From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal


Vol 3 . . . No 5 . . . January, 1993

Contents Page

1. Monthly Comments - From Now On 1

2. Open-Minded School Decision-Making 2

by Jamie McKenzie



Open-Minded School Decision-Making

by Jamie McKenzie

Introduction: An Open Mind Defined

A mind which welcomes new ideas.

A mind which invites new ideas in for a visit.

A mind which introduces new ideas to the company which has already arrived.

A mind which is most comfortable in mixed company.

A mind which prizes silence and reflection.

A mind which recognizes that later is often better than sooner.

A major premise of collaborative problem-solving is that the combined thinking of several minds is likely to produce richer, better and wiser solutions than solitary thinking. For this premise to prove true, however, the participants must be open-minded. They must come together believing that they have much to learn from each other.

An open mind is somewhat like silly putty. Do you remember that wonderful ball of clay-like substance that you could bounce, roll and apply to comics as a child?

* An open mind is playful and willing to be silly because the best ideas often hide deep within our minds away from our watchful, judgmental selves. Although our personalities contain the conflicting voices of both a clown and a critic, the critic usually prevails in our culture, especially when we attend meetings. The critic's voice keeps warning us not to appear foolish in front of our peers, not to offer up any outrageous ideas, and yet that is precisely how we end up with the most inventive and imaginative solutions to problems. We need to learn how to lock up the critic at times so the clown can play without restraint. We must prevent our internal critic from blocking our own thinking or attacking the ideas of others. We join in creating a meeting climate which supports wild and wonderful thinking free of risk. Once we have generated a rich menu of options, then we can release the critic to help us with the planning and implementation phases. Roger von Oech's two books, A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants are excellent sources of exercises to loosen up one's innovative powers and release the mental locks we have been taught which often block such thought.

* An open mind can bounce around in what might often seem like a haphazard fashion. When building something new, we must be willing to entertain unusual combinations and connections. The human mind, at its best, is especially powerful in jumping intuitively to discover unusual relationships and possibilities. Trainers in group process often use forced metaphors, for example, to provoke unusual thinking, asking a group to consider how a principal in the Information Age might be like a dancer. Synthesis requires fanciful recombination of elements over and over again until one at least combination unlocks the puzzle and gives the group what is most needed. Because brainstorming (idea generation) is often constrained in our culture by the overly healthy critics sitting inside each participant, it takes a good bit of work to warm up the group and provoke some ideas which are truly novel and "outside the box."

* An open mind quickly picks up the good ideas of other people, much like silly putty copying the image from a page of colored comics. The open mind is always hungry, looking for some new thoughts to add to its collection. The open mind knows that its own thinking is almost always incomplete. An open mind takes pride in learning from others. It would rather listen than speak. It loves to ask questions like, "How did you come up with that idea? Can you tell me more about your thinking? How did you know that? What are your premises? What evidence did you find?"

* The open mind has "in-sight" - evaluating the quality of its own thinking to see gaps which might be filled. The open mind trains the clown and the critic to cooperate so that judgment and critique alternate with playful idea generation. Ideas have at least three major aspects which can usually be modified and improved:

1. Ideas are based upon premises of one kind or another. Many people come to their ideas (judgments or conclusions) without ever explicitly examining the premises which lie underneath those conclusions. Premises are basic beliefs which act for an idea as the foundation of a building or the roots of a tree. In planning schools of the future, for example, members of a team might hold as a premise that students learn best when they have as much formal direct instructional time in classrooms as possible. If that premise controls much of their thinking about the future, huge menus of exciting possibilities are immediately excluded from thinking. Collections of premises are often called assumptions or mind-sets (Drucker) or paradigms (Barker) or mental models (Senge). Sometimes our thinking comes to us already packaged without our even knowing which premises and assumptions lie below the surface, but an open mind knows that all such premises must be re-examined with some frequency to see if they are serving us well and truly match our basic belief systems.

2. Ideas are based upon evidence. Many of our ideas emerge from experience. We collect data, look for patterns and seek laws to help us predict the future. If we believe that tracking is not the best way to organize a school, for example, we have probably been collecting examples of ways that students we have known have suffered from such a system. We have probably been doing some professional reading which provides additional evidence from research to support our idea. We have also been speaking with colleagues who are similarly inclined. Unfortunately, we all too often collect evidence selectively. Once people begin to hold an idea, research has shown that they begin to screen out data which might create dissonance, evidence which might "call into question" the value of the idea. Knowing that a particular faction of the faculty loves tracking, for example, opponents of tracking are not likely to sit around and hold thoughtful, considerate discussions to understand how these others came to their own conclusions, unless, of course, they have open minds. Scanning the shelves of a bookstore, the opponents of tracking are likely to pick out the title supporting their view. A book supporting tracking goes unnoticed, unless, of course, they have open minds and know that their own thinking will be strengthened by reviewing all of the evidence. An open mind looks at the quality of its evidence with the same dispassionate attitude it applies to its premises and assumptions. Mindful of the three little pigs which built houses or straw, twigs and brick, the open mind seeks bricks and mortar which can withstand the huffing and puffing of the most aggressive wolf. The open mind asks, "What evidence do I need to gather? Do I know enough? Has anything changed since I last gathered evidence? Is there new data? Is my data complete?"

3. Ideas are based upon logic. Our conclusions and ideas should flow from logical connections between our premises and our evidence. If the idea is the choice of a teaching strategy such as cooperative learning, for example, for a particular new program, we should have employed the skills embedded in the thought process Bloom labeled "evaluation." The logic of this process requires that we compare and contrast the features of several different teaching strategies, collecting data to assess the relative worth of each as judged in terms of explicitly stated criteria. Having applied this kind of reasoning and logic to the task, we seek to predict that the student outcomes we seek will best be served by implementing cooperative learning. All too often groups and individuals jump to solutions without identifying the real problem or fully considering all of the available options, but an open-minded group takes the time to identify a careful decision-making model which will require full, logical analysis. The open mind keeps asking of its ideas, "Is this logical? Does this make sense? Does this follow from the evidence I gathered? Have I identified all the key factors?

What is a closed mind?

A mind that is "made up."

Closed-minded people come to meetings to fight for their position and their ideas. They see meetings as contests and struggles. If a faculty is divided into factions of closed-minded people, meetings are spent attacking and undermining the ideas of others in order to win support (and votes) for one's own idea. The critics are set free with well sharpened blades.

In Fifth Discipline Senge argues that most organizations suffer from adversarial exchanges and closed mindedness at meetings, with a typical meeting running for hours without anybody bothering to ask a question to increase understanding of other people's thinking. He labels such exchanges as discussion, basically argumentative, and stresses the importance of teaching groups to engage in far more dialogue to balance the discussion. Dialogue is the team exploration of ideas in an open-minded fashion with all assumptions suspended. Groups should be good at both kinds of exchanges, knowing when each is appropriate. Dialogue (basically divergent) is especially good for generating possibilities and enhancing understanding. Discussion (basically convergent) works best when it time to select from the menu and begin to plan action.

"In dialogue, individuals gain insights that simply could not be achieved individually. A new kind of mind comes into being which is based on the development of a common meaning . . . People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is capable of constant development and change."

"In dialogue, a group explores complex issues from many points of view. Individuals suspend their assumptions but they communicate their assumptions freely."

"In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking."

"(people) begin to observe the difference between `thinking' as an ongoing process as distinct from `thoughts,' the results of that process." (Senge)

Closed minds plan for the future much like the ostrich (head in the sand). They are likely to be rear-ended. They are fond of auto-pilot and tradition. They love to look back at old track records, confident that what worked yesterday will endure tomorrow. They have ceased learning. They try to ignore what has happened to the American steel industry and automobile industry. They see no lessons to be learned from IBM and Sears. "This could never happen to us," they whisper.

Closed mindedness is extremely dangerous in times of rapid change and turbulence. Trailing edge practice soon becomes failing edge practice as outmoded thinking translates into poor performance and obsolescence. Skeptics were quick to warn Columbus that he would fall off the edge of the earth if he followed his pioneering instincts, but he could have easily warned them that they might fall off an edge themselves if the world kept turning and they failed to move with the times. They were warning him of the leading (or bleeding) edge. He might warn them of the trailing edge. As Will Rogers once put it, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

Argyris calls this kind of closed mindedness "Skilled Incompetence."

"We trap ourselves in `defensive routines' that insulate our mental models from examination, and we consequently develop `skilled incompetence,' becoming highly skillful at protecting selves from pain and threat posed by learning situations, but fail to learn how to produce the results . . . " (Quoted in Senge, p. 182).

I. Open-Mindedness and School Restructuring

Some proponents of site-based decision-making and restructuring - especially legislators who have passed mandates with inadequate funding for staff development - have a naive conception of how little a life-time spent in schools prepares one for successful group problem-solving. While the premises of site-based decision-making seem to make a good deal of sense, these legislators have assumed too much about the readiness of the participants to assume the new responsibilities imposed upon them. It may be that the richness of ideas applied to school planning can be improved by involving a broader group. It may be that the appropriateness of the ideas can be improved by involving those closest to the children (clients). It may be that staff ownership of initiatives can be enhanced if they are given a greater voice in the decision-making. But all of those premises depend upon the ability of the groups to function in an open-minded, productive fashion and avoid two especially big temptations.

Temptation #1 - Playing it Safe

Last month's issue of From Now On considered how change is often slowed by the wish of individuals and groups to remain within the comfort zone. Harmony may be held in greater esteem than innovation. Risk and adventure may be seen as threatening. Security and stability may be the priority. Paradigm paralysis may rule the day. It is sad that Sears is now closing more than a hundred stores because it could not see the writing on the wall and learn to invent a new kind of successful store. Its decades of success contributed to its demise. The formulas which served so well so long became dogma. School planning groups may opt for "first order change" (tinkering with minor adjustments) rather than "second order change" (major shifts in the mission and delivery systems) because the latter would "rock the boat."

Temptation #2 - Locking the Grid

Much of our culture leads toward conflict, positions and adversarial exchanges. If we are not taught conflict resolution and the kinds of team learning strategies advocated by Senge and others, we all too often find ourselves locked in place, fighting over several different plans which will not fit well together. Meetings become divisive, exhausting and destructive. Morale plummets. Many participants begin to request a return to hierarchical, autocratic leadership, giving up in disgust on a group process which leads nowhere.

The best way to avoid the problems listed above is to invest in the kinds of training which would shift the culture of schools from isolation to collaboration. Joyce and Showers work on staff development outlines in some detail how to lead a school or district through such a cultural transformation.

Joyce, Bruce R. Student Achievement Through Staff Development. White Plains, N.Y., Longman, 1988.

Joyce, B. and Showers, B. Power In Staff Development Through Research in Training. Alexandria, VA, ASCD, 1983.

Joyce, B. (Ed). Changing School Culture Through Staff Development. Alexandria, VA, ASCD, 1990.

The "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage." Last month's issue ended with the question how we might shift educational practice so that most of it was committed to student-centered learning. Some of the same practices which support open-minded group discussion also support inquiry teaching, since a class becomes a group or cluster of groups all exploring essential questions. The sage hands over expertise, ideas which are cultural artifacts. The guide hands over tools and shows students how to wield them in powerful ways.

Anchors away! In some organizations, employees are expected to embrace change. Adaptability becomes part of the performance evaluation. In such organizations no one is allowed to fold their arms and exercise veto power over change initiatives. No one is allowed to "bail out." If they truly want "out," they must find a new job. No dragging of heels or sabotage is tolerated. No patient waiting for retirement.

I went into a Sears to buy an electric blanket a few months back. It was a good sale and a good price. As I lined up at the register to pay, I took out my wallet and handed the clerk a charge card.

"Oh," she said, "we only accept a Sears charge card."

Short on cash, I put my wallet away.

"We would be glad to open a charge account for you tonight and let you buy the blanket with your new card," she urged.

"No thanks," I replied, heading for the door. On the way out I wondered who was the mental giant who came up with that policy. How many others customers had they lost in the same way? What would it take to get them to change course? to challenge their mental models?

II. Open-Mindedness and Technology Planning

Great technology planning requires a truly open mind willing to entertain fundamental shifts in the ways, times and places that learning takes place. To tap the fullest potential of new technologies, planning groups must set aside schooling as it has been and consider very different scenarios. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking may prove threatening to sages and those unwilling to adapt. These members of a planning group may argue for a strategic approach building incrementally upon the schooling practices already in place. Keeping their noses to the ground, they build technological systems which are archaic before installation. They dread the climb up the mast to the crow's nest where they might see technology in a "future perfect" sense. For these groups, technology decisions are hardware and software decisions. Pedagogy and andragogy go unexamined, lying below the surface as premises which block truly innovative thinking.

What about Apple's Newton, for example? How many district technology planning committees have asked how to tap its potential? All too often we plan for how to use hardware on the market while the plan is being written.

"We'll buy 37 of those and 56 of those and link them all together with a Brand "F" file server."

In other issues of From Now On and in one of my books to be published this Spring, I have borrowed from the work of Stanley Davis (Future Perfect) and Peter Schwartz (The Art of the Long View) to suggest a technology planning model which includes scenario building and open-mindedness. Note how a scenario lifts the horizon beyond the old paradigms and mind-sets:

A Future Perfect Scenario*

In this scenario, we explore what learning might be like in the future with highly intelligent hand-held computers acting as tutors and learning assistants.

Amy and Nakisha, two middle school students, arrive with a team of class-mates at the archeological dig site and proceed directly to their assigned square, designated by a grid of string stretching across the remains of what used to be an Iroquois long house.

"Where did we leave off yesterday?" they ask Joe, their hand held computer.

A smiling face appears on the small screen and provides directions. "You were carefully removing soil from your square when you ran out of time. One of your brushes had begun to uncover what looked like a pottery fragment."

The girls nod their heads and bend down close to see if they can still make out the outline of the fragment. "There it is!" exclaims Nakisha, excitedly. She begins brushing around the piece with great care as she has been taught to do by Joe's careful tutoring. As several inches of surface are freed of dust, a faded painting (perhaps of flowers?) begins to emerge.

Amy holds Joe close to the fragment so the computer can scan the image. "Take a look at this painting, Joe, and tell us what you can."

Joe's scanner goes to work and quickly reproduces the image from the pottery shard to its own screen. After a few moments, Joe reports that several similar pieces were located in nearby squares just that morning by two other teams.

"Can you let us see all of the pieces together?"

The girls stare at the fragments and then begin to move them around on the screen like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, only the computer allows for a three dimensional effect. Gradually, the pieces begin to take on the look of a water jug.

"Can you clean this up and show us from your memory images of other similar pieces found at other sites ? "

The girls peer down at the screen and watch the fragments being rearranged, merged and then brightened on the screen before them. The computer shows them what looks like a freshly made jug with a decorative ring of brightly painted flowers. Another five similar pieces appear in a brief slide show narrated by Joe, who explains which tribe created each piece and what features were unique to each piece or tribe's work.

"Can you date this for us, Joe and get a hold of our teacher for us so we can report our findings?"

Mrs. Grimm's face appears on the screen with a grand smile. "Great work, girls! You have added another important piece to the puzzle. Go right ahead and finish the removal of your fragment, following the normal procedure for labeling, boxing and storing. Send a message to the nearby teams so they can profit from your findings. I'll see you in class tomorrow."

Both girls smile proudly as they bend down to finish their work.

*This an excerpt from Dr. McKenzie's new book, Selecting, Managing and Marketing Technologies, to be released this spring by Corwin Press, Newbury Park, California (805) 499-0721.

Imagine a group of teachers developing and then sharing their own future perfect scenarios in an open-minded fashion. A good scenario, according to Schwartz, helps us to think about what might otherwise be considered unthinkable. It helps us to leap beyond our standard ways of thinking and entertain far more futures. Next month's issue will focus in more closely on such planning techniques.

Conclusion: Final Ironies

Even though we are in a learning profession, schools have too long been structured in ways that isolated teachers from one another, enforced hierarchical controls and engendered closed-mindedness. Now we are suddenly thrust into the TQM and site-based decision-making models as the latest in a long string of fads to pass through our business (often from the outside) with little consideration of the educational context and its readiness for such models. Because few resources exist in most school districts to build the organizational culture and skills which would support the kind of team decision-making and adult learning envisioned by Senge, these fads are likely to have as much impact as the dozen reform initiatives which preceded them. Schools must invest heavily in human resource development and new communication structures if change in practice and group decision-making are to flourish.