Learning from problems

Ocean Swim Russell to Paihia 2010

 

“Don’t talk about learning or training at all; talk about solving business problems, addressing issues and finding solutions. In business the minute you say we have a problem in this area and this is how I can solve it, you will get buy-in as long as you turn out to be correct.”  Charles Elvin

This is great advice from Charles, who is director of the Centre for Professional Learning and Development at the Open University. He has previously held senior executive positions in major private and public sector organisations, with extensive international and cross cultural experience through living and working in the USA, across Europe and throughout SE Asia.

Peter Senge also gives some good advice about problems.  He says underlying problems generate symptoms that demand attention.  But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront.  So people “shift the burden” of their problem to other solutions – well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient.  Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem. (Senge, 1990. p. 103)

We believe our six dimensional model has value in the problem solving process because it is a backward design process.  It helps learners to identify where they want to be and to what standard.  This can give clarity and vision to working through complex problems.  For example, consider a business, team or set of students that have become poor performers over time.  They were once confident and capable and producing good results.  Now they are locked in a cycle of under performance, defeat or as in the case of students, they have left the class.  (Non attendance appears to be a growing concern of teachers.)

The first step is to decide what you want to be able to do (skills) , and then decide to what standard (values). In the case of the work team, you will want them to meet their performance requirements and demonstrate professionalism and collaboration.  With the sports team, you want them to win, and enjoy the game.  If you are a teacher you will want your learners to meet their performance requirements (course assessments) and be engaged in their learning.

If you frame your problem is positive terms, it is easier to identify the solution. The work team needs to be rewarded for professionalism and collaboration. The sports team need to regain their sense of fun and enjoyment, and the students need to be engaged with their learning. Now the real work begins, thinking creatively about how to bring about cultural changes to create an environment in which teams, players and learners can be active and engaged. Key to this process are the underlying values that permeate everything.

We have explored designing for values in earlier posts, How to get the X factor.  Your team members, players and learners will need to receive and respond to the values you are requiring.  They will need to prioritise and commit to the values in their own lives, and finally they will need to demonstrate them in the team, on the field and in the classroom.  You will need to create an environment which embodies and rewards demonstration of those values.

Now you are ready for the remaining four components of our six dimensional model.  In the new culture and environment, spend time discussing the what is needed (skills) to perform. If the skills have not been mastered, put in place practice opportunities with lots of feedback and encouragement.

Knowledge remains important in any field so you may need to go back to the key concepts and principles that support your team, players and learners performance. People do forget and they do become distracted so regular exploration of key knowledge can really lift performance.

In terms of people keep collaboration and and respect high on the agenda. Encourage open and honest communication and be sure that everyone is trained in how to give and receive constructive feedback.

Learning, can be supported through online and face to face communities of practice. Here experts and practitioners share their knowledge with novices.  Specific problems can be addressed and the finding those solutions can be learning opportunities for everyone.

Integrating your efforts and energy together in a positive culture will bring rewards in performance. This may not mean that every part of the work team project is brilliant, or that your team wins every game or you have 100% attendance in class. What it does mean is that you have a much better chance of achieving improved performance.  Remember, you don’t stand a chance if you don’t take a chance.

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. Double Day: USA

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