Uncovering Blind Spots of Experience: Facing Urgency with Patience

We make the road by walking.

Paulo Friere and Myles Horton
Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash

I’ve been facilitating professional learning for the bulk of my career, beginning as a school designer and instructional coach with EL Education in 2004. What I learned in those early days of working with teachers and principals is the importance of “wearing the student hat” in our own learning, of experiencing the role of a student when expanding pedagogy. Friend and former colleague Meg Riordan and her writing partner Emily Klein highlight the research behind the experiential professional development model in this article exploring the four key components that contribute to the success of transferring their learning to the learning experience of students. Over the years I’ve learned an experiential model of professional learning does lend to meaningful change.

Now we find ourselves in need of urgent change, not only because the systems and structures of education fall short of serving all students, which has been true for a long time, but because so many teachers, students and families have been catapulted into new environments for engaging in learning.

We’ve always held high expectations for our teachers, and over time we’ve piled more and more on their plates without really removing anything. Now we’ve placed on them the need to revolutionize an education system brilliant in its design – but certainly not its outcomes – resilient to change in so many ways. We bombard them with webinars; we drip-feed new instructional strategies via twitter; we cheer from the sidelines, changing their job descriptions and expanding their roles. Until we rethink how we will approach change, our efforts are likely to fall short of achieving a future that is possible.

So where might that leave us? Last week I wrapped up the first stage of what will be a year-long commitment focused on Compassionate Systems, a mindset and a set of tools that helps uncover blindspots of both individuals and communities. This global team of forty educators and community leaders, led by Peter Senge, Mette Miriam Boell and the team at the Center for Systems Awareness, has been invited to grow into master practitioners who can develop an organizational climate and culture that ultimately ensures people within the community (students, parents, teachers and leaders) are adept at integrating the inner and outer dimensions of systems awareness.

Dustin Yellin’s Psychogeographies invite viewers to engage with the legions of their own consciousness and its embodied emotions as well as that of our shared collective society and its infrastructures. To me, his work is a perfect representation of the social field. (Courtesy, https://dustinyellin.com/)

After five days immersed online with this community, it’s interesting that I found my way back to what I’ve believed to be true for most of my career: experience is the ultimate teacher. Much like my days with EL, I recognize how important it is that we don the learner hat and experience the shifts intimately for ourselves. What is becoming clearer, however, is how we experience things. Yes, reflection is critical, but over the last five days I recognized there are additional dimensions to experience I hadn’t considered both personally and in my role as a leader. There exist dimensions that will allow us to move beyond historical approaches and replications of “better”, yet similar, systems of bias and inequity.

At this stage, I barely have the language to capture what is emerging. The closest I can find is the work of neuroscientist Francisco Varela. Verala’s work highlights the importance of an awareness of our lived experience, not just reflection after the fact.

What is becoming more clear is the role the Compassionate Systems tools play in deepening this awareness – an awareness perhaps that allows us to break the patterns of the past and make space for a very different future to emerge.

I see implications on my (well, anyone’s) work based on Verala’s insights. The first is a commitment to modeling meta-awareness. In this moment’s urgent need for change, I recognize speed will only diminish the potential of the school. I’m committed to stepping into this space of change conscious and careful so as not to reduce the transformational promise of this moment. Not only does this demand a patience I often struggle to employ, it means cultivating both the vulnerability and the discipline to make visible my own attentive state and my emergent thought process. This is sure to be an interesting ride.

… begin. Again: Re-owning the learner experience designer mindset

This moment away from our campuses has taught us much, and I imagine, it will be some time before we surface all the key learnings that will seed all that is possible. One thing, however, is becoming clear: when I fail to design an experience without putting the “user” at the center, I fail to create opportunities where people can thrive. At this stage, the user I’m focused on is most often educators and leaders. I’ve learned it’s not enough to focus on the usual instructional and meeting facilitation moves, instead I need to focus on developing engaging and collaborative experiences that extend beyond business as usual if I hope for long-lasting change. For that to happen, I’ve been thinking through how to tackle and cultivate a mindset shift from an instructional designer to a learning experience designer (LXD) whether we’re online (where this lesson has become very clear) or when we’re together as a learning community. (The importance doesn’t go away).

So let’s break this down a bit. Learner experience designer? Huh? Let’s start with a basic definition.

Margaret Weigel, from Six Red Marbles, defines LXD as a synthesis of instructional design, educational pedagogy, neuroscience, social sciences, design thinking, and user experience design. It truly takes the best practices of each of these fields and combines them to create learning that is experiential, engaging, impactful, and designed with the learner (instead of the instructor) in mind.

Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience:
Moving From “User” to “Learner”

What’s powerful about this? A designer at heart is a problem solver. Without a problem to solve a designer has little value. We continue to learn that traditional instructional design is more and more dated. Advances in cognitive science are consistently showing that understanding doesn’t happen through instruction but through the experiences themselves, guided reflection and the application in new and meaningful situations. So why do we keep focusing on the instruction and not the learner? As a learning experience designer, my focus should be on the problems my user (learner, educator, leader) is trying to solve in order to meet their desired outcome. My first question should always be: what is the user (learner, educator, leader) trying to accomplish?

Andre Plaut, a LXD for Apple, Obama for America, and General Assembly., highlighted the top five “problems” that typically emerge:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete their task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

The LXD mindset has proven to be a powerful guide for both designing and reflecting – and that is why I write today’s post. I kinda blew it (remember this is a learning blog, not a showcase blog). It = a meeting with 9 leaders grappling with a re-opening plan. Without unpacking the whole darn meeting (essentially a design session to solve for an extreme scenario) I failed to lead with the most important thing: what is the user trying to accomplish? (Yes, the critical empathy piece). I solved for knowledge, for skills, and certainly for access, but I didn’t design an experience where my user walked away confident – and this is what mattered to them most. What leader wouldn’t want to feel confident in re-opening campus after a global pandemic? D’Oh!

It strikes me that we do this all the time with kids. We seek to solve for the wrong problems — problems we imagine or think important, instead of those that are authentic to them. This is hard. Some days more than others. So, as my meditation teacher says, just find your breath, and begin. Again.

Additional Resources:

in medias res.

Photo by Manuel Polo on Unsplash

In medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events…

The Write Practice

More than twenty years in and I’m not sure I can even recall the beginning, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? If I was doing this right, our scene would open at the end of the journey (insert The Odyssey here) building a driving need to know: How ever did we end up here, like this? But alas, nothing quite so elegant for these pages because I find learning is messy, sometimes poorly timed and most often understood in retrospect.

Our story opens in the space between a quick classroom conversation (yes, we’ve reopened our campus) and a Zoom meeting (hardly a unique setting these days). First, the Zoom meeting. Ninety- eight educators, leaders, and community organizers from around the globe committed to understanding and utilizing the Compassionate Systems Framework. The conversation, launched by Peter Senge, begins with a brief meditation before shifting to the focus of our gathering: generative social fields. In brief, generative social fields are the relational spaces in which we all live. This Zoom call is part of a weekly exploration of how shifts in these spaces can lead to the transformation of individuals, families, and organizations. (For a full explanation, head to Boell and Senge’s School Climate and Social Fields).

Through engaging in this call, I was reminded of the importance of knowing how I show up because how we show up matters. I didn’t slip in that we started with meditation to be “on trend.” I called it out because it’s essential for people (adults and kids alike) to pause and become aware of their emotional, physical state – to make explicit, the implicit. I am of greatest service to the teams and schools I work with when I understand the place from which I (the leader) operate, as Otto Scharmer would put it.

I now know why a quick conversation with one of our third grade teachers gave me pause and hope for the change we are capable of in education. In a conversation with her students, this teacher called out in a very authentic way that it “feels weird” for her to determine how they plan their time when they’ve had such independence. “Does that even make sense anymore?” she asked.

I imagine students scoffing at the idea that they would pick up where they left off. Then, the crucial question emerged, “if we continue to do our work independently, now that we’re back at school when should we come together and why?”

Why, indeed. It does beg the question what is the purpose of school. Why come together and in this way? It also highlights that these students (like so many others) are poised to help us discover our best self as a community when placed in the generative social field like the one this teacher is cultivating. How will we show up in this space we return to? Will we recognize we’ve changed in simple and sometimes fundamental ways? Will we allow for authentic questions to emerge and new voices to respond?

When coming together in generative ways, Senge noted, “We don’t have to work too hard. We just have to look.” And, I would add, listen.