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Why is Sense-Making so hard?

Why is Sense-Making so hard?

Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen…
but to think about what nobody yet has thought about,,,
…which everybody sees.

We have been told that to really understand how schools can effectively address the increasingly complex conditions that impact the lives of children today we first have to “get-out-of-the-box,” “shift our paradigm’” and “connect-the-dots.” Why?

One answer may be a learning disability we share in common.  We can’t easily make sense of the myriad conditions that children, parents, teachers must respond to today.  And before we can get our hands around these conditions we first have to get our minds around them.

Obviously Making Sense is necessary… before we can “change,” “fix,” “improve,” “transform” the system whose “results” we see playing out in the acts of children today we must be able to understand them.   But why should it be so hard?

  • Why doesn’t common sense seem work any more?  Why do there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for applying the common sense of experienced practitioners to the important work that schools must do?
  • Why should it be so hard to make sense of a “known” organization that most have directly experienced, as one observer noted, as “veterans or victims?”
  • Why do practices, proven effective by sound research, seldom work for long when inserted into the flow of systemic work of schools?  Why, in a twist on an old adage, if the “operations are a success,” do the doctors (whose capacities the system must sustain) die?”
  • Why should it be so hard for the “Blind men” to see the “Elephant” — the already-connected “system” they interact with each day? As Seymour Sarason once noted after reviewing all the major reform reports:
    “When you read the myriad of recommendations these commission reports contain, it becomes clear that they are not informed by any conception of a system.  That is a charitable assessment.

    …Having read scads of commission reports, I can only conclude that they rest on the invalid assumption that school systems are unique systems . . . those outside the system with responsibility for articulating a program for reform have nothing resembling a holistic conception of the system they seek to influence.”

  • Why do so many people trying to help schools start by accepting certain conditions of schooling as natural, intractable and unsolvable paradoxes that just go-with-the-territory?  And then end up invisibly supporting the common sense of common practice that, like the “elephant-on-the-table, pretends they aren’t there..

Again, the answer can be found in our common learning disability.  Actually, they do make sense— or they wouldn’t be supported as common practice.  But it is a different form of “common sense.”

We characterize “common sense” as what people seem to instinctively know [and therefore seldom think or talk about].  It’s a body of theories developed from our experiences of things that work… or seem to work.  And it is a product of our mind’s sense-making system.

But there is a category of theory that psychologists call “common sense realism,” “natural realism,” or “naive realism.” These are “theories that the world is perceived exactly as it is.”  We see it, and therefore believe it. Observable experience tells us it’s so. The earth looks flat, it must be. The sun appears to move around the earth therefore the earth must be at the center. When teaching young children these are termed “naive theories,” and we expect a child to hold them until taught otherwise.

But for adults, on the other hand, the “teaching” [or unlearning] task is much harder because the roots of “common sense realism” go much deeper. Reinforced by personal experience, have become entwined with other observable conditions that we “saw” because we believed. Cognitive science has provided new terms – “mental models,” “paradigms” – to confirm the old idea that our minds program themselves by a self-fulfilling cycle of “seeing what we believe and believing what we then see.”

As a result, today’s difficulties understanding what we “see” when we look at classrooms and schools may be caused by frameworks of  “common sense beliefs” created from prior observations.  For example:

  • First, we see a single teacher acting in an isolated classroom setting and conclude that what we see happening is the teaching process. The teaching process is what we see the teacher doing. The person and the process are the same.
  • Then we leave the classroom, and “see” that the classroom interactions of teaching and learning take place in a school building — a manageable “system” created with the expectation that it can support and sustain that teacher’s management of those learning interactions. Now it appears as if the building and the system that contains and continually influences the quality of teaching and learning are the same. We conclude that the building must be the sustainable container for the teaching process.
  • As a consequence of accepting the building as “the system,” we believe that systemic change must be directed at creating more strong, self-contained units like this. When we do, we think we have “changed the system.”
  • It also seems like common sense to hold accountable the two individuals we’ve been observing — a teacher who “obviously” must be the one accountable for the outcomes of a complex teaching process that is expected to meet the needs of each student, and a principal who “obviously” must be the one accountable for the system of related support that is expected to meet the unique teaching needs of each teacher.

And, because that makes sense to us, we then provide rewards and punishments based upon those expectations. Then when teachers and principals suggest that they are being held accountable for outcomes they don’t totally “control,” we blame them for being “defensive” and “unchangeable.” And develop programs to “fix,” punish or replace them.

This is one of those paradigm paradoxes at the core of every failed attempt to “fix” schools. Just as the earth looks flat and it seems that the sun revolves around the earth, when you look into classrooms it does seem that teachers “cause” learning. And when you look at a school it seems obvious that “all” a teacher might need to cause that learning can be found there.

But do teachers cause learning? Do building principal’s cause teaching? Do acorns cause oak trees? No!  Acorns, teachers, and principals are each critically necessary, but not sufficient, contributors to the final result. In each case, the other influences must come from the environment — the immediate system of influences on the teacher/tree and the developing seed/learner.

But because of our “common sense theories,” when we look at the conditions and problems of schools today on mental maps shaped by these theories, we have trouble “seeing” the actual scope and nature of that immediate environment.

It seems to make sense that the “immediate “system of influences is the school building because of it’s physical proximity to the classroom. Yet we continually fail to sustain effective changes in that environment when building leadership changes, or to spread [or scale-up] that effective model to other buildings in its own district. Our common sense answer (since our minds are pre-programmed for sense-making, and they must create connections between effects and their “causes”) is that the problem is “out there” in the school district – a separate entity outside what we’ve perceived as “the system” that we can do something about right now.

That conclusion, unfortunately, keeps us from recognizing (1) the scope and nature of the school district “tree” as the smallest bounded unit that can support and sustain the system’s required connecting processes; and (2) that within that system, those processes are the acts of interdependent people.

As illustrated in the story of school system change that is woven through this website, (Catching Them Doing Something Right.) the school district is the “container” that can, and must, frame that focused interdependence.

Missing that sense-making understanding, we will continue to confuse individuals with the interdependent acts of individuals  — the relational processes that must support their work.

Is this Education’s problem alone?

The challenge of overriding the seeming knowledge created by “Common-Sense Realism” is not education’s alone.

As we know from Copernicus’ and Galileo’s unfortunate experiences, alternative explanations for why things happen have a difficult time breaking through the “maps” developed from what people think they “know” because they observed it.

Usually there is no real pressure on them to change their view.  For example, before Copernicus, daily work still could be done, people could get from here to there even if they believed the earth was flat and also the center of the universe. They may not have accomplished their tasks as effectively as they could have, but they still could use their “common sense” to get much of the work done. The only ones who would have had to take the new theory seriously would have been those whose task accomplishment required it. For example, had NASA existed then — using “common-sense”-based pre-Copernican maps — they could do everything “right.” They could have the best-trained astronauts and the latest equipment, but would seldom get where they intended to go.

If something about that seems to resonate with conditions on the front pages of today’s newspapers as policymakers struggle to understand what to do about the economy, the environment, terrorism, etc., it may be because knowing what to do but not how to do it is a consequence of using maps, based on “Common-Sense Realism,” that don’t match the territory that must be navigated.

The good news is that this is the perceptual condition that this website addresses and we don’t have to wait 300 years for practice to catch up with theory. There is a need for a different way to map the territory we’ve been “seeing’ through old beliefs about the scope and nature of the work of schools.

For evidence and theory, see MAPPING THE NATURAL TERRITORY. For the principles embedded in the practice-viewing lens see MAKING SENSE THROUGH A SYSTEMIC LEADERSHIP & MANAGEMENT LENS. For the products of that view see WHAT CAN BE SEEN…AND LEARNED?


Comment from Leon Lessinger
Time March 21, 2009 at 11:17 am

Lew, I found this site to be a most useful one for leaders (and citizens in general) interested in exploring the vital issues that must be examined if real improvement and progress is to occur in education. I know it must be a “labor of love” on your part. I have high hopes for the value of this effort.
Best Wishes,
Leon Lessinger

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