Getting the diagnosis right

Institutions of higher education have become famous for getting diagnoses of their problems wrong. The ways they react to escalating problems with their costs, completion rates or reputations prove to be wrong-minded. The same misdiagnoses occur in college classrooms when students have problems with comprehension, motivation, paying attention, attendance or meeting deadlines. Something seems to be missing that would enable college administrators and faculty members to get an accurate read of the symptoms to their complex, underlying problems.

Whenever we misdiagnose a problem, we typically make the problem worse. We do more harm than good by trying to solve the problem we've misjudged. We work against the emergent solution by feeding the dynamics which maintain the problem. We think we can fix what's broken as if it does not have a life of its own that pushes back when pushed. We point fingers at the problem without any fingers pointing back at us. We avoid implicating ourselves or seeing our own outlook as part of the system which maintains the problem. We overreact to what is obvious and downplay what is hidden from view, intangible and only inferred by the evidence.

There are several ways to "mind a problem" that have gone missing when we consistently misdiagnose problems with deep, complex dynamics:

  1. we lack enough curiosity to wonder about the evidence, to question our own assumptions and to open up to changing our minds
  2. we dismiss the intangible dynamics, loops that include us and cyclical patterns of interaction that play off our own extremes
  3. we rule out the possibility of being taught a lesson, being shown something we don't already know or encountering the limits of our current understanding
  4. we insist on a linear, determinate, categorical explanation rather than a recursive, indeterminate and nuanced representation
  5. we assume others are the cause of the problems which can be isolated, objectified and simplified without error
  6. we lack empathy for those who get blamed for the problem or who get misdiagnosed as being entirely responsible for the problem 
  7. we fail to recognize how the misdiagnoses are bad for our brains and have been impairing our abilities to diagnose problems correctly

Institutions inadvertently reward the widespread misdiagnoses of problems by valuing those who loyally tell their leaders what they want to hear. By also shooting messengers who bring news of a different diagnosis, the leadership sends a loud message to embrace the consensual misdiagnosis like "party faithfuls". The top level frames those with a different read on a problem as a traitor, saboteur or infidel who can easily be scapegoated for creating the problem. The accurate diagnosis becomes a hot-button issue that would induce overwhelming cognitive dissonance for the leaders if they faced the reality of the underlying dynamics. By dwelling on their disconnected dashboards, they conveniently distract themselves from what's really occurring, why it's getting worse and how it's getting fed by their way of minding the problems.

The reinvention of higher ed can counteract all this with several different strategies:

  • Distribute diagnostic skills development to every student, faculty member and administrator
  • Expose those insidious dynamics I described above to undermine their perpetuity without question
  • Empower the students to red flag the misdiagnoses, to identify what's missing and to call for reformulation of problem definitions
  • Map the dynamics of the correct diagnoses in a publicly accessible wiki so every member of the educational system can see how to stop feeding the problems personally

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