Breaking emotional stalemates

Emotional baggage often creates a standoff with others. "They don't want to go where we're coming from and we don't want to go to where they're at". These emotional stalemates appear to be irreconcilable when the participants do not have matching luggage. Neither side wants to give in or give up their own stance. Both sides are emotionally invested in their status quo.

Taking a closer look at the stalemate, we can observe how each side is coming from a very different place. The baggage-laden place feels powerless, helpless, needy and insecure. It's seeking collusion and commiseration to alleviate anxieties about being abandoned, unacceptable or the only one with the problem. It asks the other side to "feel my pain", "get where I'm coming from" or "join my pity party".

The opposite place feels confident, productive and powerful. It's seeking solutions to problems, progress that's readily available and actions to stop acting stuck. It's feeding its confidence, productivity and power to make progress and solve problems. It asks the insecure side to "stop moping around" or "feel better about yourself by getting something accomplished".

To go from powerless to productive creates a nightmare experience for anyone burdened by emotional baggage. Their worst fears are coming true. It proves they are abandoned, unacceptable or the only one with the dreadful problem. There's no escaping the evidence of their being deviant, defective and deficient. Their insecurities get magnified and self-confidence becomes ever more elusive. The chronic stalemate seems preferable to making a unilateral concession to the the productive, powerful and confident opposition.

Stalemates like these get broken by seeing them the way I've just described them. When participants can see the stalemate from the sidelines, they can disrupt their own reactions inside the vicious cycle. Each can see from above or afar what they are doing to themselves, selfishly asking of the others and contributing to mutual misunderstandings. With this new perspective, both sides can get to a better place. The underlying anxieties and nightmare experiences get alleviated. The baggage-laden assumptions get disputed and the chronic reactions get disrupted. Instead of forcing oneself to become productive or to collude with the misery, both become much more understanding of the assemblage of interests. The desired outcomes of confidence, power and productivity emerge from the collaborative understanding.


Getting out of a stuck place

When we get into a stuck place, it's especially difficult to get out of that place. They don't call it "stuck" for nothing! With this new approach of using spatial metaphors to embrace the complexity of emotional baggage, I got a picture of where stuck places are at that makes sense of the difficulty of getting out of them.

Imagine a place next to a stuck place that is easily accessible, but very unappealing. We can go there, but don't want to. Our experiences with leaving the stuck place and ending up there have seemed worse than staying stuck. We talk about this place next to a stuck place as:
  • Going from the frying pan into the fire
  • Leaving our comfort zones to experience major discomfort
  • Entering the lion's den in search of safety
  • Going from a constant mood to becoming anxiety-ridden, tormented and restless

When we've moved out of the stuck place in this way, we've only made a first order change. We've remained on the same level where the problem was created. We've gone for a ride on the merry-go-round. We've opted for oscillation instead of resolution of the opposing tensions. We're using cognitive strategies that work great for routine actions, but suck at getting unstuck. We've become as reliable as a rubber stamp or cookie cutter, instead of creatively thinking outside the box.

The situation calls for making a different move at a deeper level. It's time to drop down instead of moving out of the stuck place. Down below there are other changes we can make before trying to get unstuck. Here are a few to work though with the support of others who have been there:
  • Letting go of opinions about people, incidents and prospects to consider lots of varied interests, connections and interactions
  • Abandoning positional stances to explore the underlying function of a literal form, the inherent essence of an explicit desire and the intrinsic significance of obvious facts
  • Dismantling fixations by adding complications, nuances, criteria and refinements
  • Translating idealized, perfectionistic goals into more feasible, practical and implementable objectives

When we go there, different exits open up. We can leave the stuck place through the openings created at this deeper level. We delve below what we're clinging to and insisting upon to end up in a much better place. We give ourselves a gift of freedom with a little help from true friends.


What's been eating you exactly?

Once there was a rabbit that made a daily visit to a vegetable garden with a corner full of cabbages. On every previous day, he would nibble on some cabbage leaves and then assimilate what he ate. The cabbage leaves turned into more rabbit. It seemed there could be no other way for assimilation to happen. The cabbages did not have mouths, teeth or digestive systems. Empirical evidence assessed by modern scientists confirmed that the process of assimilation was asymmetrical. But on that day, the rabbit got assimilated by the cabbages and became more cabbage. When other rabbits asked him "what's been eating you lately?", he truthfully answered "those cabbages". Assimilation proved to be a symmetrical process, a two way street.

We assume we're using a figure of speech when we say that something is eating us. We convey that same metaphor with expressions like "it's been gnawing at me lately" or "it left me feeling devoured". What we're saying in so many words is that we've got some emotional baggage. We've been through a negative experience that convinced us to change our minds in a big way. We're now convinced that we're no longer safe, trustworthy, smart, capable, worthy of respect, or some other disqualified quality we had valued in ourselves.

It initially seems that we internalize the negative impression of ourselves. We have a new way to get on our case, to be critical of ourselves and to express unhappiness with our conduct. However, as time passes with no relief in sight, it's more appropriate to imagine that we've been internalized by the experience. We're like the rabbit that turned into the cabbage. We've been assimilated by the negative experience and turned into more of it. It's still gnawing at us. It's exactly what's been eating us.

When we've been eaten by an experience, we are living a confined life inside it. We cannot get out of it. Trying to be different or to get over it once and for all cannot succeed. We're trapped inside a story that offers no escape on the level of what happened, what continues to occur and what cannot happen otherwise. We can only deny the experience, pretend it didn't happen and wish it would go away, all the while remaining deep inside it.

There is a way out of the negative, internalized experience. It calls for some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance. We need a series of contradictory, convincing experiences to shatter our predictions, preconceptions and predilections. We need persuasive proof that we've definitely got it wrong about ourselves, what really happened and what's possible from now on. We need to internalize a new deal that eliminates the old one. We then complete that initial process of assimilation with elimination of what's been irrefutable on the inside. We find we've moved outside of everything that's been inevitably true and unavoidably persistent. We're in a new place with a lot more space to explore.


Depending on the emotional investment

Only ten or fifteen percent of the soldiers in a violent series of encounters get PTSD. The others get over the horror and get on with their lives. Likewise, not every victim of a felony assault gets traumatized for years after the episode. Not every incident of domestic violence or abuse creates lasting emotional scars.

One pattern I observed in the Frontline documentary: The Wounded Platoon, connected the impact of emotional investments made by soldiers to their experience of trauma. Those that had bonded emotionally with comrades and leaders were far more traumatized by the violence and impossibility of showing compassion for their fallen comrades. They had set themselves up with more to lose which made their losses more devastating. Those soldiers that remained aloof, numb or focused on the job to get done -- were better able to take the horrors in stride. Soldiers give "emotional investment" a bad name.

That pattern may repeat among female sex workers and college coeds. Most sex workers are not emotionally invested in the clientele, their own inviolability or their reputation. An encounter that could be considered "rape" in other contexts, would get written off as one episode of "rough trade" amidst several encounters on a given night. Their emotional detachment makes it easy to forget about it and move on. The same abusive encounter with a female college student could traumatize her into extreme isolation and avoidance of all sexual interest in her. She would be haunted by the memories, routinely flooded with dark moods and paranoid when walking on campus. Her deep investment in her own inviolability and reputation would set-up the emotional scarring. Like the soldiers, rape victims give "emotional investment" a bad name. Both punishments from emotional investments seem to eliminate any other better options.

Here's how our full spectrum of emotional investment options look to me when arranged in space:

When we make an emotional investment, we've moved onto shaky ground. We're no longer in control of our experience. We are depending on other people or happenstance to feel okay about ourselves. We're eager to please and anxious to make things right. We're neither confident or in charge of what is deemed to be pleasing and right. We're coming from a place that makes us appear clinging and needy to others.

When we're on shaky ground, the only alternative in sight is even worse. We can go into isolation and wallow in self pity. We become emotionally withdrawn and unavailable. We put up walls to defend ourselves from feeling our feelings again. We appear to have become" lifeless zombies" to others. In this place, we cannot show interest in others or endure others' interest in us. We've invested heavily in emotional safety at all cost.

There's a far better place to get to from shaky ground that does not open us up to getting hurt the same way all over again. We move onto solid ground from shaky ground and feel very differently about ourselves. We can make a different kind of investment.

When we move onto solid ground, we restore our own control over our experience. We get to call the shots and frame the evidence by trusting our own lenses. We've withdrawn the kind of emotional investment that can make us needy, insecure and dependent on others' opinions. We're invested in our own confidence, efficacy and freedom. This solid ground gives us the feeling that we can let go of whatever happened in the past. We feel we are now a different person now with many different resources, outlooks and experiences. We are looking forward to a very different future than the one defined by the troubling past incidents.

Getting to solid ground usually requires a support system. We need convincing experiences of getting respected for living according to our self respect. We cannot go their alone or talk ourselves into solid ground. It comes about by coming from a better place that then comes across some common ground with like-minded others.


Rethinking emotional baggage

Last week I watched the excellent new documentary from PBS/Frontline: The Wounded Platoon. It explores the staggering increase of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) cases among the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The interviews with soldiers, psychiatrists, lawyers and high ranking military officers gives us several different looks at the problem, attempted solutions, side effects of those attempts and some policy implications.

All this brought back to mind all my 52 previous explorations of emotional baggage here. As I made more connections between the different facets of the problem, I became overwhelmed by the complexity. It seemed that any workbook I could create would over-simplify the issues to the point of being useless. I became discouraged that I had only provided expanded awareness of the complexity, rather than access to transformational changes.

As I most recently explored the uses and implications of actor-network theory here, I've acquired some new capabilities for handling complexity. Actor-network theory allows situations to be extremely complex without explaining them. It attends to the complexity without forcing it into conceptual categories or confining models. It shows us a way to be in the complexity that transforms the complexity and gets transformed by it. This has given me a way to rethink my approach to emotional baggage.

"Emotional baggage" gives the illusion of substance to essence. It misplaces concreteness and causes unnecessary problems. It indulges in the Cartesian error of objectivity and modernism. It "makes a thing" out of no-thing, complex processes and interdependent functionalities. It spawns lots to describe and analyze but not much to do. There's an underlying process of internalizing convincing experiences. This process works in our favor when we're safe, succeeding and realizing desired results. It produces lingering symptoms when we're in danger, failing or doing more harm than good. This process gives us lots to do and much less to analyze.

I've also been pondering the implications of communicating with spatial metaphors. This is something that the Prezi presentation software makes very accessible. I've had several hunches that emotional baggage will be transformed by speaking of "going there", "getting through this", "getting turned around", "coming from a better place" and many other ways of speaking spatially. Spatial metaphors naturally convey connections between and assemblages of interests. They experience processes as moving around and exploring directions rather than as labels of things.

All this suggests that I will soon revisit what I've previously called "emotional baggage" with this new outlook.


The Paradoxical State

As I've read further in The Shield of Achilles, I'm realizing that it speaks loudly to an audience of foreign policy analysts in the State Department, trade policy analysts in the Commerce Department and military strategy analysts in the Defense Department. This target audience also includes like-minded analysts worldwide, the legislatures of sovereign nations and the heads of state. The lenses of constitutional law, strategy and history serve these audiences very well. The argument serves as a wake-up call to complacent bureaucrats maintaining the status quo in their specialties within the broad and complex field of International Relations. Many of the changes foreseen in this book have been realized in our post 9/11 world.

I now have a better grasp of Philip Bobbitt's meaning when he uses the term "market-state" and claims it's replacing the "Nation-States" of the twentieth century. I continue to dislike the term from the perspective my own lenses, but I now see it as well-chosen for what I suspect is the book's targeted audience. I'm now seeing The Shield of Achilles as valuable for different reasons than the book claims to offer the reader. My view is necessarily "off-radar" of outlooks that prioritize national sovereignty, legal entities and relations formalized through the time-honored use of constitutions, laws, treaties, contracts and policies.

In find his embrace of a panorama of complexity and connectedness to be the greatest contribution of The Shield of Achilles. Bobbitt presents the historical formation of nation states with far more nuances than the simplistic claim that they resulted from the Peace of Westphalia. He sees the long string of wars through the last century as connected to a continuous question of legitimacy. He foresees the emergent increases in interdependencies between the public and private sectors. He recognizes the symbiosis between NGO's and government agencies. He welcomes governmental roles in the commercial success of multi-national corporations as well as the restraint of corporate excesses in response to activists of every stripe. He combines the need for centralized decisions made in secrecy and distributed authority that operates with commensurate transparency.

When explored logically, each of these insights amount to paradoxes. The book points us toward lots of answers to the question: "When is a State not a State?". Here are some of those answers I've realized:
  • When the State serves an array of interests of corporations, NGO's, protesters, constituencies, trading partners and other States not acting like States
  • When the State relies on non-State entities to perform the functions and to provide the value formerly associated with the role of the State
  • When the State acts as if it is both a sovereign nation and an assemblage of international relations
  • When the State protects the common goods, provides the public goods and litigates the violations of private goods
  • When the State cannot win unless its opponent also wins due to the opponent being an ally or member of a larger alliance
All these answers to "When is a State not a State?" suggest to me that the Nation-State defined by Bobbitt is becoming a Paradoxical State. It's defying logical arguments. It's providing the "best of both" solutions to quandaries. It's offering support services that superficially appear as "having your cake and eating it too" because the consumers are baking cakes too. In a world rife with ongoing conflicts, the Paradoxical State seems utopian and too good to be true. Yet in the world of increasing combinations, connections and collaborations, this seems to be a likely next phase of national and international development.

(This concludes my exploration of The Shield of Achilles).


Thinking about war

War is mostly unthinkable. It's horrific, devastating and often perpetual. Warriors need to feel the irrational urge to kill enemies, retaliate against disgraces and destroy others' prospects for survival. Wars are usually power games that establish which side can be dominant, in control of the others and the ongoing source of subjugation. Wars operate on the premise that a state or tribe can never have too much power, loyalty, honor and control over territory. There's always a need for more which provokes the next build up of readiness, amassing of a strike force and launching of another attack.

In The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt helps us think about war. He tells us that wars are fights for more than power. They resolve questions of legitimacy by disgracing and invalidating the losing forms of governance. They impose evolutionary pressures which force the participants to revise their strategies, policies and laws. By "thinking like a lawyer" instead of like a warrior, wars can come to an end. The questions of legitimacy do get resolved. Changes get agreed upon by the sides in contention. There are limits to how much additional power seems desirable. The increase of power gets accompanied by added responsibilities, obligations and investments.

As I've reflected on the transition to a "market-state" that Bobbitt characterizes, I'm seeing two divergent trends getting conflated by his approach. One trend follows Bobbitt's defined transition from "thinking like lawyers" to "thinking like economists" This trend fuels increased warfare to serve it's own commercial interests. The other trend makes war obsolete amidst mind-boggling increases in interdependence, social connectivity and fruitful collaborations. This amounts to "thinking like ecologists".

War on foreign soil has always been good for business. The government becomes a reliable, repeat customer with deep pockets. Their previous purchases get destroyed in battle which calls for more purchases. Wars usually escalate onto several fronts which increases the rate of spending. Wars routinely bring economies out of recession through increased employment and public debt. Factories go onto the double shifts to meet the soaring demand. Labor shortages boost wages and reward educational advances. When we "think like economists" we see the equilibrium price rising as supply cannot keep up with demand. Economic self interest pursues increased military spending at all cost. Public spending supports increased production, profitability and privatization of capital investment.

When we "think like ecologists", capital becomes more mobile and accessible. As Bobbitt says, the playing field gets leveled. There is no foreign soil for profitable wars. There's no escaping war doing harm to our own interests, allies, investments and future scenarios. The commercial interests that privatize the payoffs from war are dumping their externalities onto other populations, regions and generations. The consequences of war come home to roost slowly and often imperceptibly. There's no limit to how responsible we can be as co-participants in vast systems of interdependencies. War is a failure to communicate and to learn about others' viewpoints, commitments and subtle interests. War becomes obsolete as collaboration becomes normal.


Questioning - The Shield of Achilles

Last week I started reading The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt following Clay Spinuzzi's and David Ronfeldt's look at it. It's been slow going thus far because the book includes too many historical facts below the meta level of conceptual frameworks, well reasoned arguments and theoretical speculations which I thrive on. It's too soon to report on my conclusions, but I can share my process of questioning what I'm reading now.

I'm expecting this book to add dimensions to the Ronfeldt's TIMN framework that I've explored often here. Bobbitt looks through a lens of constitutional law at changes in governance and strategy over the centuries. Constitutional frameworks answer questions of legitimacy. He sees wars becoming epochal when those questions of legitimacy remain unresolved at the end of an armed conflict. This is a new lens for me to look through.

If you've followed my writing here, you know I often look through a lens of enterprise viability. I'm usually concerned with value propositions, business models, disruptive innovations and collaborative employment experiences. I'm often comparing approaches with taxonomies that suggest phases of development and transitions to realize upgrades in those approaches. I view governments, wars and top-level strategy changes as providing value to citizen-customers and commercial enterprises. I share the symmetric view of power with actor-network theory which sees both the governing and governed as valuing each other, using each other and exerting power over each other.

My familiar lenses call into question much of what The Shield of Achilles proposes. Here's some of those questions I'm keeping in mind as I read this book:
  1. What-if the "market-state" emerged with the advent of transatlantic steamships and telegraph lines over a century ago, not the end of the "Cold War"?
  2. What if the "long war" from the start of WWI to the end of the Cold War occurred concurrently with the Market State throughout the 20th century?
  3. What if the unresolved legitimacy issues between fascism, communism and liberal parliamentarism were brought on by the concurrent and competing legitimacy of the market-state?
  4. What if the market-state is currently facing it's own legitimacy issues made possible by the concurrent and competing legitimacy of an emergent "networked state"?
  5. What if the market-state's legitimacy issues include its unsustainable levels of debt, resource depletion, labor exploitation and ostentatious consumption?
  6. What if the market-state is currently fighting out its own ideological stances between free market economics, government interventionist and protected commons economics brought on by the global recession?
  7. What if the elusive resolution the market-state ideologies will come about by the introduction of a "networked state", rather than winning battles between these contested economic ideologies?
These questions will enable me to scrutinize Bobbitt's reasoning behind his claim that a market state is next in line. These questions will also use the books argumentation to confront the assumptions I'm making behind these seven what-if questions. Both angles increase the value I will extract from reading The Shield of Achilles.


Solving crime for pattern

We don't usually think about solving crime for pattern. Our laws, enforcement officers and judicial systems are designed to solve crimes for prosecution. We seek to identify the guilty party who deserves to be punished. We assume the punishment will deter repeat offenses as well as discourage others from indulging in criminal acts. There is little evidence to support this assumption. Punishing crimes functions like a bad solution.

We may also misinterpret "solving crime for pattern". We may assume this applies to signature patterns of criminal conduct or underlying patterns of criminal motivations. Recognizing these patterns makes it easier to solve the whodunit puzzle. Most prosecution systems employ profilers who have learned to recognize these patterns of criminality. There profiling patterns feed self fulfilling prophesies. Everyone is thinking "here we go again" from the lowly offender to the highest judge. Profiling also functions as a bad solution.

We begin to solve crime for pattern when we perceive criminal activity as an organic problem. It has a life of its own that defies getting fixed by foreign technologies or mechanistic solutions. The organic problem usually most of the following:
  • Childhood and teen experiences with getting abused by authority figures which inspires relentless retaliation, defiance, evasiveness and cynicism
  • Acculturation by a tribe with an honor code that shuns members' sensitivity to others feelings, empathy for others pain or sense of fairness in the face of injustice
  • Identification with role models' acting out patterns of domination, arrogance and hostility toward others seen as lowly, unworthy, disgraceful or contemptible
  • Unforgettably traumatic incidents where personal survival was put in jeopardy that necessitates chronic vigilance, paranoia, defensiveness and suspiciousness
  • Profound lessons in "human relations" where one learns to see others as inhuman , expendable objects, or things without feelings
  • Convincing patterns of misfortune which substantiates a robust victim story about being cursed, abandoned, useless or mistaken
  • Addiction to thrill seeking escapades which alter dark moods, escape insecurities and feel elated during each episode
  • Long, consistent histories of getting caught, blamed and punished which justifies negative self concepts, bad attitudes, seething resentments and boatloads of self pity
The organic nature of the problem suggests how to formulate organic solutions. It becomes obvious the solution has to go beyond education, extrinsic/contingent rewards and employment. The offenders need unforeseen experiences that run as deep, make equally lasting impressions and convince beyond the shadow of a doubt. Each component of the organic solution will meet its match at that limbic level of cognition that produces urges, reactions, addictions, moods and apprehensions. The organic solution will appear to change the destiny of individuals, revise their fate and dismantle the omnipotence of their past history to misdefine them.


Solving conflicts for pattern

When we're faced with any conflict of interests, there are two bad solutions readily available. We can win at the expense of our opponent or let them win at our expense. In both cases, subsequent conflicts will involve greater mistrust, suspiciousness and defensiveness. The outcome will leave a residue which undermines initiative, cooperation and follow-through. The losing side will be thinking about how to retaliate rather than how to honor the commitments, improve the relationship or re-establish some common ground.

These bad solutions get produced by taking positional stances against opposing positional stances. These stances may make demands, attack others' positions or seek to intimidate others into backing down. They cannot show interest in others' interests or reveal one's own interests for their consideration. Taking positions overrules authentic dialogue. The positions get black-boxed rather than opened up or looked into.

Solving a conflict for pattern begins by switching from adopting positional stances to embracing one's own assemblage of interests. That provides a basis for then taking in an interest in others' interests. When interests come together, there are often common interests in the mix. There are also diverse interests that may share a common solution. There can even be solutions that evolve the conflicted initial interests into more inclusive, considerate and holistic agendas.

Solving a conflict for pattern takes awareness of communication patterns. When the use of adversarial tactics becomes evident, it becomes possible to de-scalate the adversarial context with any of the following collaborative tactics:
  1. acknowledging the opponent's dedication to principles, long standing commitment to do the right thing and compassion for their constituencies
  2. speaking the opponent's mind about how they've been treated and disregarded during the conflict
  3. picturing the opponent as deserving of respect, consideration and dignity
  4. restating the opponents' issues, concerns and objections to show they've been heard and to confirm a correct understanding of that input
  5. admitting that one's own prior tactics have had the reverse effect on the relationship, trust levels and distance between stances
  6. offering a conciliatory gesture or initial concession to open up the process of mutual exploration
  7. posing a side problem where collaboration is non-threatening and both sides can gain experience of working well with each other

These collaborative tactics transform the basis for resolving the conflict. New patterns get introduced for seeing each other, relating to each others' interests and finding solutions together. The resolution of the conflict grows out of these patterns, rather than being in the control of either side. Participants experience letting go to let it happen emergently.


As if learning happens by heroics

Let's pretend learning happens by heroics! Then it's up to my level of commitment and determination whether or not I learn something. It's my own fault when I don't learn it which conveniently lets others off the hook. All any educator can do is give me the content, assignments and grades to support my heroics. Learning is my job to do, my responsibility to take seriously and a linear process for me to make happen.

While we're pretending that learning happens by heroics, we can create big educational institutions. We assume that all these heroics need is some imposed organization to get everybody making the same progress and meeting the same expectations. That way, everyone will know where they stand in comparison to others. If more heroics are needed to meet standards, keep up with the pack or prevent falling behind, it will be obvious how those slackers can apply themselves.

Pretending that learning happens by heroics also blames the learner for every problem that arises. The system cannot be at fault or failing to provide some missing ingredients. The production of learning simply requires concentrated efforts. Considering social contexts, stress levels, legacy influences or environmental factors only makes excuses for the under performing heroes and heroines.

This pretense also dramatically simplifies instructional design. There's no need to be considerate of the learners' motivations, cautious of sending the wrong message, wary setting up a pattern of dependency or mistaken about the learners' contexts of use. All that's required is to cover the content with clear explanations and give tests to objectively measure the understanding of that content.

With so much in favor of educational institutions and the instructors in their employ, it's no wonder it's our mostly unquestioned paradigm that learning happens by heroics.


Measuring immeasurable learning

In a comment worth reading in its entirety on my previous post: Solving test scores problems, Virginia asked me:
So what do you think would be an effective measure of student learning that could be used as they move from state to state?
I came to the conclusion a few months ago that authentic learning is immeasurable. When we isolate a small portion of learning ecologies to measure learning, we have excluded the diversity that makes the learning effective. We've merely captured the useless, showy display of "pseudo learning". We presume the measured learning will predict the subsequent applications of the learning in other contexts, yet 90% of measured learning never gets used. Instead it is quickly forgotten after the test or final exam.

Here's a different set of questions to be asked in order to support learners getting ready for results-only work environments and P2P collaborations:
  1. What differences can you make?
  2. What results can you produce?
  3. What problems can you solve?
  4. What outcomes can you realize?
  5. What symptoms can you alleviate?
  6. What changes can you facilitate?
  7. What strategies can you revise?
  8. What designs can you create?
  9. What critiques can you offer?
  10. What future vision can you provide?
The answers to these questions depend on prior learning, but that learning is immeasurably complex. The answers depend on the kinds and quantities of experiences with striving for these achievements. They reflect how much of the learning was hands-on, correlated with immediate feedback and fine turned by making mistakes. They indicate how much intrinsic motivation was engaged by the very selective use of extrinsic rewards. The answers also depend on the amount and quality of reflective practice to integrate those valuable experiences and to make them accessible in other situations. The answers also depend on the social context of interactions among mentors with insights about common mistakes, exemplars worth imitating and cohorts facing similar challenges.

These questions seek answers of quantity. Another level of complexity gets added by considering the quality of the responses:
  • How well can you deliver?
  • How effective is your impact?
  • How enduring are your interventions?
  • How valuable are your contributions?
  • How supportive are your interactions?
With so much complexity opposed to simplified measures of learning, it seems to me that it's wise to let the results speak for themselves:
  • Show us what you can do when immersed in these opportunities
  • Demonstrate your ability to handle those challenges
  • Prove you have the capability to deliver these outcomes

We have left the realm of testing, and entered the realm of tryouts, obstacle courses, and performances. We've abandoned the false premise that authentic learning is measurable. We let the immeasurably complex learning get revealed by the results.


Solving test scores problems

Student reading abilities are declining. Governments around the world find this decline unacceptable. To counteract this trend, the countries' educational bureaucracies have adopted a bad solution: standardized tests of student achievement. Anyone close to the varied challenges individual students has watched this "solution" take effect destructively. There have been cries for different tests, more diverse standards, more contextual variations in assessment and greater use of individual achievement goals. Most of these cries go unheeded.

As I explored in my last post, test scores are far from a mechanical process. The outcomes of testing procedures get impacted though a vast network of connections. For most students, there are more opposing interests to their improved scores than interests in favor. Applying a mechanical solution to an organic aggregation of interests will predictably backfire.

It seems to me that standardized testing refutes the organic nature of fragile learning ecologies, changing intrinsic motivations and faltering curiosity. They are only appropriate in contexts where there is no need to be self motivated, in school or eventually at work. In those in setting, standardized test scores are merely justifying the distribution of extrinsic rewards disproportionally to actual levels of contribution, growth, or influence. They reduce the vast array of mutual interests to the simple framework of "proven abilities". They make some people into winners at the expense of the rest. They acculturate diverse individuals to endure the abuses of hierarchies, conformity pressures and policy mandated conduct. It's no wonder the majority of the staunch advocates for standardized testing are denizens of governmental bureaucracies.

Most academic environments provide too much structure. They need to provide more open space for learning in order to solve test scores for pattern. When the learners spend more time exploring, migrating, circling back and deepening the adventures, much will change. Their curiosity and self motivation will fluctuate and disappear less often as they are free to follow their interests. They will rely on their self evaluation and the feedback from personal attempts. They will seek coaching from peers and mentors who can see better than themselves what they are doing inadvertently, assuming incorrectly, insisting upon regrettably and forsaking persistently. They will experience their interest in performance evaluation becoming very nuanced, contextualized and considerate of changing pursuits. They will constantly align the ways they evaluate their progress and accomplishments with the natural requirements of their latest adventure.


Simply get better grades next time

Early in my years of teaching college, I had a young man in the front row paying rapt attention to my every word. He submitted exceptional assignments that took longer to produce than the other students ever had the time to commit to my class. At some point I learned that he lived at home with his parents and thus did not have to cook, earn money or even do his laundry. In the world where grades were given fairly, the other students deserved handicaps added to their scores for circumstances that put them at a disadvantage compared to my faithful follower in the front row.

Objective grading presumes that evaluations are made with "all things being equal". That amounts to disconnecting from the phenomenal number of contingencies in the lives of everyone getting graded that impact their performance. Most of those advantages and impairments are out of their control. Objective grading expects people to simply get better grades next time. The added complications get dissociated, consciously dismissed or deliberately overruled. They're regarded as lowering expectations, lessening accountability or weakening the grading system by making excuses for slackers.

This idealization of objectivity often turns grading into negative experiences for those getting graded, as well as for sensitive graders like myself. Getting graded can be a significant experience, not merely an accurate score. Grading can provide negative experiences from:
  • confirming proof of negative comparisons to others, inferiority, inability, etc.
  • convincing evidence of injustice, abusive systems, persecution, etc.
  • vidid reminders of powerlessness, helplessness, defenselessness, etc.
  • traumatizing setbacks in self confidence, optimism, ambition, etc.

These experiences occur by making connections to the grades received. The experiences start making more sense personally. Reflecting upon the experience comes up with realizations like these. The objective scores get deepened with subjective levels of interpretation. They ultimately frame the "objective grading" as biased, insensitive, inaccurate and far from objective.

In the world proposed by actor-network theory, we would seek to make every connection possible to grades received. The back box of an objective grading system would get opened. When someone needed to get better grades next time, we would explore connections to:
  • previous experiences with getting graded, apprehensions, patterns of failure
  • study circumstances, noise level, lighting, interference with concentration
  • schedule constraints, available blocks of time, interruptions, competing obligations
  • peer pressures, inescapable comparisons, contrary expectations
  • psychological pressures, patterns of depression, sleep disorder, anxiety or paranoia
By making these connections, the absurdity of objectivity would be exposed. Giving useful and valid grading would get problematized as the need to make more numerous and robust connections. Getting better grades would be transformed into an emergent outcome of this complex assemblage of interdependencies.


Solving turnover problems for pattern

To get the hang of solving problems for pattern, I'll offer several examples in the near term. The first is the organic problem of increasing employee turnover after a bad solution has been applied. Here's an inorganic look at the problem for starters:

A enterprise employs a variety of employees. The most valued take a lot of initiative to identify and solve problems. They see what's not working and take personal and collective responsibility to make effective changes. They are largely motivated by intrinsic rewards. They appreciate getting the carrots off the table. These employees contrast with two other types which are both motivated almost exclusively by extrinsic rewards. Some lack initiative and wait to be told to address problems they would rather ignore, endure in silence or dump onto others. The remaining make a show of taking initiative but fail to follow through or deliver on the high expectations they've raised.

The enterprise recently increased pay and benefits for those who merit the rewards by consistently taking initiative and solving problems on their own. This solution backfired resulting in increased turnover of the intrinsically motivated employees. Meanwhile their replacements were extrinsically motivated and much less valuable.

Any organic diagnosis of the problem identifies very different facets of the situation. The intrinsically motivated problem solvers had already identified problems with turnover, misdiagnoses of the turnover problem and ineffective decisions about increasing rewards. Their inclinations to take initiative and solve those problems were frustrated for the same reasons the identified problems persisted. The subsequent increase in extrinsic rewards signaled a deterioration of the situation, greater adversity in preserving their intrinsic motivations, and more reasons to depart company. When asked by colleagues considering the possibility of applying for the resulting job openings, they would be advised to "stay away from that job from hell".

An organic solution would reverse the dynamics that accelerated the churn of the most valuable employees. The recent merit pay increase could be withdrawn to discourage the further influx of extrinsically motivated hires. The problems of turnover, diagnoses and rewards could then be discussed openly. Those inclined to take initiative could join in the design explorations if motivated to do so intrinsically. Those who participate would become rewarded by the inherent challenges, respect, trust and inclusion. This process would end up defining many other problems which could be addressed the same way, increasing the intrinsic rewards as progress was made. This organic solution would take on a life of its own and provide the experiences that typically accompany solving for pattern.


When we're solving for pattern

When we're solving for pattern, the vast majority of the dynamics in question are organic. We're translating those organic problems into organic solutions. The organic problems exhibit having a "life of their own" that defies getting fixed, resisted or denied. If mishandled, they come back with a vengeance and expose the incompetence and excesses of the "inorganic" solution. We see this all time with what Wendell Berry calls "bad solutions". The majority of dynamics get misperceived as mechanistic, technological and controllable. The solutions do more harm than good to the persistent organic dynamics.

When we're solving for pattern, it's to our benefit that the dynamics are really organic. We become part of those dynamics, living in the system that needs a solution. We become enrolled in an actor-network assemblage of interests. We join in what comes back around, cycles in phases, returns what we give it and integrates its contextual diversity.

When we're solving for pattern, we can induce organic problems to vanish. We join the complexity of interdependencies in ways where the organic problems are no longer needed. We see how the problems we're necessitated until we came along and revised the range of available solutions. Vicious cycles go into reverse where the participants get energized, validated and respected for their valuable contributions.

When we're solving for pattern, we see situations as complex dynamics, not as isolated objects. We're wary of being objective about evidence that is driven by underlying and interrelated connections. We refute the claims that problems are simply in need of some added efficiency, technology or spending. We regard objects as relatively insignificant and relationships as profoundly important.

When we're solving for pattern, we utilize technologies sparingly. We're cautious about the perils of "user friendly tools" getting over-used, substituted for relational incompetence or misused as justifications for the routine abuse of victims. We deploy technologies with safeguards that require accurate perceptions, good judgments and insightful interventions.

When we're solving for pattern, our separate interests in finding a solution to problems, gets translated into an ongoing interest in having the problem until something better comes along. We then want what the problem does for participants enacting powerlessness in the context of excessive efficiencies, technologies and bad solutions. We come up better ways to get what the problem does for the participants that incorporates additional patterns more comprehensively.

When we're solving for pattern, we become as complex as the system. Our interests become integrated in the assemblage of interests. We join in accomplishing what the interdependencies yield by their organic nature. We grow with the growing all around us.


Wendell Berry's solving for pattern

When I read the book Ecological Literacy several years back, I did not anticipate that Wendell Berry's essay on Solving for Pattern (free pdf download) would stick with me endlessly. It remains one of the most profound essays I have ever read. I took notes when I reread it the first time which I'll share with you here. This will serve as a preliminary to a praxis I'm evolving to facilitate solving for pattern using some of the insights from actor-network theory.

Wendell Berry tells us there are three kinds of solutions:
  1. Bad Solutions that cause a ramifying set of new problems (like warming a wilderness clearing at night with a small campfire that starts a raging forest fire)
  2. Bad Solutions that immediately worsen the immediate problem (like compounding the difficulty of moving forward by removing the wheels to lighten the load)
  3. Good Solutions that function in harmony with larger patterns (like composting to generate nutrients enriched soil and reduce the mass of disposed waste)

He then details attributes of this third kind of "good solutions":
  • The solution accepts given limits of the situation, rather than becoming far fetched or expansive
  • The solution accepts the discipline involved rather than imposing foreign disciplines
  • The solution improves balance and symmetries rather than pursuing singular improvements at the expense of other facets
  • The solution solves more than one problem rather than tackling a complex situation in piecemeal fashion
  • The solution satisfies a whole range of criteria rather than optimizing, idealizing or specializing what gets satisfied
  • The solution makes a clear distinction between biological and mechanical order rather than perceiving natural dynamics as machines to fix
  • The solution incorporates wide margins so the whole is not jeopardized by failure of one component, rather than setting up a cascading system failure
  • The solution realizes a right proportion, rather than going for a maximum gain, overkill and heavy handed solutions
  • The solution is affordable rather than making individuals rich and forcing others to overspend
  • The solution occurs in place and at work within the organism rather than remotely, abstractly or ideally
  • The solution understands the minds, bodies and environment as one organism rather than separate entities
  • The solution is good for each part as well as for the whole, rather than exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities
  • The solution is in harmony with good character rather than pursuing novelty, fashion, greed or pride
More than two year ago, I wrote a persistently popular post titled Solving for pattern which explores the cognitive obstacles to this praxis. Last week I realized that we make solving for pattern difficult for ourselves when we picture situations comprised of objects, people and other things. We effectively "black box" all those interactive interests which spawn invisible connections to the other "things". However, when we picture the assemblages of interests in flux, we've set ourselves up to solve for pattern easily. I explore this insight further in my next post.


Assemblages of mutual interests

My favorite idea thus far, from my deepening appreciation of actor-network theory, is picturing everything as assemblages of interests. I've just come back inside from watering and weeding all the flowering plants and bushes. I came up with a great example of this from my friends in possession of green leaves and roots in the ground.

Plants are interested in water and nutrients in the right proportion which allows them to dry out between cycles. I am interested in their growing lots of healthy looking foliage and producing plenty of beautiful blooms. As I become enrolled in their interests, I become mobilized to fill the water can, add some diluted plant fertilizer and make the rounds. My interests get translated into the plants' interests in water and nutrients. There interests in drying out between cycles mobilizes me to stop watering and wait days between watering.

This also gives us a way to see what Gregory Bateson defined as mind (in nature). When I am watering the flowering bushes, there is a complete circuit functioning for all of us in it:
  • the news to me of a declining difference in the plants' moisture level
  • my interest in increasing that moisture level
  • pouring water on the plants from my watering can
  • the plants getting news of a difference in their moisture level
  • the plants activating growth cycles with that moisture difference
  • the news to me of an increasing difference in the plants moisture level
  • my loss of interest in increasing that moisture level until the news changes

Combined together, we comprise an actor-network. Every component of this assemblage receives roles from our gathering, gets mobilized in our own ways and makes a difference to all the other components. We are interacting to such an extent it seems realistic to say that: "interacting is all there is".