Yes, I have never signed these blog posts. I did not think it necessary. I write a lot more than a signature about myself in two other places: the short version and the long version. No signature on these pages either. I guess, one just does not do that. People put their sign in other places. I sign emails. And so do my colleagues. The other day, one colleague told me that he and a few others did an informal study of these automatically added bits of text, and they all agreed they liked mine. I really appreciated the comment. I had had comments on my emails on occasion, but never on the signature. This is what it looks like during the – work – day.
A tiny piece of canned text. Where is the complexity? What does this have to do with change? The change makes it complex.
In the beginning, I had no signature. Well, before that I had no email. In the early 1990s, I started with Pine and then Elm. I subscribed to some distribution lists to get at least an email or two a day. The list I remember fondly got me one or two essayistic and narrative texts from Mark Warschauer each week. In the late 90s – I still had no signature – the IT staff told me that I should delete some read and saved emails in my folder structure, because I was getting very close to my quota of 10 Megabytes on the mailserver. [Exponential growth in storage space, the staff could not predict!] And then the signatures came, giving complete mail addresses and telephone and fax numbers. Was I hoping to get a letter or phone call instead? And then, titles. Others added accolades. The fax number, I deleted soon from the “bottom lines”. Address and phone number were longer than the URL of a home page and my sig was shorter again. I like it that way.
Colleagues began to add quotes, statements, and stories. I added links. I like traffic on the blogs, on a website, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, still hoping there will be days on which I which I am using more time writing and reading for these media than for email. And colleagues added gender identification, job titles, and land acknowledgements.
With many first names, I am unsure about the person. Should I use he or she when I email about Pat? Or Sasha? It’s a new custom to list pronouns after the name. They are short and clear. As a linguist, I did not want to list them; these little words live from their context, and I did not want to deprive them unnecessarily. So, I wrote a little sentence in the signature. The subject pronoun got an antecedent (a word to which it refers back) – the signer of the email by name – and it hooks up with the verb work, which makes it happy, grammatically speaking. And that’s what I do during the day – work. Like many, many others. I try to do my work as best I understand, as they do theirs. And then I write and read emails. With a short signature. On the weekend, I carve out some time to write other texts. No signature. Yet.
I woke up this morning and the first four lines of a song played in my mind.
Guten Morgen, liebe Sorgen
Seid ihr auch schon alle da?
Habt ihr auch so gut geschlafen?
Na dann ist ja alles klar.
Good morning, my dear worries. Are you all here already? Did you sleep as well as I did? Alright then, everything is clear.
What are we doing with the complexity of change, if it is not just any problem, but we are right in the middle of it? Maybe we see ourselves as the problem? We are one of the actors in this nonlinear process of complex change? And using technical terms does not make it better. We suffer. We feel the process is out of control. Maybe we are not the problem? Maybe somebody else is behind it? Maybe everybody else is behind it? We are overwhelmed. Nothing we do makes it better. Perhaps we get angry, perhaps we get anxious. It’s all too much. Nothing makes sense anymore. We keep trying to react. And react frantically. Our energy is draining. Exhausted. Tired. Low, low energy. We force ourselves to go back to the problem, to tackle it one more time. Or not. We ignore. We avoid. We give up. No end and no solution in sight.
What a bleak picture. I have been in pictures like that. Pictures like that are imprinted on my mind. And the problem-solving I began to describe – the overcoming of a hurdle between the current state and the goal state – just does not seem to work. In a picture like that, it feels like problem-solving does not even apply. We feel we were treated poorly and unfairly at work, and it hurts. A loved one is in silent or loud pain. We have seen the pain too late and feel we have a part in it. We drive on a busy road. Somebody cuts in right in front of us. We brake. And feel like nobody his ever seen or heard us. No end and no solution in sight?
What am I going to do? With all these problems I have described so vaguely? The answer surprised me. Nothing. Now. Do nothing now. I have looked at the problem. I have tackled the problem. The problem didn’t budge, did not change for the better, didn’t just disappear. I cannot avoid it. What am I going to is the wrong question at this moment. What am I going to be is the better question. The problem is complex and my being overwhelmed does not help me control the process. Looking back, my being overwhelmed made it worse.
It’s a matter of perception. You have looked outward. At the problem. At the others who are part of it. At yourself from the outside. Now is the time to look inward. Give your mind the peace it needs. Calm. Rest. Rhythm. Perceive the calm energy we all have. Breathe. Feel your breath. Feel your heart. Feel your body. Relax. Focus on your breath.
And when you return from your meditation, the problems – or do you have just one? – were waiting for you. Problems tend to be persistent and patient. And so can you be. With your peaceful mind, you can change the problem. You can change the world. Calmly. One problem at the time.
Change the lane. Change your life. Work for change. Change is the only constant.
In your head, have you been adding more lines with the word change? Did you hear them? They are used so often and sound like clichés, phrases hollowed out by frequent use. Everything changes; we change everything. I believe that little and large change events are more frequent than the tiny events of talking about change. Maybe that’s why I am writing the blog on the complexity of change?
This imbalance between how very often change happens, is initiated, affects our life at different levels and how less often we talk about change, reflect on it, are mindful of it looks like a problem of perception to me, among other equally important perspectives. So, what are we looking at? Change. The activist and author adrienne maree brown sees two types of change: shocks and slides. She says we should deal with shocks differently than with slides. I believe we perceive them differently, too. Of course, change happens at different levels and strata. Changes in the body, in each of our personal lives, in our close circle, in our community, in society, in this world, and in the universe. As I am writing this in March 2022, rockets with celebreties are shot into near space and some folk book their dwelling lot on Mars, the war in Ukraine has been added to the many atrocities in this world before the pandemic subsided, people of different camps and echo chambers in the US are divided over yesterday’s battles and uncooperation is one factor that drives up prices, traffic density is clogging the streets of San Diego again and people either fear masks or masklessness, relationships in the family are redefined, there is a backlog of work for me not only from COVID, and my hair is getting grayer and thinner and grows more slowly. Do we – do I – perceive change as negative? Not really. We have a negativity bias; we remember negative events, change that we perceive as negative, more and better. Psychologists tell me it is an evolutionary feature we have. It used to help us survive. When we perceive the shocks and slides we perceive them as positive or negative. I often judge – immediately when perceiving. When I take the time to reflect on my perception on a change of a smaller or larger scale, I realize the change itself is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. For me. Buddhists say it is empty. Change – as anything else and both the shocks and slides – is just a container that our mind fills with our individual positive or negative meaning instantaneously when we perceive it. Change does not have such meaning in and of itself. Does this sound strange? It did to me for a long time and it still happens at times. Why? Perceiving of change and filling it with positivity or negativity is such a quick succession, it feels like the change has had that meaning from the very time we noticed it. But it did not. We perceive change first and then our mind imbues it, fills it with meaning. One happens very soon after the other, but there is a short break, a little crack in time. We can use that crack to let the light in, reflect. If you need more time, you can widen the crack by postponing giving any meaning to the change you perceived. And that brings us back to shocks and slides and to how they are perceived differently.
Most of nature is complex. Most of society is complex. Human behavior is complex. And, as the cliché has it, the only constant is change. And this change is not linear. Sometimes it seems we soar ahead, sometimes it feels like we walk ’round in circles, and sometimes we are taken for a ride. On a rollercoaster. It is this complexity of change that I am exploring, that I am relfecting on. One blog post at the time. Thinking about it, learning about Chaos Theory, Complexity Science, Dynamic Systems Theory, I have now done for 15 years.
Under this topic, I blog about timely concepts, practices, and reflections, which I believe to be relevant to trainers, teachers, coaches, mentors, and, of course, learners.
Look around a bit more. Or why not join the growing group of people who follow the Panta Rhei Blog? [In case you are wondering, the relevant button is in the top-right corner of each page or underneath the text and comment box, if you are reading this on your phone.]
The posts Chris wrote on the BASE model are also still available.
Get in Touch
If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, comment right on the page or post or send a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I live and work in Southern California. If you happen to be in the area and would like to meet, again an email is good.
Glad you have started reading, I am. Have you been following this blog? Or did you come by via Twitter or Facebook? Your first time on this site? Was it the bidding sequence in the title that caught your curious eye? Does it look familiar? If it does, maybe, you know Skat, a very German card game. I used to play it with family and friends.
With 18, the bidding starts. You are part of the game. You are willing to play. And you bid to win. 2018, I began my other, more personal website and blog. Willing to play. Willing to bid. And I slowly started to learn about WordPress, about blogging, and about writing. The year after, Chris and created the first pieces of our Panta Rhei Enterprise.
With 22, you can bid with or without one for a game of spades. Spades will be trump. (Gosh, has that become a bad word?) In 2022, both Chris and I will continue to narrate and write, respectively. And I will also use a little time here and there, first, to continue to focus and tidy up this website. And second, I am undusting my complexity lens, revisiting some earlier notes, augmenting all this with what I have learned in the last two years, and will continue to write about Complexity and useful – applied – languagey things. Something to look forward to …
It’s been a while since I have written about the complexity of change. You say you didn’t even notice? What has been the problem? Yes … for me as well. For me: the usual: too many fingers in too many pies. Some days, I felt like I was kneading dough in 713 bowls in rapid succession. Hour after hour. Day after day. I got it somewhat right in one bowl, while the yeast was bubbling aggressively in all the other bowls … It looked like the more I worked, the more dough there was to knead.
What was your problem? Why didn’t you do the things consistently that you wanted to do? What has changed? What did not? Were you able to solve this problem? Over time? Instantly? Not to worry, I won’t keep bugging you. Let’s look at the problem differently.
Problem-solving has figured in my previous blog posts, but we have not really taken a step back and looked at what a problem is. Why would one want to know you ask. Well, it is often easier to address something, disentangle something, work on something, once we understand this something better. Also at an abstract level. When we abstract, we take away some features, characteristics of a complex thing or process, to be able to focus better on the ones we did not remove or ignore. Done right, the abstraction is more widely applicable, not just to the thing we abstracted from but also to similar ones. We have learned something that will help us …
Alright, what’s a problem? We want to gain an abstract understanding, therefore we are not asking: what’s the problem? Actually, it’s best to have a couple of problems. I know this might only be true for this thought experiment; but maybe it isn’t, let’s see. We take a bunch of problems and compare them to one another. What do they have in common? What is specific to only one problem? The specific features, we can probably discard. They are unlikely to be part of a problem generally; they are just part of this one. This way, we get the general idea of what a problem is. After this generalization, we can abstract. And again, this is often helpful both for encountering other problems and for dealing with the one you are facing right now; at least we know something before have to dive in deeper into the specific problem of the moment. During this further abstraction, we look at each of the general features of our set of problems, and we are working out which of the factors, components, and traits we found across our problems actually make this a problem. Which of them are essential? These are part of the essence. If it were possible to remove the these characteristics — and in our thought experiment everything is possible — then the problem is not a problem anymore. It would be something else: a gift, a nice note, or a lawnmower. We just don’t know — anything but a problem. So, in generalizing, we only take note of the features that are general to our bunch of problems; and in abstracting we focus only on the general features that are essential, in that they make each problem a problem.
You knew all this, you say. I had an inkling you might say this, and I will oblige: Let’s jump right to the highest – or is it deepest? – level of abstraction. I am sure you understand that I had to say what I wrote until now, so that we are able to dive into this abstraction without suffocating in fuzzy matter.
Abstracting, each problem has two features. (1) There are two states: one — we call it state C for Challenge — is here right now in all its glory, and state G — we call it G for goal — is longingly desired, deeply wanted, desperately needed, or harshly ordered and may exist some time in the future. (2) There is a gap or an obstacle, like a hurdle, between state C and state G. Now, that’s a problem. How are we going to solve it? Let’s do this analytically.
We look at the different parts and features of the problem and their context. What is state C like? What is its context, both in time — its history or pedigree — and space — what else is there in its environment: what entanglements, dependencies, consequences, but also what leverage and tools. And how do you envisage state G? What’s your goal? Consider that in context, again both in time and space, as well. Everything going well, you will gain a good or at least sufficient understanding of both states.
Of course, the gap or obstacle is a different one in each problem. We will leave that for another post. In a previous post, I have described simple, linear, and complex problems and have given an example of a chaotic problem. Each of these is best suited to a different approach to problem solving. In a later post, I will also allude to the difference between well-defined and ill-defined problems.
Until then, why don’t you have a look ’round, read or re-read some earlier posts. Let us know what you think.
Many of us have experienced online learning-and-teaching over the last thirteen months, if not before and at least part of that time. Many of us have also experienced root canal surgery. Of course, the latter experience does not make us an expert dentist. And, I would say we don’t need to be as afraid of online learning-and-teaching anymore as some of us are of root canal surgery.
Flat puns aside, let us take a step back, it always gives us a better view of the whole thing. What is online learning-and-teaching? And why do I keep talking about learning-and-teaching, a made-up word with two hyphens? Teaching does not really happen without learning; you can’t say you have taught them, if they did not learn anything. Of course, one can learn without teaching. Why do we teach then, you ask. It’s a matter of time. Literally.
Let’s take an example: It is the middle ages, and you are in German lands. You would like to walk from Finsterwalde to Sonnewalde. As you can make out by the place names (der Wald = forest), you will have to find your path through the woods. Steps to be taken, decisions to be made at each fork, trails to be found and followed. After hours and hours and, sometimes, hours, you arrive in Sonnewalde. Exhausted and … late, maybe too late. If you were mindful, paid attention to the path you took, and reflected on your choices, you will have learned something. But it came at a cost, you arrived late; it took you too much time and effort.
Of course, there are alternatives: You ask for help. You find somebody who goes with you, somebody who knows the way, who can tell you, when you need to know, where to turn and to turn where. You get to Sonnewalde on time and as planned. It was easier than all by yourself, wasn’t it? You have achieved what you wanted; you have learned something, and you were taught, if it was a good teacher, the same something you would have learned alone at least.
Of course, there are alternatives to that: In the middle ages, you could have obtained a map, before walking off. You got directions beforehand. Or you used a compass to navigate through the dense forest. – Europeans got to know compasses in the 12th century. – In other words, you could use technology: a map, written notes, and/or a compass. Today, you would have even more options: a map on your phone or a GPS app talking to you intermittently.
In any case, your teaching-and-learning experience would have been mediated. But before we look at tool mediation, let’s think about something else: time. Wandering through the forest on your own takes more time then receiving the necessary guidance and information in appropriate chunks, when you need them. That’s pretty much what teaching is: you are learning by intentionally addressing a complex problem and your interaction with the problem is mediated by the teacher. The teacher breaks down the process into manageable chunks and – most importantly – presents you with these chunks in the order that is most conducive to learning. What pedagogy – the science of teaching-and-learning – does is help the teacher determine the selection and ordering of the chunks (pieces of information, steps in a complex process, …), which is best for learning for an individual, a particular group, and under specific circumstances. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, we will look at these pedagogic processes one by one in future posts.
Obviously, teachers use tools. They use words. Often words are their most important tool. Sometimes they demonstrate. Or they model. They use blackboards and whiteboards. Over the years, they had slide and overhead projectors, record, cassette, CD, and DVD players. I don’t remember anybody saying that these tools made their teaching virtual. Pupils, parents, and politicians thought of it as the real thing. Virtual? Virtual used to mean having the power of acting without the agency of matter. Now this adjective describes the thing is the thing in effect or essence, but that fact is not recognized formally. Tja!
Virtual learning is learning in essence and effect, but we won’t admit it. Perhaps, we should avoid the word virtual in this context and admit that online learning-and-teaching is real and realistic.
When schools and colleges were closed last year to keep students safe and healthy during a pandemic, as best one could, they were asked to learn online. What changed? The teachers changed their tools: they did not talk to the classroom walls any longer, they began talking to computer screens. The learning-and-teaching was still just that: learning and teaching. It did not suddenly become void of matter. Education remained accessible for kids who could not leave their homes, enter a school building, or congregate in groups. By swapping the whiteboard for a Jamboard or group work for Breakout rooms, how the teaching was mediated changed. Who likes change? It requires learning: teachers and students had to learn about the many new tools, how to use them, and how to use them effectively. They had to adapt to the tools and – more importantly – adapt the tools to them and for them. All of this happened online. With successes and failures. With joy and misery. And it was real. Not virtual.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard when everything is online. All the time. And it’s a challenge to learn new tools and tricks. So, let’s look back on these past months online, our efforts and our learning, and let’s make the learning-and-teaching in this modality more and more real. Real and effective mediation by a teacher. No need then to throw out the online utensils from the tool box in a couple of months. Hopefully.
Online learning has been on my mind ever since 2001, when I was asked to lead a group of people who would develop the first online language courses at the University of Waterloo in Canada. And when reading the newspaper — online during the week and with real paper and great pleasure on weekend — or when listening to friends and colleagues, these last twelve months I have not been the only one thinking about online learning. So what’s up?
Kids are protesting to be allowed to return to their classrooms, parents want to reclaim the work and study spaces in their home, and some piece and quiet, university students are suing their alma mater, claiming that tuition for online courses should be lower, and psychologists and pedagogues warn that the (learning) achievement gap is widening because of inferior online instruction. Looks like a bleak picture is emerging in the puzzle of the pandemic.
These worries and concerns have been real for many people, and they are understandable. People have been worried about and frustrated with new technologies at least since the industrial revolution in the western world. Think of the Luddites. Yet research on online learning has shown that relying on this modality is surely not all bad. Doesn’t this warrant a closer look?
Online learning provides access to more students or participants, because they avoid scheduling conflicts (especially for asynchronous modalities) and geographical distance is not a barrier anymore.
Students can and in their majority do achieve learning outcomes that are very similar the the ones of their peers in comparable classrooms.
Online courses can present more learning material (than in classroom teaching) from which students can choose, facilitating individualization.
Students who took a balanced mix of online and classroom courses achieved higher grades in the program.
Students have a strong preference for classroom socialization (perhaps especially so for language classes at a university, but that’s a different topic).
Students miss the in-person interaction with the instructor and perceive teacher feedback as lagging.
Students find online courses to be more work-intensive.
So, in many ways, online learning is not remote at all. In some of the next posts, I will take a closer look at the individual points — both positive and negative — to see what we can do with quality of online learning. It is here to stay even with herd immunity. It has come a long way in the last twenty years or so. And most important of all, in my opinion, it has changed distance education beyond recognition. So, not remote at all.
It’s been a while. Well, it’s complicated. Life is complicated. It is complex. And blogging does not make it any easier.
Have you ever wondered why there are two words – complicated and complex – that seem to be very similar? I have just described life as both complicated and complex. It is clearly complex; multiple actors, components, and factors play a role and interact with one another. In a previous post, I have sketched these as the characteristics of complexity. I am labeling something as complicated, when I perceive the inherent complexity as challenging; and I guess I am not not the only one. So, complexity is independent of the person, the subject, looking at it; it is objective (mainly determined by the object). Complication, on the other hand, is dependent on the perception by the person – do I find something complicated – and is hence subjective (mainly determined by the subject). The two go hand in hand, of course, and influence each other, but that is a topic for another post.
… and blogging does not make it any less complicated, because blogging is complex. How so? If you have observed – the scientific word for having look at or in this case read – my blogging on this site, you have noticed that it has been a nonlinear trajectory.
Let’s sketch a timeline. On October 18, 2019, I wrote the very first blog post on this site. The first post in the series On the complexity of change appeared about three months later. Over the last year or so, only 10 posts appeared.
Let’s look at this series of blog posts through the lens of complex adaptive systems (CAS) by asking three questions: (1) What were the initial conditions? (since we know that CAS are sensitive to initial conditions) (2) What are the growth conditions? (3) Which variables have induced and are inducing change?
This blog and the Panta Rhei website started off as a good but pretty vague idea. We had a bunch of ideas that we wanted to try out, thought that we had a couple of meaningful things to share, a decent level of computer literacy and of familiarity with online media, but no clear concept of the goal of the whole enterprise and still a lot to learn about blogging, social media, and online presence. In addition to writing blog posts, I worked on the infrastructure of the site, learned a lot from other bloggers, joined a writing group, read up on small online consultancy businesses, took some WordPress tutorials, brushed up on my knowledge about Facebook and Twitter. So, what might not be obvious from the graph above or the ostensible hodgepodge of topics in the series, is that a lot of learning occured. That’s how educator-theoreticians put it, meaning I learned a thing or two on the process, which in one way or another was the main point of the whole endeavor. Up to this point and probably for a little while longer, the main hope I had and still have is that I learn new things and enjoy the journey. Of course, if you find the posts interesting, entertaining, worthwhile, … this is even better.
The initial conditions — a vague idea combined with openess, a lack of experience in blogging combined with a good aptitude and an eagerness to learn, and an unclear focus combined with the strong intent to sharpen it over time — kept recurring in the iterative process of blogging.
What are the growth conditions?
Most complex adaptive systems are open. This means, if you are lucky, there is a constant influx of energy, which influences the complex process. Events external to this blog change the trajectory of the blog. Their energy can induce growth or curtail such growth. The last 12 months have also been the 12 months of COVID-19. Did this divert some of my energy away from the blog? Surely. But it also stimulated my thinking and gave me examples for the discussion of exponential growth, chaotic problems, and nonlinear delopments. Not all growth conditions are external to the CAS. In our case, it have been mainly the “positive” initial conditions, which have turned out to be growth conditions. When I made progress on improving the infrastructure of the site, defined the focus more clearly by moving a couple of posts to my personal blog and transfering some from there to here, the writing got easier and things picked up again. When I learned how to better integrate the blog with its social media, more people became aware of the posts, which in turn increased my motivation.
Which variables have induced and are inducing change?
At first sight, the answer is simple: pretty much anything and everything. Other processes – many of them also complex – impact the process of blogging on the Complexity of change, whether it is the personal life, work, hobbies and exercise. Internally, very little helps and hinders. In one of my future posts, I will take a closer look at how to handle the myriad of variables in any complex adaptive system. And yes, there are a number of ways.
Until then, why don’t you have a look ’round, read or re-read some earlier posts. Let us know what you think.
Mind your language. The language of COVID-19. The language of instruction. Language and cognition.
Hope I did not startle you with the imperative: mind your language. I do mean you personally, but I do not mean to imply that you have said something inappropriate. It’s simple: all of us should be mindful of the language we use. All the time. I know this is hard to do. I have failed miserably. Too often. It is more something to strive for, to be aware of. We are focused on What we want to say. We inform, explain, promise, declare, question, list, pray, or baptize. All by using language. We rely on our utterances when we teach, train, coach, or mentor. And it is this area I want to focus on in this blog post.
Personal confession: I have been studying language, teaching it, and teaching about it for many years. I enjoy thinking about language and texts. Taking them apart and putting them together (again). Language or the way we communicate is one of our characteristics that makes us who we are—human, so I believe. Language and thought – or more technically: cognition – are inextricably linked in many different and complex ways. And yet, we are all able to use a language we grew up with without ever having to necessarily learn about it, think about it, or reflect on it. What a luxurious gift!
So, we all got a gift. Would it not be better to take good care of that gift? One polishes it to make it shine for the joy of others. Another monitors it to make it a precise and useful instrument. And a third ensures that no injury or misunderstanding results.
And if each of us strives to do all three at least most of the time, then I would call that being mindful about how we use language. This can improve all of our social interaction, and I will focus on the role of language and how we use it when we teach, train, coach, or mentor in this series of blog posts.
For the last 30 or so years, I have been working with computers. When working with machines, input is an important concept. In the nineties, I read, heard, and thought a lot about input in the context of language learning and in – what Stephen Krashen called – language acquisition. I struggled with his input hypothesis and his no-interface hypothesis. In all discourses after that, researchers in Applied Linguistics and trained language teachers focused their attention on more applicable and theoretically better founded concepts. In other words, all quiet at the input front … until recently when I started working in the world of teaching of languages labeled less commonly taught, heritage, community … and often also – in the US – critical and strategic. Here it re-appeared; comprehensible input, the whammy of the 1970s and 1980s, is left, right, and center in these classrooms and discussions. So, how come, and why am I worried about it?
Input is a metaphor that has been borrowed from the world of machines. Machines receive input, and then, if you are lucky, they produce output. For humans, we do not talk about input when we eat, when we breathe, when we drink. Why would anybody want to do this when we listen or read? Why would language teachers conceptualize language, texts, utterances as input for their students? I really don’t know. What I do know is that my students are not machines that I need to feed with input so that they produce output. Language learners are multilingual subjects, which implies that they have – what theorists call – agency. They make their own decisions what text or utterance they take in and which ones they do not; and they decide whether to say anything and what it is they are saying. Only for a machine, some input will trigger some output.
But perhaps the meaning core of ‘comprehensible input’ is in the adjective? I am not sure. I find that ‘comprehensible’ is not very comprehensible [pun intended]. So, teachers want to expose their students to some language, which they in turn can learn; but how do teachers make these texts comprehensible?
There are two main strategies – appropriate selection and pedagogic augmentation – and neither one can just be derived from the concept of comprehensibility. Appropriate selection: Teachers select linguistic units – words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts – that are relevant to the students’ learning and their current or future life contexts, so that they are motivated to engage with them. Teachers select these linguistic units such that they optimally impact the language use of their students by selecting texts that reflect current language usage in a variety of genres, give priority to vocabulary, grammatical constructions, and communicative functions that their students will need in realistic interactions in the language they are learning. Teachers select the same building blocks – words and grammatical constructions – as frequently as is needed by their students and pay attention that these words and grammatical constructions are repeated in different contexts, that is in different places in a sentence, in different texts, in different genres, and both spoken and written. Students need to encounter these words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts repeatedly in chunks that are conducive to language learning. Sometimes pauses need to be left between words (each word is such a chunk), sometimes students need to have the chance to study a sentence word by word, sometimes a text can be better understood if read paragraph by paragraph, a video clip might have to be interrupted a couple of times, so that students can iteratively engage with each chunk.
Selecting appropriate texts is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Since most texts that teachers select contain material that is new to the students, the (linguistic) information contained in the text needs to be augmented. In other words, information needs to be added. How? Each text contains parts that are less salient, which means students – or anybody else for that matter – will find it more difficult to notice them. Well, and if we do not notice something, our chances of learning it or learning about it are pretty slim. Grammatical features such as prepositions or, in a number of languages, verb inflections are very difficult to notice because they are not always salient. Augmenting means here making them more salient. In a written text we use graphical means (underlining, color-coding, bold-face print, …) and in spoken texts we use sentence and word stress, intonation, and pauses to make the words and constructions we want students to notice stand out. Multimodality is the second important concept when it comes to augmenting texts to which language learners are exposed. When a text is presented just as such it is in one mode – printed or spoken – only. The students have to rely on only one “channel.” Providing captions for a listening text or reading aloud a text students also have in front of them gives them the same information through two “channels.” Even better if the text is accompanied by pictures or a video. This redundancy – information being given more than once – is very useful for cognitive processing and hence (language) learning, particularly if the information is in different modalities – printed, spoken, pictorial, video. As providing the information in different, complementary modalities augments the text from which the students are supposed to learn something, so does additional linguistic information. The most obvious ways of scaffolding the students’ understanding of a text are providing monolingual or bilingual glosses or captions, the use of a dictionary. The same also works for grammatical features – word morphology and syntax – with the help option to look up declension and conjugation tables. Online texts can have the additional functionality of providing the base form for each infected form. In a language like German it is difficult to distinguish between proper nouns and other nouns because they both have a capital initial letter. The opportunity of looking up who Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, was, as opposed to looking up the word Kohl in a dictionary and finding out it means ‘cabbage’ means learners do not get distracted from the actual language learning.
Of course, there would be more that could be said about selecting and augmenting texts for learners, and other strategies can and should be used. So, is it really better to replace one phrase – comprehensible input – by a set of strategies?
selecting utterances, constructions, words which are necessary to learn, relevant to the learners’ cultural, social, and biographical contexts, and pedagogically appropriate;
selecting texts that are socially relevant and that reflect current, appropriate language usage in the speech community of the learned language;
repeating linguistic units frequently and in different textual, communicative, and genre contexts;
making the texts and smaller units teachable by chunking them appropriately, that is breaking them up into a pedagogic sequence of smaller parts;
augmenting texts by
making the words and constructions that are in the teaching focus stand out (saliency);
exposing learners to multimodal texts – combining text, picture, animation, video, gestures effectively to help them notice new information and obtain through different channels;
providing the necessary (meta-)linguistic help and scaffolding so that learners can handle the new texts successfully.
I realize it took me far more words than just a simple phrase to express what I think is necessary when exposing learners to examples of how the language they are learning is used. Well, I would think sometimes more really is more. In my experience, teachers find it much easier to apply this detailed information in their daily classroom practices. Admittedly, many of these strategies also get listed when teacher developers or trainers explain ‘comprehensible input’, but why use a machine metaphor first and potentially lead them down a garden path, when you can start with practically applicable strategies?
I had posted this on my personal website in April 2018. Now it is the last post that I am transfering to this blog. Promise: future posts will be new, now that everything has been tidied up.
She is fluent in English. I am a native speaker of German. I am not sure he speaks Pashto well.
I am not sure what any of the sentences above mean. The other term that gets thrown around in the circles in which I move – often – is language proficiency. It is a useful concept, but what does it mean?
In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing and meaning getting ready to be measured transparently – as a collective variable that consists of complexity, accuracy, and fluency as are evident in spken or written texts. Each – complexity, accuracy, and fluency – are also collective variables, which means each is made up of a relatively stable configuration of smaller variables. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.
Some time ago, I collaborated with my colleague Chris Brown on outlining the approach to language instruction in our short intensive language training courses. His contributions and the many discussions I have had with colleagues such as Shahnaz Ahmadeian-Fard and Farid Saydee informed my thinking and are gratefully acknowledged; shortcomings and gaps are my own. The following sketch is a slightly adapted version of an excerpt from the text that resulted from this project.
Over the years, our instructional approach has been built on two pillars: sustained student engagement and systematic language proficiency orientation. Student engagement has been achieved through lesson plans and learning processes in the classroom pursuing the strategy of gradual release of responsibility. The gradual release of responsibility follows the schema of I do > we do > you do together > you do alone and progresses in six dynamic steps: orientation, presentation, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice, and reflection. First, the teacher orients the students towards the learning goal(s) of the lesson, by providing a schematic conceptualization of the learning goal. In Sociocultural Theory and its pedagogic practice, Concept-based Instruction, such a schema is called SCOBA (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014). SCOBAs are multimodal, student-centered representations of the concept to be learned. Such concepts are, for example, a communicative function (greeting, introducing oneself and others), a semantic field of vocabulary (kinship terms, food and cuisine), an abstract grammatical construction (subject-verb agreement and verb conjugation, definiteness and indefiniteness), and a cultural concept (social respect and honor, a holiday tradition). SCOBAs need to be multimodal, that is, they need to incorporate two or more of print, spoken word, image, sound, animation, and video, in order to facilitate students’ cognitive understanding, to succinctly provide them with the ‘why?’ and ‘what-for?’ context, and – most importantly – to engage them successfully and to boost their intrinsic motivation. This comprehensive orientation is also important because it facilitates the students’ focusing on learning goals during the subsequent phases; this in turn enables them to notice features and facets of the language and culture, which they have not yet learned or with which they are not yet comfortable. After the orientation, the teacher can present more concrete examples of the concept. In the presentation phase the teacher models target language use and makes important features more noticeable and transparent, always engaging the students as active participants. During guided practice, students try out the new vocabulary and grammatical constructions, or they work and talk in pairs and small groups. Often this is done in direct student-teacher interaction. Throughout, the teacher provides individualized guidance, support, and feedback. More responsibility is released to the students during the collaborative-practice phase. Students interact with their peers and engage with and learn from each other. In the last practice phase, each student works independently, so that they have the opportunity to check their own knowledge, abilities, and skills. This phase or the final reflection phase can be combined with formative assessment. In the reflection phase, students publicly demonstrate their work and achievements, monitor their learning outcomes, and plan actions to further deepen their knowledge, abilities, and skills.
With all class sessions following this six-step lesson plan progression, target language use in the classroom is made increasingly possible and productive, as learners quickly become accustomed to teacher expectations, and they are able to tell for themselves if they are having success, or if they need more support. In this lesson plan structure only the first two phases – orientation and presentation – are instructor-focused. All other phases have the students at the center of the interaction in either an interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational mode, consistent with the ACTFL National Standards and recognized language teaching best practices.
Sustained, productive target language use is also achieved through a parallel progression in students’ learning activities, which is based on the dynamic phases:
reception (understanding the orientation and presentation, listening to the teacher’s explanation or feedback),
verbal imitation (repetition of teacher models, response to recasts),
material manipulation (accompanying words with associated gestures, total physical response, manipulating words and sentences by hand),
verbalization (explaining word choice or a grammatical rule while applying it in target language use, explicitly stating personal or transcultural contexts of a cultural concept),
private speech (students make explicit their planned and current language learning and language use steps only for themselves), and
inner speech (students are actively aware of their newly acquired learning material when they apply it in communicative situations).
This sequence, which again is rooted in the sociocultural theory of Vygotskian provenience, ensures that learning always moves from the social plane – student-teacher and student-student communicative interaction – to the psychological plane – the internalization of newly learned material. Instructors, and students, intertwine these two dynamic sequences to maximize learning success.
A lot of things have changed since then. We have been doing some more work on structuring the daily schedule of our intensive language training courses, we have worked on lesson plans and syllabi. But the main premises of the sketch above still stand. Their refining, adapting to different (daily) contexts, and their implementation are part of a continuous and complex process.
This exploration of a concept in teaching and pedagogy in general, I wrote in 2018 for my personal blog at matschulze.net. I am reposting it here — after some minor edits — as the first post on training, teaching, and learning.
Let’s start off with the word itself—as I often like to do. Student centeredness. A compound noun with two constituents that are both nouns. We will talk about student some other time and just accept any prior, also pre-theoretical notion of what a student is. Centeredness is, of course, derived from the past participle centered. Past participles in English are used to form the perfect tenses: past perfect (I had centered sthg. yesterday), perfect (I have centered sthg.), and future perfect (I will have centered sthg. by tomorrow). These verb forms all denote an action was (past perfect), is (perfect), or will be (future perfect) complete with a result relevant to the speaker/writer. The past participle is also used to form the passive voice (Sthg. is/was/has been/had been/will be centered). Why is it important to consider all these verb forms? Because—as all past participles—centered retains some important meaning facets from these forms, even if it is used like an adjective as in the construction student-centered. Thus, centered denotes a process of centering that has been completed in the past and the result is part of the speaker’s/writer’s reality now. In other words, whatever has been centered was not in the center before and is in the center now. Centered also retains its passiveness. So, in student-centered, students are not the actors or carriers of the verb event (the grammatical subject), they are the (passive) direct objects; they suffer the event the verb describes.
The metaphor of student centeredness thus conjures up images of a process of her/him being moved by somebody else from somewhere that is not the center. They then arrive at the center and stay there while never actively participating in the process of moving. So does the student-centered approach in language teaching suggest that teachers should move students around like pawns on a chess board? Probably not; but the problem is the metaphor does suggest that. This, I believe, has led to some misunderstandings in classroom practice. Also, nobody would want to suggest, I hope, a student-centered approach consists of or can be achieved with a single move and the student is in the center for all time. And there is another – linguistic – problem.
Center—now the noun, not the verb—is always the center of something. Yes, the student has ended up in the center, but in the center of what? The center of the classroom? The center of the universe? The center of attention? The center of a circle? The center of gravity? Okay, I am being facetious: it is neither the universe nor the circle nor gravity. Time to leave the realm of linguistics and move into didactics, the theory of teaching.
Does the student-centered approach to language teaching imply that the student should be—metaphorically speaking—in the center of the classroom? Yes, it does. As many have suggested, students should be given the most possible time to speak, to do, to practise, to act, to apply, … They need to have frequent opportunities to come to the front of the class to present, lead an activity with their fellow students, to perform, for example, a role play, … So, students being at the center of the classroom is necessary to achieve a student-centered approach, but it is most certainly not sufficient. To put it bluntly, a teacher asking students frequently to give a presentation in front of the class or even to lead a learning activity, does not make for student-centered teaching (alone).
Students also need to be at the center of attention of the teacher. When designing the curriculum, a unit, or a lesson, not the topics the teacher likes, the linguistic constructions the teacher believes to be interesting, and the facets of the language community’s culture the teacher has experienced or finds fascinating should be included, the topics, constructions, and cultural facets that the students need to grow in their development of language proficiency and cultural awareness at this stage in their learning and with their learning goals and objectives need to be included. Not the methods of instruction the teacher finds convenient and the activities they enjoy or are comfortable with should be introduced, the teaching methods that are proven to be most conducive to the students’ learning and the activities they most fruitfully engage in need to be used in the daily teaching.
Student-centered teaching is a repeated attempt grounded in reflective practice. Teachers constantly learn about the changing needs of their students, the instructional methods through which their students learn best, and the activities through which they engage best with the language and culture. To put it more holistically, everything in the process of teaching and learning (what Russians like Vygotsky call обучение and German teachers call Unterricht—the unity of teaching and learning) is appropriated, designed, or employed such that the students make optimal progress in their development of the second language and culture.
So it is both—surface and essence. With a student-centered approach, language teachers constantly strive to give center stage and prime time to students speaking, activity, practice, and performance; and more importantly, the students’ needs, their goals, and optimal achievements are first and foremost on the mind of the teacher in everything they do when learning and preparing for class, working in class, and reflecting on learning processes after class. And with this approach, students are never passive pawns and teachers can never rely solely on what they did in the past; the center and focus of all learning processes is a teacher-led collaboration with active students that never stops …
Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?
Time! Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.
Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?
Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous? We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours. We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month. We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly. We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else? We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?
Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.
Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.
Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.
Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.
Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.
Time changes and is the same all the time.
Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexityof Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.
That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.
It was bound to happen. You can take Mat out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of Mat. Addressing two challenges—one linguistic and one very worldly.
In eigener Sache. It is what it is, but it is difficult to translate into English. Literally: in one’s own matter. Often used in company announcements that pertain to the company itself. Please note … does not really capture it. We are happy to announce … does not fit the context I am thinking of. Any suggestions that go beyond the the discussions in the forum of the online dictionary leo.org?
Until you come up with something better, I will just call it About us, which is
Life goes on. Work piles up. COVID-19 has been confusing people, making many sick, and killing far too many. Too many lost their livelihood, feel frustrated and excluded, and wonder when and how this will end. And many say: I can’t breathe. Not now and not before.
And that is just the context. For this blog. On May 2, more than two months ago, I wrote the last post. Silence. Busy processing. Busy with busy. Busy learning, trying to understand. To understand what’s going on.
Doesn’t writing help? To process? To understand? Yes, it does. For me, it does. Reading also helps, doesn’t it?
So, what’s the challenge then? Finding the time to write, before one is overtaken by events. Having the energy to key in thoughts. Being focused on writing about one when a trillion is happening all at once.
But that is not all. Writing when everybody is talking is hard. Is anybody listening? Am I listening? Enough?
Greetings to you. How are you? I am well, and I very much hope you are also. Is this a good time to connect? Great, let’s get started then.
These social niceties probably seem more than a little out of place in a blog entry. Well, they are! At least, they were according to the schema I (we) previously held about how blog entries are “supposed” to work. Can we agree that things are different now? For me, they certainly have changed, even since my last post (Physical Boundaries: Part 1, in case you missed it) from nearly four weeks ago. Four weeks. My last post looks juvenile and naive to my eyes, in the light of these intervening days and weeks. But that is the way of these things. If the past month has taught us anything, it’s that exponential growth/change (scroll down to the section on it in Mat’s most recent post, if you’re in a rush) is damn near impossible to account for, in advance or otherwise.
So, without more preamble, let’s dive in to the exploration of Cognitive and Interpersonal Physical Boundaries.
Cognitive Physical Boundaries can sound like a self-contradictory turn of phrase, especially for those of us educated in a Western thought paradigm. “How can I have mental boundaries that are also physical?” you may ask. My response, if I were feeling a bit cheeky, would be along the lines of “how can you not?” Unless you are making a deliberate, sustained effort to separate your cognitive and corporeal awarenesses, the strongest likelihood is that a large part of your lived experience is found in the interplay between the two.
To be clear, your brain and the thinking in which we engage it are not synonymous with the “mind.” A little word work can help us clarify the distinction:
Cognitive -> Cognition -> Thought (intellect)
Mental -> Mindfulness -> Mentality (mindset)
To me it is very interesting how we can begin with two practically synonymous words —cognitive and mental— and end up with two words —intellect and mindset— that are at best parallel partners. Although serious study of the mind-body connection has not been prevalent in the West for much of the past few hundred years, more recently it has gotten more and more traction. From the likes of Deepak Chopra, to the rise in meditation and mindfulness apps, clinics, podcasts, and so on, collective humanity is almost crying out for a counterpoint to the overly essentialized, long-held view of the body as a mere implement for the mind; a fleshy automaton meant to enact the whims of one’s will, or to be the gateway for the spirit’s eventual decline and demise.
Want an example? My recent lived experience sheltering in place here in Southern California has taught me a lot about mind-body connection and a lack of healthy Cognitive Physical Boundary guarding. Maybe you’ve gone through something similar recently:
My sinuses were irritated. I noticed it, at first a little, and then more and more. I thought “it’s just allergies.” Then I thought, “Isn’t it?” Then I felt irritation and even mild discomfort settle in my pharynx (the part of your sinuses that sits above the palate, almost directly behind your nose). Then I looked up what that part of the sinuses is called, and I read some articles about how the pharynx is where respiratory infection and sickness often begin. Then I noticed that my pharynx was even more inflamed and irritated. Then I became something very close to obsessed with clearing it out. Saline, saline, and more saline. It did not clear out. I climbed into bed about eight hours later in a ragged state. It must have been an hour before sleep finally took.
And don’t even get me started on the evening where I felt warm and took my temperature, only to discover that it was between 99 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I took it about 8 more times over the next two to three hours… it came down within 45 minutes and stayed that way. But it took my mind, and my body, about 12 hours to accept that this was not the beginning of a downward spiral. The next day, when I woke up feeling about as fine as I ever do, I decided to be MUCH more purposeful about monitoring my mind-body connection.
Contact with too much news, at too many intervals, focused too much on the myriad, mysterious symptoms and transmission modalities had built a narrative of inevitable infection inside my mind and spirit. My body reacted in kind. Sensations turned into symptoms. Symptoms turned into self-diagnosis, despite a much more robust set of signals that I was doing just fine physically. Sound familiar?
I needed to really channel some effort and energy into being aware of my body and the influence my thoughts and feelings have on it. In order to establish that connection in a more positive light, I went back to a technique that a former aikido sensei showed me. I lie down on my bed, and I proceeded to breathe in and out five to ten times, first through my nose and mouth, and then (and here’s the important part), through each of my main body parts: neck and shoulders: in, then out; arms and hands, in, then out; hips and lower back, in, then out; and so on.
Even if the worst thing you’re dealing with is some tension or soreness, this is an amazingly effective way to connect mentally with a physical sensation in a way that also gives you some agency. Because, isn’t that the challenge we most often face? Our body hurts -> us, and our minds/thoughts absorb and create a story from that physical hurt? Using the technique I have just described, you can begin to shift the source and flow of that story. Instead of beginning with physical sensation and ending in a cognitively produced narrative, turn the whole thing on its head (so to speak). Start with a story of general wellness and genuinely curious exploration, and then send that out through the physical sensory receptors of your body through the elemental power of purposeful breath. It takes some practice and dedication, but it also offers the powerful reward of a cognitive physical boundary system that is more reflective of the actual relationship between our bodies and minds.
Interpersonal Physical Boundaries can be understood, on one level at least, to overlap with Kinetic Physical Boundaries. As I outlined in my previous post, most of us have an ingrained preference when it comes to the amount of physical contact we wish to make with others in different kinds of routine social encounters. But what about our the way our physicality reflects our psychosocial state? Put a simpler way, what about our “energy” or “aura” in interpersonal dynamics? I’ll start from the outside in.
Have you ever been around someone whose mood or state of mind was almost physically perceptible to you? Whether it is joy, bitterness, anxiety, desire, rage, or indifference —to pick just a few possibilities— I cannot help but imagine that you have been able to sense what another person is feeling just by being in their physical, visual, or auditory proximity. But, how often have you wondered how this can be? Does the invocation of terms like “energy” put you off? I suppose I can understand if it does, since it opens more doors to ambiguity than it closes, but I also wonder if that isn’t just the nature of interpersonal dynamics. They’re just a complicated mixture of visible and invisible dynamics, right?
But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s agree that, at one point or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of the unspoken, projected energy/aura of another person; a joyful friend, an upset stranger, a disappointed significant other, an annoyed boss, an entitled child… we can all picture and even use our sense memories to call at least one of these people to mind. And I bet those memories do not (need to) include perfect auditory recall in order to be vivid. It wasn’t what they said or did. It was how they felt that let us know.
Ask yourself if you’ve ever been the one sending these energy signals to others.
Spoiler: you have.
At some point in your life to now, you have walked into a room and been greeted by someone who immediately picks up on some unspoken aspect of your current mood. The best part? It may have been an emotion/thought that you weren’t even consciously aware of yet! And that is the part I want to briefly focus on today. Conscious engagement with our interpersonal physical energy and differentiating it from the energy we absorb from the world, and people, around us.
Check in with yourself. As you perform an inventory like that, do you do with some degree of evaluative judgment, or just curious discovery? The default for most of us is the former, but the better, and more accurate version, is the latter. For the next few days, commit to checking in with yourself at least twice each day, taking your emotional temperature as it were. But do it like an interested observer. Be curious, not evaluative. The goal is just to notice your internal energy at two different times per day, and then to be curious about if and how it might be, or have been, reflected in your physical interpersonal presence as perceived by others.
Take it a step farther. Instead of attaching your emotional/interpersonal energy to your self-perception, depersonalize it. I’ll do myself as an example: I have spent most of today feeling impatient. I have been in a few meetings and conversations —both work-related and personal— where I wanted them to be over almost before they had begun. I am confident that those I with whom I was interacting picked up on that, even though I never said anything concrete about it.
Rather than owning it, however, I will simply note it and set it aside with this phrase: “There is impatience.” It is not me, and I am not it. I experienced it, and others, through my interaction with them, experienced it as well. But now, free of the burden of it, I can look forward and try my best to choose something different from this moment on. I’ll try wonder. My goal will be to first feel wonder at the actions and words of the people I interact with tomorrow. I’ll then try to project it from within, but also to connect with it in the world around me. It is still not mine. I can’t own or contain it. But there IS wonder, and I can participate, partake, and share. And the most genuine, impactful way I’ll do that will not be through my words, nor even my overt actions. It will be by way of a mind-body engagement with the wonder that there is.
I’ll leave you today with the voice of one of my intellectual heroes, Daniel Kahneman:
In this interview, he talks about how he thinks we —yes, all of us— misunderstood the nature and scope of the COVID-19 threat, as well as the risks we may run in misconceiving of the world as it is now, and as it will be hereafter. My biggest takeaway comes at around the 3:20 mark and lasts until just shy of the 7:00 mark. Give it a listen, if you will, and think about individual instances of behavior versus extended patterns of behavior, in your own life, and in the world around you. I hope it will be a good segue to the upcoming entries on psychological boundaries.
I am making use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis. I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus. Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many. And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.
A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.
Below I will make use of the explanatory power ofComplexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis. I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus. Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many. And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.
Why am I only writing about this now?
My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!
Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?
In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.
Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …? The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.
Is this chaos?
When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos? When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.
What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease. Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128. After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks. Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048 Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384. After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down. In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million. At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.
Nonlinear and not homogeneous
Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.
So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.
So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?
And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:
Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis. I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus. Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.
Well, this is turning out to take much longer than I had originally anticipated. I set boundaries for myself at the beginning, and created accountability by announcing what they were. I originally intended to finish my exploration of the Boundaries portion of my BASE model in about one month. Two and a half months later I am just past the halfway point. FAIL! (That’s the unkind voice in my head, and maybe in yours too… but we’ll get to that in due time).
Should I be upset about this? Does it mean I cannot practice very well what it is that I preach? Maybe… nah. This is yet another case where the process is much more important than the product. I hope you’ll agree before all is said and done.
At any rate, this time around we will consider a couple of the areas pertaining to Physical Boundaries. As the post title and headlining GIF imply, physical boundaries are, in some way, similar to other foundational (but often overlooked) things in our lives. Like running water and reliable access to electricity, neither seem to make much of a difference in our lives until they throw us a curve ball; at which point they come to matter more than almost anything!
Since Physical Boundaries are so foundational to successful interactions (look at the GIF at the top again if you’ve already begun to doubt), let’s unpack them according to the first two Boundary aspects under the BASE model: Temporal and Kinetic.
Temporal Physical Boundaries really boil down to the question of how you spend your physical time. So much of our daily physical life is dictated by rhythms and routines that are, at least somewhat, beyond our direct control. We suspend our sleep time and get up in the morning most often because it is necessary to do so in order to be somewhere (work, our child’s/children’s school, an appointment of some sort) by a certain time. We eat at intervals that are as much dictated by imposed societal structures as by our bodies themselves. We do social self-care (e.g. the energy replenishing activities with other or within ourselves) in the spaces between because it is considered “optional” or, worse yet, something superfluous. And then, at day’s end, we return to sleep either because our exhausted bodies and minds force us to, or because of some other external factor, like a spouse or partner whose preferred sleep schedule somehow becomes our own, or one of our many screens that lulls us into a state of semi-conscious surrender.
Whatever the specific circumstances around your personal routines and their attendant physical implications, what I am getting at here is that all too often the interactions between our bodies and the passing of time lacks intentionality and/or is largely reactive. We owe it to ourselves to push back against that default state.
So, do you have a wake-up time that is in your personal interests, and not in the name of your job or some other external obligation? What about your bedtime? Sleep is wonderful and necessary, but it does not need to be something that we just passively try to “do,” or that, worse yet, just happens to us. It really can become an activity that we engage in with intention and deliberation. In fact, it has lately become something of a trending topic. So, naturally, there are people making money off of it! Here are a couple of examples:
My intention here is not to hawk either one of these gentlemen’s products on their behalf. They both do offer sufficient free content, and Elrod’s book is hardly a big investment, for you to begin to educate yourself at very little to no monetary cost. That’s my jam. What you do from there is completely up to you.
What about your eating? Does it feel like something that has meaningful boundaries around it, or is it perhaps more like this (disclaimer – If Louis CK is triggering or otherwise upsetting or unacceptable to you, please skip the video):
While I doubt many of us in are the throes of the kind of chaotic eating habits described in the video, I am also willing to wager that we do not all enact intentional boundaries on our food consumption.
Do you have a daily eating schedule or plan? Not just a routine, a plan. Do you think you could follow one? If you have never given it too much thought, but if you also have felt at times that your relationship to food and food consumption is not where you’d like it to be, there are many options to consider that aren’t keto, paleo, or some other highly restrictive “diet.”
For instance, have you given serious thought to simply implementing some temporal boundaries around when you eat and when you don’t? You’ve probably heard of intermittent fasting, but maybe you immediately rejected it because you thought it might just be another extreme, or passing fad. I’m not here to advocate for it one way or another. All I will say is that having a temporal physical boundary for your food consumption could be an effective way to jumpstart a change for you, especially if you are unsatisfied with how you are currently handling this aspect of your physical life.
And what about social self-care? How much time do you set aside for it? How much of it is driven by external factors, like work or school norms and routines, or by plain old inertia? One of the best ways to start to do more deliberate social self-care from a Temporal Physical Boundaries standpoint is to understand where you most naturally fall on the introversion<->extraversion continuum, and then examine whether how you allocate and spend your time matches up well with that or not. Yes, if you think of your “free” time as similar to any other highly finite resource, like money, then you are more likely to budget and “expend” it wisely and deliberately.
Kinetic Physical Boundaries, or the physical/movement activities in which we do and do not engage. In the case of Physical Boundaries, however, the Kinetic aspect also refers to HOW we engage in certain kinds of activities. Let’s look at just two: social greetings and leave-takings, and then body care.
Remember the hug/handshake fail GIF from the beginning? I have found this to be a great dividing line among people who are otherwise similarly sociable. Some of us are huggers, and some of us are handshakers. Some of us, thankfully an apparently much smaller number, are neither of those two, and prefer to avoid direct physical contact altogether. I call these folks head-nodders. You know, the people who greet you from up close or from afar with just a quick upward or downward nod of their heads. It’s also a particularly United-Statesian move, and one that has thrown many of my international friends and acquaintances for something of a loop. But I digress.
As the caption on the introductory GIF asks, if you are more of a handshaker than a hugger, do you literally use your body to enforce it, putting your hand out at arm’s length before those dreaded huggers can get in too close? Let me be clear, I ask because I am a notorious non-hugger and I am curious how others in my category go about their business. I ask because I have managed to avoid unsolicited hugs for most of my life just through the power of my gaze, facial expression, and general demeanor. I have actually stood next to my partner at social gatherings while people come up to hug her vigorously and then, with barely a glance at me, proceed to step back and extend their hands in order to shake mine. In extreme cases I have had people reach out to start to hug me and then, without a word or overt action on my part, pull back for a more “socially distant” handshake.
So, what does “social distancing” have to do with it? In recent days and weeks, we’ve all had to force ourselves to think differently about our physical proximity to, and degree of interaction with, our fellow humans. Has it been comfortable for you? Has it come somewhat naturally? No answer is “better” than another, but it may give you some concrete insight into your unconscious tendencies and preferences around Kinetic (and Interpersonal, to an extent, but we’ll get to that in a different post) Physical Boundaries.
I’ll just close this segment by saying that, wherever you may default to naturally on the hugger<->handshaker<->head-nodder continuum, you are by no means stuck there. Several months back, a trusted advisor of mine and I were talking about my tendency to enforce physical distance-keeping with just my demeanor. We kept going back and forth about the hows and whys of it all, until she finally said, “Why don’t you just put more energy into have a more open, welcoming way about you? Why not just try it and see what happens?!” Well, she was right. I spent the next weeks and months making more eye contact with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family. Not only has it made people more likely to greet me warmly, even just in passing. More smiles, more friendly hellos, and yes, more hugs. Heck, I’ve even started initiating some hugs with people I would otherwise have never hugged before. We can be more conscious and deliberate about our social distancing, even when there is nothing so urgent as a pandemic pushing us to do so. And we can do it not just to avoid illness, but also to pursue wellness. I hope you’ll keep that in mind…
Lastly, what about body care? Do you have an exercise routine? What about simple stretching, massage, or meditation? Have you ever considered chiropractic or acupuncture? Many of these things are costly, no doubt, and all too often are not (fully) covered by insurance plans. The only counter I would offer to those facts is this: the bill always comes due, either way. If you are not building body care activities into your life in a structured, sustainable way, you are most likely just kicking the physical health can down the road.
If you do not yet have a body care plan and routine, I urge you to start making one. Even if it is just implementing a regular 10+-minute walk into your day, five or more days each week. If you only go to see a physician (of any stripe) when there is something acutely troubling you, I would offer the alternative view that ongoing maintenance is frequently superior to sporadic, urgent troubleshooting. If you are already a regular exerciser, do you do enough to give your body opportunities to rest and recover? And, when you do exercise, do you push yourself productively, but not destructively, via varied workout routines with a range of emphases?
These are challenging kinds of equilibria to pursue, much more to achieve. A former fitness instructor of mine used to frequently urge those of us who took his exercise classes to “find that edge” in whatever we were doing. So, whether we were performing the most challenging version of a particular movement, like a burpee or a pull-up, or a modified version designed to help us gradually improve our strength and flexibility, he was coaching us to find the border between comfort and growth, because that is the space where the most productive investment of physical energy is made.
As leaders, we should always be ready to engage in these kinds of considerations about how, when, and where to invest resources. That is the very nature of most Boundaries, and certainly of physical ones. When conceived of correctly, they are not meant to simply hold us back; when conceived of correctly, they are an excellent tool for helping us grow.
COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:
This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.
Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.
My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.
Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.
Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.
I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …
Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.
And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.
In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.
And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.
In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.
Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.
Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.
I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone. Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.
Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom? For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.
Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.
Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.
A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.
Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.
If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.
How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.
Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.
Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?
Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.
Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.
I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.
I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.
First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.
Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.
In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.
Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.
Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?
First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.
x + 7 = y
This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.
Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.
Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.
I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.
You get the point.
A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.
Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]
What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.
CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.
I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.
The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.
In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.
In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.
Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.
What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.
As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.
This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.
In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:
“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”
Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.
So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.
As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”
What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”
Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.
Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!
Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:
What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:
So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…
In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.
Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…
For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.
Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.
So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?
Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…
What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.
But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.
And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…
Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.
There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.
While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.
Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.
Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.