Main menu:

Site search

Recent Posts

Posts by Categories



Sharing the Pain

Drilling beneath the 5th Why?
…and finding a tangled surprise

When things don’t work out the way we expect them to, a natural response is to ask WHY? Answers that seem to make sense then usually determine what we decide to do about it.

But today there seems to be a fundamental problem with the commonsense answers offered for why American schools need to be fixed. Among the most popular seem to be: There are no “standards.” Teachers aren’t well-prepared. Educators don’t want to change. Administrators are too controlling. There isn’t enough research about “What Works,” There isn’t enough time in the school day/year. Classes are too large. Unions don’t care about the kids,” etc.

Yet after decades of concerted foundation and government actions aimed at fixing these logical “causes” for why effective learning and teaching was not happening in every classroom… nothing is significantly different. What can be proven to work for some, apparently can’t be supported and sustained for all. WHY? How can that be? Educators, corporate, foundation and government executives aren’t dumb. They’re probably more familiar with schools than any other organization in society because, like most of us, their understanding is based on personal experiences as its veterans and/or victims.

Asking Why?
One of this site’s premises is that the way we ask a question affects the answers. Therefore, to take the focus off initially-assumed answers, we’ve often turned to Japanese management’s 5 Why? questioning approach to problem-solving. Its intriguing promise was that it could lead us through tangled layers of a problem’s “effects” to its actual “root cause.” Then, with a better sense of the connections between a problem’s visible “symptoms” and the “disease” itself, we might better understand why attempts to scale up solutions to “symptoms” in the end fail to cure the core systemic problem.

The 5 Why? process, in effect, backmaps cause & effect thinking.

  • It starts from evidence of the immediate problem condition and its effects. What we accept as their immediate causes becomes the answer to the 1st Why?
  • But those “causes” usually are the “effects” of other causes further upstream. What caused them is the answer to the 2nd Why?
  • This iterative questioning process continues until reaching the 5th Why? which usually reveals a “simple” condition (much like Complexity theory’s Simple Rules concept) whose rippling consequences eventually create the original downstream problems.

I’ve always liked the process because of the learning ah-ha’s it evoked. In fact the concept for this Sabusense website emerged from a “Thoughtpiece” developed for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne’s In2:InThinking Enterprise Thinking network. It was titled: “In Search of the 5th WHY?– A learning journey that started with a different map, …and ended up uncovering a territory that our “thinking maps” weren’t capturing.”

But his time it wasn’t that simple. At the 5th Why? I found an unexpected surprise….
When I got to what I felt was the “simple” root cause of the complex problems schools face today (see Why is Sense-Making so Hard?), I found instead two entangled roots — twisted and turned like the above DNA double helix — at once divided and connected, separate and in concert.

And then, to make it worse, the clue to their unraveling was concealed between them. It turned out to be a third factor that offered the potential to untwist and free up the natural power inherent in each “root.”

Unfortunately, their entanglement also seemed to be the source for much of the cognitive “pain” referred to in the Surgeon General’s Warning. I’m sharing some of that pain here because this condition creates a problem not only for understanding the work of schools but because, as with DNA., these “roots” actually are the only source for maintaining the system’s sustainable growth.

And apparently I wasn’t the first to uncover this. Separated by millennia, both current management guru Jim Collins and the ancient Sufi had discovered its unique power. And the school district I was observing seemed to be intuitively tapping its potentials to create a coherent, sustainable system.

That’s why I believe that, at the end of the day, the product of their “above-ground” experiences in governing, leading, managing and functioning as a connected system can offer significant lessons for those in policy, practice and research who struggle to get their mind’s and hands around the problems of sustainable systemic reform.

For me, what can be learned from this school system’s approach to reconnecting its work so it could function as an integrated learning management system can be the most important take-away learning. To support that belief I intend for this site to serve your needs to understand its meaning for you. So, operating from the belief of No pain/No gain, I’ll use the next several postings to attempt some initial untangling, open it for your thoughts, and then fill in details in response to what seems to make sense to you.

The first root cause I call the Quantum Paradox (see Part II: Sharing the Pain); the second, the X-Factor (see Part III: Sharing the Pain). The third root cause, which because of its nature I didn’t notice at first, I’ll refer to as: The Gap-Causing Gap (see Part IV: Sharing the Pain).

Write a comment