Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Problem finding or problem solving?

I recently came across a espoused-theory vs. theory-in-use gap in my training technique which, when thinking about it highlights a complex difference between teaching and coaching.

We know that the best coaching occurs when the mentor lets the mentee discover for himself or herself the terms of the problem. Coaching is about getting people to adopt a new practice, and often to abandon an existing one. We're psychologically biased against this because of built-in loss aversion. One loss feels worse than two gains feel good. The effect is milder when the person has figured out the problem by themselves. The problem, of course, is that this can take a long, long time because we're also biased to prefer our existing theories to new facts.

In teaching, we need to introduce new concepts. As these concepts seldom correspond to an immediate real-life situation, the teacher acts as a foil: he or she proposes a problem, breaks it down into constituent parts and asks the learner to solve each component and somehow put the answer together.

I now see how this sets the teacher as the obstacle. The teacher is standing between the learner and knowledge. And there's an easy slippery step to activate the honor code: if I humiliate the learner enough, they will respond with a surge of energy to prove to me that I'm wrong about them by getting to the right answer. Once one sees it, it's amazing how pervasive this bias is in all our teaching systems. The teacher does not stand by the learner's side to help them solve real world problems, they stand in front of them to punish them with classroom problems. Talk about a misconception.

We're caught in a double-bind. On the one hand if you just wait for someone to discover what they don't know, it's going to take forever. On the other hand if you try to teach them, the chances are they'll learn shallowly because the field has slipped from you and them against the problem, to you against them with the problem in between.

How did the old time sensei do it? They took their time. They assumed you would progress on a topic, and simply asked you to clarify your thinking at every step until you saw the weaknesses of your own arguments. This, however, assumes an environment where this kind of learning is valued and where instant progress is not required for survival.

One compromise I've come across is opening doors and shutting doors. Mentees need to figure out things by themselves, so you don't break down the problem for them, but you also need to teach something so they can see their own progress and not be discouraged, so you can express doubts about some avenues and try to suggest or demonstrate other avenues they haven't seen.

The difficulty in doing so is finding the balance between helping them in finding their way through complex problems and setting yourself up as the obstacle they need to pass, as in medieval teaching. I suspect the image of the dark knight holding the bridge saying "you shall not pass" that you need to vanquish to prove yourself a man is lurking vividly in our narratives, and is just plain silly in a world where rivers are shifting every day, and bridges are flimsy and hard to negotiate. Teachers, trainers, mentors, sensei, how do we ally ourselves with our students to help them overcome real-life obstacles rather than create stylized problems to make them prove their worth to us by fighting us rather than the problem?

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