timely. (Note: This posting isn’t one of those “short” ones.)

•       Bridges needed between Theory and Practice.

Moreover, as a “big picture” thinker I seem to suffer from a dual disability.  I noted in How was this site’s knowledge created? my work place has always been somewhere between theory and practice.  On one side, I engaged with on-the-ground practitioners who knew I lacked the credentials and experience to be one of them, and at the same time, I had relationships with many of the academics and thinkers about that “ground” who may have known I lacked the credentials or degrees to be one of them.

Nevertheless, over time, I was encouraged that some in both camps found the ideas meaningful regardless of my experience and “credentials.” In both workspaces I found that because my way-of-seeing and thinking had become my sense-making paradigm — my frame for understanding — I was perceived as a big picture person who primarily could add value to the thinking of those who had the time to think and re-think before they acted or urged others to act.

Unfortunately, because I’ve mostly worked for foundations, government agencies or practitioner associations that were trying to change current practice, I increasingly noted that I wasn’t always helping those on-the-line practitioners to whom we entrust our children every day.  Their frequent (and as I ultimately found, natural) response: “…but what do we do on Monday?” (see From Mental Models to Monday Morning)

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity over the past 12 years to be an embedded observer in the operational reality of a large school district– where every day is a Monday — that I could fully use this way of making sense to “see” and understand the continual interaction of theory and action, of method and mindset, and of will and way that most influences what happens to children every day.

And along with it, the critical need for “bridges” in the work to support the interactive nature of those “ands.” (Interestingly, the Sufi, whose Blind Men/Elephant parable serves as this site’s organizing metaphor, had another saying that goes to the nature of the “blindness” of those who can only see tangible “parts.”

You think you understand one.
You think you understand two, because one and one make two.
But, you must also understand “and.”

From that dual perspective I began to backmap  the district’s “bridge-building” process by using the lens to track actual changes in the ways people think about schools and the work of schooling, their roles in it, and their beliefs in their own capacities to make a difference for children. And as I did that, I could observe and track the key role of the system’s leaders in building that learning process into the work.

Most important, in terms of the needs of others who also manage Mondays and need to bridge that theory-practice gap, there was now a developing base of documented systemic results-producing processes and practices that create the dot-connecting “Ands” between a purposeful work organization and the purposeful people who do its work.

  • How can the story of MCPS’ experiences developing the important “What’s” and “How’s” of integrated practice be told in the context of the “Why”-answering  theories that served to align and make sense of their dot connecting?

My proposed “New Tricks”

My “old trick” involved serving as a clone of Seymour Sarason’s famous Martian (Beam Me Up, Seymour) hovering 20,000 feet above a school who couldn’t understand what the creatures below him were saying, and therefore tried to understand what was going on just by observing their regular actions. It’s purpose: to raise questions for the reader – not just about why people would do things like that… but then, without thinking, regularly continue to do them?

Now with this new medium I intend my new tricks to continue to support that role by using this site’s two capacities:

1) a central blog area intended to focus on current concerns and engage discussion about them, and

2) a homepage, that serves as a linked storehouse for much of the knowledge that can serve as supporting context for the discussions

…and in ways that give an “old’ dog” the personal and professional flexibility that the old “push” media didn’t – i.e., the freedom to rant and rave… with an immediate capacity to link it to reasons justifying them (without going through academic formalities like footnotes, etc.) In fact, for those who might question the validity of my future rantings and ravings, I’ll refer them to this posting to find the reasons.

Several of the “new tricks will use Alice’s Looking Glass to generate shorter, more frequent, and more timely blog postings. These will be linked to ”longer” “20,000 ft. Memos that capture the “big picture” consequences and will be in appropriate areas on the home page.  Some proposed examples.

•       “EdWeek” …through Alice’e Looking Glass , The “Answer Sheet” …through Alice’e Looking Glass,  “Class Struggle”through Alice’e Looking Glass

I’m a big fan and occasional contributor to the weekly national publication, Education Week. (In fact they included something I wrote in their 25th anniversary publication “The Last Word:” The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education.”)  I’m also a fan of the Washington Post’s two education bloggers who struggle weekly to make sense many times of the same educational conditions, but from differing perspectives. (see Making Sense of “Nonsense”).

But each week, as a prisoner of my Alice’s Looking Glass way-of-thinking, one or more articles frustrate me.  Parts of the arguments “make sense” to me because the reflect core natural “truths,” and the parts that don’t make sense usually are based on “unquestioned” beliefs that “ain’t true.”

That’s why the problems being posed and the solutions being offered can’t in the end have their intended effects. And why over the past decades the problems ailing our schools and the ideas for fixing them haven’t really changed. The controversies go on… and whatever “works,” apparently doesn’t for long.

For my own immediate frustration-relieving psychological health therefore, I’m going to offer, via periodic postings, a different perspective on the current news in education as viewed through Alice’s Looking Glass… and use it to raise different questions that might stimulate re-thinking.

•      Barking Dogs… not being heard

A 2nd “new trick” — an occasional series of blog postings under the heading  – Barking Dogs… not being heard —  also will focus on asking different questions – but this time on the ones we strangely don’t ask.

This requires switching my favorite animal metaphor from an elephant to a dog to take advantage of how Sherlock Holmes dealt with dilemmas like ours today where none of the answers to what seems to be the problem make sense, and produce, as Diane Ravitch complains, feelings of “insanity.”

In one famous story Holmes noted something there all along that wasn’t being noticed — a “dog” that didn’t bark.” An “X-factor,” or as lawyers say, “facts not in evidence.” And he asked, “Why?”

Those who may have explored the Sabusense site know that our central hypothesis is that

1) there is a “fact not in evidence” — something missing in the way we understand the “problem”— that’s keeping us from making sense of it’s most critical factors.

2) we suggests what that “x-factor” is, and

3) offer examples of how the scope and nature of the problem changes when it is factored in.

The intention, as noted at the top of the home page, is to offer a different way-of-thinking based on that view to serve as an alternative “box” within which to “connect-the-dots.”  Then within it, raise the questions “not being asked,” and point to where the answers might be found in the experiences of MCPS and others .

Our major challenge in this series of postings differs from Holmes’ whose solution addressed only why a “dog” wasn’t barking. Today the “dogs” are, and have been barking for a long time… but are not heard …and few are asking why we don’t (or can’t) hear them.

These Barking Dog postings will use that understanding to focus on issues currently the subject of passionate debate. And at a time when public dialogue and personal conversations seem to create polarization by focusing on the ways things are different, we’ll try to provide a way to see how they are the same… and natural. And use that to align what we see to a different center point that offers another way to make sense similar to what Copernicus and Galileo could have used – a way to see the solar system as one would see it if it were possible to stand on the sun and notice the movement and relationships of the planets from that orientation.  (As an example, see “The One Thing! …a simple  proposal.”

One early posting in this series will  raise questions about Bill Gates current approach to “reform” by pointing out the “barking dog” that he isn’t hearing in his well-funded, well-intended, — but guaranteed to fail in its intended purpose —  approach to systemic improvement.

•      “YOU are HERE!” — 20,000 ft. Thought experiments

I always look for one of those “YOU are HERE!” signs with their red arrows when I’m in strange place because it at least gives me a better chance to see where I am in the context of where I want to go, and what my possibilities might be for getting there.

Similarly, while leaders often are judged by their visions of the future at the “end of the tunnel,” it’s the nature of their vision at the “here end of the tunnel” that is a more important factor in their getting to that other end.  They need “maps” that can encompass both “ends,” because as John Dewey pointed out:

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

These thought experiments will offer ways to extract “full meanings” from the present territory “at this end of the tunnel” where each day’s journey must start.

“New Tricks” …needing Thinking Partners

•      Tapping and Distilling the Collective Wisdom

Many of the answers that researchers have been trying to capture, and which current policy makers need, are still embedded in the MCPS staff’s and community’s collective wisdom.

What role can this site play in surfacing that collective wisdom before it erodes?

How can it be used to raise the questions that will tap their unique experience-based knowledge of what’s involved in functioning systemically?

Among the examples of collective wisdom already there that needs to be surfaced and made functional are

—  new insights on the intertwined systemic roles of the CEO (superintendent), the CAO (chief academic officer), and the COO (chief operating officer) that have direct implications for leadership development and support strategies.  And

— how to develop a supporting scaffold over the district’s work that enables a community of learners to simultaneously function as a learning community.

One final 20,000 Ft. reflection… No pain… no gain!

Going through this rethinking process of my own reminds me that while thinking is a natural process, re-thinking isn’t…and in fact, as we stress on this Homepage’s Surgeon General’s Warning, it can “make your head hurt.”

And I realize now even more how much I owe my pain to two culture-busting organizations that have given me the supportive encouragement to initiate and continue to develop Sabusense.

One, the Plexus Institute, whose mission is to foster the health of individuals, families, communities, organizations, and our natural environment by helping people understand and use the common “simple rules” emerging from the new science of complexity.

And the other, the InThinking Network,
supported by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, that believes that “inthinking,” — thinking about thinking— can allow people to better perceive relationships and interdependencies in human endeavors, and consequently act to make those endeavors more valuable, more satisfying, and more joyful.

I guess it’s true: No pain… no gain!

Old Teachers never die…

I’m always a little jarred when I see an obituary for someone I’ve known, but several  weeks ago when I saw Jule Sugarman’s it was different.  For the 3rd time in my life I found myself reflecting on my experiences with someone who provided an experiential classroom from which I took away significant learnings. He taught me how to care.

The complementary understandings these three helped develop began to drive my journey through theory and practice whose products are integral to the nature and content of this Sabusense website.

Two of these teachers consciously played the teacher’s role – W. Edwards Deming and Seymour Sarason. But Jule Sugarman was a do-er and creator — maybe best known as the original architect of Lyndon Johnson’s Headstart.

Deming provided a way for me to see the “box” people struggle to “think outside of;” Sarason, a way to understand and “connect the dots” within it; and Sugarman with a way to get my hands around, and make manageable, what the others enabled me to get my mind around.

In “The Impact of Deming’s Legacy” I acknowledged taking away a different mental “map” for understanding the reality of people in organizations.

In  “Beam me up, Seymour” I reflected on the power of the role Sarason’s “Martian” had played in my career as a generator of different questions. (The Martian was someone 20,000 ft. above the earth who could only “see” what happens in a school, and then tried to understand their purposes based upon what he called their “regularities.”  These are the patterns of action accepted without much thought as the way its “supposed to be,” but which mindlessly become the binding and connecting structures limiting everyone’s capacities to make a difference. I subsequently adapted that role for my 20,000 ft. Memo writing relationship with the school district whose story provides the experiential platform for this site’s thinking. (“Catching them doing something right”)

As I reflected now on my relationship with Jule Sugarman, I saw a synergy among the three I hadn’t recognized before.

•            Deming had influenced the way-of-thinking that became my way of understanding,

•            Sarason had influenced my “role” in applying that way-of-thinking to the work of a major school district I had been observing “from 20,000 ft.” for the past 12 years. And

•            Sugarman had helped me drill down to a focal point exposing the fundamental purpose and nature of the work.

As a tribute, I’d like to tell that story here.

In the late 60’s, I headed up a Ford Foundation project aimed at furthering technology use in schools.  TV was to be the silver bullet making the best teachers accessible to every child.  At the same time, President Johnson’s War on Poverty aimed a new initiative at what he called “The People Left Behind” — including migrant workers.  I don’t recall all the details now, but somehow Jules Sugarman, who had created Headstart for OEO, and I developed and held a May, 1968 conference in St Louis called Communication Technology and the People Left Behind. My contribution included a presentation —  “Problem Analysis and Planning in an Electronic Context.” (ugh!)

Two takeaways from that meeting seeded the way-of-thinking I’ve carried with me ever since and have shaped the way-of-“seeing” I used to capture the experiences of the MCPS for the past 12 years.

My session included interaction with my audience of largely-minority parents. I put a list of educational resources (including the best teachers in each subject area) on the screen and asked them to prioritize them. My hope: they would end up with identifying the need to bring those great teachers to their children, and then logically TV would be the practical “answer.”

But that’s not where they ended up.  In answer to my direction to identify “the last thing they would want to give up,” their unanimous answer was “someone who cares about my child.”

(Years later that would come to mind as I read Gen. Colin Powell’s five things every child should be guaranteed and the priority order in which they occurred.  First was “An on-going relationship with a caring adult…”)

•            This ah-ha (for me) was followed later by the recognition that “caring” is an information-based process. It’s hard to care about, or care for, someone you know little about. You need “information” – both objective… and the subjective kind that usually develops from regular interactions with that person.

•            This started me asking a different question. How could we use these new information technologies to inform the interactions of the teaching process so that people who care about a child can know that child? Not just to know them in terms of the differences test results portray, but to know them in terms of the individual range of assets they bring to the teaching/learning interactions?

That question started me down a path of technology use (while I was at ASCD and AASA) different from most of my peers efforts aimed at putting technology in the hands of students. My search: ways for adults to use it to inform the teaching process and to support the interactive relationships that process needed. (Several papers and articles from that time are under this site’s Resource section.)

It also enabled me to connect-the-dots when I later encountered the information-driven principles of cognitive biology that are embedded in this site’s way-of-thinking and seeing.

So, thanks, Jule… sorry it took so long to remember how much I owe you.