Monday, March 12, 2018

We're living in a VUCA world

Over the past few days I've been hearing and learning about the term VUCA.  It was originally coined by the US Army to describe the situation at the end of the Cold War that was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, but has now been applied the current world since the financial crisis of 2008-9 and to leadership in various organisations including education.

Let's think a little more about VUCA, what it means, and how it can apply to education today:
  • Volatility - this refers to the speed and turbulence of change and is often linked to the volume of information we can now access.  Historically, however, education has been slow to change, for example it has been pointed out that schools today are not so vastly different from schools in the industrial age, with a one-size-fits-all approach sometimes called the "factory model" of education.  Writers such as Clayton Christenson have argued for years that this system is outdated and no longer prepares students for their future.  The idea of literacy is being redefined and it's often pointed out by employers that there is a shortage of graduates emerging from universities who are equipped to meet the demands of our knowledge economy, and obviously this will need to change - which will impact all of us in schools.
  • Uncertainty - this refers to the lack of predictability and uncertain outcomes, for example what exactly are the skills that will be needed in the future?  Students in school today, who will be working in the year 2030, will be dealing with issues such as artificial intelligence and automation that will have already eliminated over half of our current jobs, as robots and algorithms take over today's working- and middle-class employment.  Economists and technologists are unable to predict what the future of work will look like, even 12 years into the future, and will current qualifications and certifications still be relevant then?
  • Complexity - this refers to the huge number of questions that are surrounding the future of education and education itself is very complex with multiple parts and systems.  Should schools be preparing students for university?  For work?  For life itself?    What should vocational education look like?  As technology continues to evolve exponentially, it's likely all students will need the skills to make sense of the torrents of data that are emerging, but at the same time they will also need to focus on their human qualities such as creativity and empathy which robots still lack.
  • Ambiguity - this refers to the haziness of reality, and with education having to keep changing to keep up with a rapidly changing world, decisions and conclusions about the way forward may well have to be made without enough data, in particular because in today's global economy different interpretations may be blurred by cultural issues and diversity of thought.  Traditional education has become entrenched with standardised programmes that are knowable, measurable and controllable, but teachers are realising that such knowledge may no longer be valid in the real-world
The VUCA world in which we live presents challenges to schools as to how they view their current and future roles and how they plan ahead to manage and lead the changes.  VUCA has become a rallying call for awareness and readiness, for preparedness and evolution.  So how can we respond to VUCA?  Let's think of these letters in a different way:
  • Volatility calls for Vision - here there are opportunities for teachers, students and other stakeholders to create compelling visions for the future.
  • Uncertainty calls for Understanding - and this involves asking questions, exploring passions and new ideas and a huge amount of emotional intelligence and empathy.
  • Complexity calls for Clarity - which can be achieved through systems thinking and approaching problems from a holistic perspective.  
  • Ambiguity calls for Agility - schools and teachers must be quick to adapt to changing circumstances, to test and prototype and to learn from failure.  
How can schools survive in a VUCA world?  Here are some suggestions:
  • create an environment that values openness and diverse perspectives
  • dialogue about new ideas
  • ask challenging questions and question the status quo
  • continually innovate
  • grow and stretch your teachers
  • think about where the learning gaps are
  • build intuitiveness
  • take advantages of the opportunities enabled by new technology
  • strengthen decision making
  • coach and be coached
  • focus on growing strengths rather than fixing weaknesses
How is your school empowering teachers to be leaders in a VUCA world?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The head or the heart

One of the concepts we talk about early on in the Cognitive Coaching workshops is trust.  Over and above the fact that trust is absolutely essential in any coaching relationship, we talk about how trust is important throughout a school and that it is everyone's job to develop a climate of trust. Trust is important in the relationship of us as professionals with parents, in the relationship between teachers and the principal, in the relations teachers have with each other and in the relations teachers have with students. What I found interesting however is that different sorts of trust are important in each of these relationships.

There are 3 different types of trust in schools:
  • organic trust - which was defined as felt value
  • contractual trust - what you are expected to do as part of your job
  • relational trust - what our expectations are of others, and what responsibility we have to others. Relational trust is founded on our beliefs and our observation of others' behaviour.
In the Culture Map, 2 types are trust are identified, based on where you are on the trusting scale.  These are trust from the head and trust from the heart.  Trust from the head is called cognitive trust - it's based on the confidence you feel in another person (for example their skills or reliability).  This is often the trust you see in working relationships when people are doing a good job.  Affective trust, from the heart, is to do with emotional closeness, empathy or friendship.  And like everything else I'm reading about in the book, trust is cultural:  the United states separates the practical tasks and emotional relationships - mixing them is seen as unprofessional and even a conflict of interest.  For example you often hear the expression "Don't mix business with pleasure".  Other cultures, for example the Chinese, connect both forms of trust - personal and business ties are linked - and they see a very "business only" approach to indicate a lack of sincerity or loyalty.  This can certainly lead to misunderstandings, with the United States being very task based, whereas the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) being much more relationship- based.  As Erin Meyer points out, "Previously managers working in global business may have felt themselves pulled toward working in a more American manner because the United States dominated most world markets ... but in today's business environment, the BRIC cultures are rising and expanding their reach ... all of these countries lie towards the relationship-based end of the trusting scale."  Today you have to learn how to build relationship-based trust with your clients and colleagues in order to be successful.

In "American-style" presentations and workshops the session often starts with an inclusion/icebreaker activity to build relationships between complete strangers.  Often at the end of the workshop, relationships that were so quickly built are usually just as quickly dropped.  In contrast, icebreaker activities in relationship-based societies are rare.

Another example is that if someone is fired from a job in an American company, the relationship of the other workers with that person are likely to be broken.  In relationship-based societies, that's practically unheard of, as the loyalty is to the individual and not to the company.  In fact often in those companies team members will follow the person to the new company.

And then there is another variable.  Meyer calls this the peach -v- the coconut.  In "peach" cultures such as the US, people tend to be soft and friendly with people they have just met - often moving to first name terms very quickly and sharing personal information.  However it's not so far into a peach that you meet a hard shell:  friendliness does not equal friendship.  Europeans, on the other hand, appear much more stony, or even hostile at first.  These are the "coconut" cultures where there is a tough shell:  they rarely smile at strangers or ask personal questions to those they don't know.  After a while, however, you get through the hard shell and people will become warmer and friendlier.  The relationships built up slowly and over a longer time are the ones that tend to last longer.

Thinking about this I think I'm most definitely a task-based person, though living an expat life overseas for the past 30 yers and having to socialize with my colleagues I've become much more relationship-based.  And as for the peach and the coconut - yep I'm definitely a coconut!

Photo Credit: id-iom Flickr via Compfight cc

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Making decisions

Some time ago, when I did an Adaptive Schools workshop,  I learned a protocol for bringing a group to consensus.  I've used this protocol a number of times with teachers and also with students, for example to narrow down the options for the PYP Exhibition, and in fact I've found it pretty useful.  However a different perspective about consensus was presented in the Culture Map:
Consensus fails to satisfy anyone's desires, but it does so equally, and so it's accepted.  It is through seeking consensus that we get mediocrity.
Again, whether or not you value consensus is largely cultural.   Often egalitarian societies value consensus, however I was interested to read that the United States is very different in this respect as it combines an egalitarian ethos with a top down approach to decision making.  One person (the boss) makes decisions quickly on behalf of the entire group.  And yet a decision made in this way isn't always binding.  Europeans are surprised to find that "for Americans a decision is simply an agreement to continue discussions".  Germans, for example, see decisions as a final commitment to move forward with a plan, and therefore find constantly bringing in new data and suggesting different paths forward is frustrating for them.

In a consensual culture decision making can actually take quite a long time, as everyone needs to be consulted, however once the decision is made implementation is rapid because the decision is fixed and not flexible.  In contrast in a top-down culture, decisions are made quickly by the boss without soliciting the necessary feedback, but each decision is also flexible, which means that implementation can take quite a long time.

Adaptive Schools teaches about the difference between dialogue and discussion.  In a nutshell, dialogue is where members of a team inquire into their own and others beliefs and values.  It's not about decision-making but more about listening to others.  Often poor decisions are made when there is not enough dialogue to build understanding, but instead a rush to action which leads to conflict. Misunderstanding is at the bottom of most group conflict, so going slowly during dialogue, can mean that when it's time to discuss and make a decision things can go quickly.  Discussion, on the other hand, is more concerned on action, making decisions and coming up with solutions.  Sometimes decisions are made through voting or trying to come up with consensus, but without prior dialogue these decisions can be low quality and simply represent the ideas of the most vocal people in the group. These decisions are not ones that the group as a whole has committed to, and therefore often don't stay made.

I'm interested in the fact that Adaptive Schools originated in the United States, a very top-down culture as far as decision-making is concerned.  I'm looking forward to discussion this discrepancy in our upcoming Culture Map book group.

Photo Credit: CommScope Flickr via Compfight cc

Monday, February 12, 2018

Procrastinators or thinkers?

This TEDtalk was shared with me yesterday.  It contains some really interesting ideas.  According to Adam Grant, procrastination can be a virtue for creativity.  Original thinkers, who dream up new ideas, are quick to start but slow to finish.  To be original you also don't have to be first - you just have to be different and better.  It a nutshell the message is to doubt the default and look for a better option.

Why -v- how

Reading on in the Culture Map, I've come across a chapter about two styles of reasoning: principles-first and applications-first.  Reading this reminded me of the way I was taught maths, and how in turn I taught maths to upper elementary and middle school students.  The first method, principles-first, is deductive reasoning where conclusions are drawn from general principles - you start with the big picture and then narrow down.  Conversely, applications-first reasoning, also known as inductive reasoning, draws conclusions based on a pattern of factual observations.  Now here's the interesting thing:  while people are capable of both types of reasoning, the pattern of reasoning we expect is influenced by our country's education structure.

Let's get back to maths.  If you are taught using an applications-first method, you learn the formula and then practice applying it.  Understanding the principle comes after you have mastered the formula.  This is how I was taught.  In maths lessons we spent most of our time focusing on applying the formula, and only a small amount of time on understanding the concept.  However when I have taught maths, I've used a different approach - first we have had students explore the concept, so that they come to understand the general principle, then they apply it to various problems.  In these classes students spend about 80% of their time focusing on the mathematical concepts and only 20% of their time applying this to actual problems.

As adults, people from principles-first cultures want to understand the why behind anything before they will move to action.  They don't like people telling them what to do, without explaining why they need to do it.  People from principles-first backgrounds feel that being told what to do without why they need to do it is disrespectful and demotivating. However, people from applications-first cultures are more focused on the how, and they find people who ask the why questions to be uncooperative.

In fact this explains a lot about my experience in meetings.  As an teacher I've moved from the way I was taught (applications-first) to the way I believe it's best for students to learn (principles-first).  This means that in meetings I'm constantly asking why, rather than just going ahead and implementing things that have already been decided on.  While I find meetings where there are just decisions and no dialogue challenging, I can see that my attitude is also frustrating to other educators who just want to know how to get something done.  While I want to debate the standards (why is this important for students to know?  Is it significant, relevant, engaging and challenging?), they want to focus more on how to actually teach that standard in their curriculum.  Clearly collaborative planning in a multicultural team that has these different perspectives can be hard!  This explains why sometimes we're very slow to make decisions, and why at times it seems like there is conflict and inefficiency in the meetings.

This chapter was really important to me in helping me to understand some of the rigidity and inflexibility I've noticed in some of our recent meetings.  It's been hard for me to go to collaborative planning meetings, where I've expecting to be part of a shared decision making process, only to find that the decisions have actually already been taken and are simply being shared with us - and all we need to do is to think about how to implement them.  Being more aware of these cultural differences will really help me in these meetings I think.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Many faces of polite: constructive criticism

Last year at school, in a meeting reflecting on the start of the year, I made a comment about how off-track we seemed to be with our first PYP unit.  It was made in the spirit of "let's find out what went wrong so we can do better in the next 5 units", but this did not go down well with some of the other members in the meeting who took it as a personal criticism.  I've been puzzling about this ever since, since I do feel it has impacted my relationship with these people in a negative way.  However, having read through Chapter 2 of the Culture Map, which is all about providing negative feedback, I have gained some insight into what went wrong and why.

I blogged recently about the Communicating Scale, and how some cultures are low-context while others are high-context.  To add to this is the following complication:  some cultures which are low-context (and so very explicit when explaining things) are still very indirect with negative criticism.  Other cultures, which are high-context and expect people to "read the air" between the words they are saying, can be very direct when telling you what is wrong.  The thing is this: all cultures believe in constructive criticism, yet what is considered constructive in one culture may be viewed as destructive in another.  To some people, speaking frankly and getting honest feedback that they can build on is a gift, but to others it's a slap in the face.  Having spent 17 years living in the Netherlands, I'm most definitely one of those people who believes in saying what you mean.  However, I've learned through Cognitive Coaching that sometimes giving feedback and suggestions inhibits a person's capacity for self-reflection - and in that situation the advice is rejected.

Another thing I learned reading this chapter is to listen out for the upgraders and downgraders that people use with negative feedback.  An example of an upgrader is something that makes negative feedback stronger - for example words such as absolutely or totally (as in "this is totally unprofessional").  This sort of language is used by direct cultures such as the Dutch.  Other cultures use downgraders such as a little, maybe, a bit which means the feedback is understated (as in "we're not quite there yet").  I had to laugh at the comparison between the British (who use downgraders) and the Dutch (who use upgraders) and how the meaning can be different.  For example a British person saying "I was a bit disappointed" actually means "I was upset and angry" whereas a Dutch person hears that as "It didn't really matter."  Another example is that when a British person says "I would suggest ...." it really means "This is an order - do it" whereas a Dutch person hearing this would think "do it if you like."  One of the funniest examples (and so true) is the expression "Please think about this some more".  For a British person it means it's a bad idea - don't do it, whereas for a Dutch it means it's a great idea, keep doing it.

Chapter 2 deals with the Evaluating Scale - how direct people are with negative criticism.  Europeans are mostly direct (in particular Dutch and Germans) whereas Americans are much less direct - and the Japanese even more so.  This helped me to think again about the meeting where I offended the 2 Americans by my forthright Dutch opinions!  To Europeans, the American mode of giving feedback, sometimes called the sandwich as it contains positive message - negative message - positive message, comes across as false and confusing.  As the Dutch would say, "We are here to do our jobs and do them well.  We don't need our colleagues to be cheerleaders." (this explains why I absolutely hate being told I have to be a cheerleader for something that I obviously don't believe in!)  However I have come to see that I do need to soften my feedback when speaking to Americans - to be more "polite" if you like, and instead of using an upgrader ("it was a total disaster") to use a downgrader ("it was a bit of a disaster").

Ho hum ... onto Chapter 3 which is about persuasion in a multi-cultural world.

Image is my own - taken at the SMART Nature Park.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Reading the air

Last week I was in Kuala Lumpur co-training a group of teachers in Cognitive Coaching, and while I was there a very interesting (and possibly scary) thing happened.  On Day 3 of the training I set off to the school with my colleagues.  We got into the car and instead of turning out into the road, which I was expecting, we drove around the building and through the car park at the back.  I remarked on this change - only to be told that in fact we had taken the same route for the previous two days.  I was floored!  How had I not noticed?  And what else wasn't I noticing from day-to-day life?

Now there are many reasons why I might not have noticed our route to school.  First of all we were leaving at 6.30 am and it was still dark.  Also I remember on Day 2 I spent the first few minutes of the drive scrambling around in my bag trying to find my security badge that would admit me to the school so I wasn't looking out of the window at all.  On Day 1 I was likely nervous and excited and more focused on conversations with my colleagues than on looking at my surroundings, however I still found this lack of awareness a bit disturbing.

A couple of days after this, I was back in Mumbai again and taking my nightly 5 km walk around Joggers' Park.  After several laps around the track, probably a little over half a hour of walking, the friend who was walking with me pointed to a woman at the side of the track who was skipping quite vigorously.  She said "Wow - she's fit!  She's been skipping the entire time we have been walking."  Yet again I hadn't noticed her.

Paying attention to my surroundings is something I guess I need to become more conscious of.  This week I started reading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and so far I have got through the introduction and Chapter 1.  The book is about cross-cultural misunderstandings caused by differences in the way we see things, basically because of invisible boundaries.  I feel that there is a lot I can learn from this book!  Each chapter deals with a different scale, showing how cultures vary, and misunderstandings happen when people expect one thing, but get something else.  In my years living in Thailand and India most people expected me to act a little different, whereas during my times in the Netherlands and Switzerland I was more of a "hidden immigrant", and most of the local people expected me to act the same way as them.  This was never more obvious to me after I arrived in Switzerland from Thailand on our first snow day.  Although I'd set off for school that morning to blue skies, snow started falling mid-morning and by the end of school my car was completely covered.  Not understanding Swiss snow, I cleared the windscreen and then drove home expecting that most of the snow on the rest of the car would blow off or drop off on the way.  Unfortunately this didn't happen.  I arrived at the underground car park of my apartment building, got out of the car and noticed the entire car was still covered in snow.  Even worse, mine was the only car in the car park that looked like this.  What to do?  As I was pondering this, a man came into the car park on a bicycle.  He stopped beside me and said "You're supposed to get the snow off before you drive in here."  Er ... yes ... but how?  "Don't you have a snow brush?" he asked me.  Well obviously I'd never heard of this, but it's a vital piece of equipment that is supposed to be kept in the car during a Swiss winter.  In the end I had to resort to scraping the snow off with my hands and then kicking it under the car so it wasn't so obvious that I had no snow sense.  I prayed that it would all melt before morning, when I had to drive out of the space again.

Now I could go on for an entire blog post about the differences I encountered between my expectations and those of the Swiss during my 3 years there, but interesting though this may be, let's get back to the Culture Map.  Our cultural perceptions are so deeply ingrained that it's like asking a fish about the water it is swimming in - not knowing anything different he's likely to ask "What's water?"  In my dealings with people from many different cultures I've certainly noticed huge differences in the way that people communicate.  In my current job I mostly work with Americans who tend to be very explicit about what they want.  Meetings are run with strict protocols and timed agendas and people talk a lot.  I think that I used to talk a lot too, but since starting on my journey as a Cognitive Coach 4 years ago I've tried to do more listening and observing and less talking and I've noticed that some people actually never talk at all unless they are asked a direct question.  In the book the quotation "you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth and you should use them accordingly" resonates strongly with some of these people.

Chapter 1 addresses effective communication.  In some cultures, such as American, good communication is about being explicit, clear and accurate.  The responsibility for transmitting the message is with the communicator. In India, however it's much more about reading between the lines.  Here the responsibility for transmitting the message is more of a shared one.  Being a good listener is just as important as being a good speaker.   In Japan they refer to "listening between the lines" when someone is talking as communicating messages without saying them directly is a deep part of the culture.  In Japan there is even a word KY (kuuki yomanai) which means "one who cannot read the air" (not a good listener).  My hunch is that most Americans would be seen by the Japanese as KY - which in turn makes me wonder about communicating with students and parents in international schools and how much "air" is not being read.

Erin Meyer explains the different communication styles on this first scale are known as high-context and low-context.  Americans are the lowest context in the world.  This means that effective communication must be simple and clear in order to convey the message.  In this culture you say what you mean and mean what you say.  Presenters are often told "tell the what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them."  I think when I was training to be a teacher I was probably given the same message.  Contrast this with the Hindi word "kal" that I came to know during my first year in India.  This means yesterday, but it can also mean tomorrow depending on the sentence (and also because as many people told me in that first year - in India time is circular).  Clearly India is much more high-context.

There are historical reasons for these differences of course.  High-context countries often have a long shared history and are relationship-oriented.  For example Japan, the highest context country in the world, is an island which for much of its history was shut-off from the rest of the world.  The USA, by contrast, only has a couple of hundred years of history and is made up of immigrants with different histories and languages who have little shared context.  No wonder then that Americans need to be explicit and clear to avoid misunderstandings.

So what is a good communicator?  Communicator is one of the IB Learner Profiles and is described in the following way:
They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.
However according to the Culture Map, being a good communicator is relative.  If you are from a low-context culture you may see people from high-context cultures as secretive and lacking in transparency as you have to listen for what is meant, not what is said.  If you are from a high-context culture you might find that those from low-context are condescending and stating the obvious.

Clearly even simple communication can be fraught with difficulties if you don't understand the cultural context that different people are coming from.  The next chapter deals with the many faces of being polite.  I'm going to read this one tonight.