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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)

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