Thursday, 5 April 2012

Excuses, Excuses

What are excuses?  The following three sources should prime the pump quite nicely.

DSM IV definition of rationalization - when the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self-serving but incorrect explanations.

1: the act of excusing

2:  a: something offered as justification or as grounds for being excused

      b (plural): an expression of regret for failure to do something

      c: a note of explanation of an absence

3: justification, reason - A clearing house of collected “World famous excuses”

Rationalization or excuse making comes about for a variety of reasons, but after years of looking at the problem it would appear that there is a thinking threshold that contributes to the volume of excuses that educators face every day.  I see one of the greatest sources for excuses being the sense-making – meaning-making divide.  What makes sense, and what something means are not always in perfect alignment.  If the learner has a sense of what is going on, but can’t say for sure where the meaning lies, they are in that place where reasons resolutions.  It’s no wonder then that making excuses makes sense. The excuse is certain while the resolution is not.

People are comfortable with what they know and understand, and this provides the foundations that morph into reasons.  What they don’t yet know, and are required to learn, is the messy par.  This takes some thinking organization to make meaning out of what up to now makes sense (at least intuitively) but isn’t necessarily resolved.  That ability to move beyond sense- making to meaning making requires reflection (and analysis), reconciliation (or letting go of a belief in order to achieve resolution), and recovery (as a way of re-charging).  What I’m about to share is the path taken that developed this insight…

Let’s be intellectually honest for just a moment shall we?  One of the greatest arguments for education in general and learning specifically is the potential by-product we describe as 
‘self-empowerment’.  An individual’s ability to control the selection or de-selection of dependency is incredibly motivational if for no other reason than basic survival.  We know that to lack the ability to some day be self-sustaining poses consequences that are quite unappealing to most.  And yet it is the ability to rationalize or make excuses that appears to act as one of the greatest barriers to accomplishing the ‘realization of potential-actualization and empowerment’ feat.

Manufacturing reasons to justify the tensions, conflicts, and concerns that arise from day-to-day decision making, rather than working at a means to resolution may very well be a good self-defense mechanism but it also holds us back.  To those of us who listen to the reasons given for a course of action/non-action, there is always something revealing over and above self-protection.  The disclosure spectrum spans avoidance tactics to subjective priority, with even the occasional lie thrown in to test plausibility.   After a while you stop wondering why students fall back on excuses and you either accept that this is simply a part of human nature, or like me, you dig a little deeper to try and figure out if there is something more systemic (less cultural) about why once again the homework deadline has not been met. 

To me, excuses are portals into decision making that hold out all kinds of informative data, not only about ways of thinking, but about self-competency and efficacy beliefs as well.  Before becoming aware of the value of excuses, I was guilty of two assumptions when I heard rationalizations:

1.     - The excuse was a form of questioning of control on the part of the learner.  The excuse became more than a reason for not learning what was assigned.  It often brought into question the legitimacy and fairness of the person in charge (What happens now when expectations are not met?  The teacher’s expectations were never fair in the first place!)  Let’s just say I had a tendency to take this personally.

2.     - The more times I heard excuses the more I was inclined to believe that a kind of habituated thinking pattern had evolved (almost to an art form in some) on the part of the excuse giver.  All too quickly I was prepared to simply dismiss this as a personality problem that would only go away through exposure to natural consequences.  Let’s just say my willingness and patience to wait around for the right natural consequences is still evolving.

Along the path to excuse enlightenment, I was helping my wife a few years back as she was slogging through the early stages of her master’s degree.  One of my ways of supporting her was to help her put together ideas that she might use for course assignments.  This was a few years ago now, back in the day when the terms “Rigor, Relationship, and Relevancy” were being bantered about as counterweights to the original learning content barbells, the 3 R’s.  I never questioned that the additional learning factors should be recognized for influencing the learning process.  In fact, there have been many studies in the meantime that substantiate just how impactful each factor is in supporting learning sophistication, trust in the thing being learned, and learning coherence.  It was as though the early work on brain-based learning had discovered the amygdala, so it was now legitimate to talk about some of the affective consequences of the teacher/learner interface. 

It turned out that I’d spent most of my early years as a practitioner having some innate sense but little more, for there was little empirical research supporting my thinking.  I knew that developing awareness of learning content (that could eventually be used as an analytical toolbox) meant acknowledging the shift from safe/comfortable/familiar (the known and understood) to momentarily disorientating/messy/sometimes hopeful, in other words, new learning.  This shift, a kind of intellectual ‘heavy lifting’ (thus the barbell analogy), would always carry a certain emotional weight as well; for some a greater burden than for others.  For me the bigger question was the connecting rod between the barbells, which I hypothesized at the time, was a third set of R’s.  These connecting or bridging R’s fit neatly under the title of Rationalization, although at the time I didn’t view them as reasons for learning or not learning, as much as a set of processing functions that supported or impeded both logical and creative thinking.  Reflection, Reconciliation, and Recovery were the terms I used to describe the thoughtful, as opposed to impulsive, stages that the mind engages in when choosing which course of action to proceed down when a decision point appears. 

What I believed in at the time was, ‘making conscious and becoming more self-aware’ of the efforts that are necessary to work through each of these stages would have a positive learning effect.  I’d discovered through my own teaching practices that making these processes more prevalent in the learning conversation, made deciphering the learner’s real and imagined learning obstacles much easier, which in turn helped reduce the potential for excuses.  I tried to avoid jargon (meta-cognition) and went instead with the actions required to achieve a result.  For a while all was good and right in the world, and then three years ago I began to have second thoughts and began to question my own thinking.  Was I simply complicating a way of describing one aspect of critical thought?   A closer review and a further 6 months of study have revealed that each of these stages are building blocks of critical thinking, AND, if they aren’t working in concert (bundled), learner excuses inevitably follow. 

The last couple of years have helped me appreciate that thinking consolidation (not thinking up an excuse) is rooted in many things, not the least of which is our mind’s ability to think recursively, understand the purpose of conflict and resolution (even though I’m not a fan of drama), and acknowledge the need to restore.  All require an amount of processing attention and effort that is greater than simple recall.  To some personality types (the more relaxed among us) this extra effort can become an object of criticism or indifference.  Unless I was using a learning platform like debate where resolution is the centerpiece of the learning, there were always those students who questioned the importance of reflection and reconciliation (but seldom did they question recovery).  Students liked the idea that they had to decide; they just didn’t like the effort I expected them to put forward to make a well thought out decision.  So even though I was sowing the seeds of critical thinking, I could see that there was going to be some work ahead converging expectations and gaining priority agreement.  Expectation 1 then, was that if these processes are to be done properly, time consumption would go up and a greater than average effort would be required.

Expectation 2 centred on attractiveness.  Let’s face it, as educators we’ve been wracking our brains for years to make organizing and re-organizing sexier (to those with a flair for inspirational organization or some particularly intriguing graphic/technology platform, my apologies).  Reflection, reconciliation, and recovery aren’t sexy per se, but they are the organizing and re-organizing mechanisms through which all the exciting outcomes must first pass through.  When we make a choice and it turns out to be correct we can chalk it up to luck or good planning/organization. Which is better won’t be debated here.  One thing is certain though; the act of getting organized in school doesn’t strike a healthy percentage of the learner population as being of a critical nature, unless, through the lack of organizing ability, something is lost (i.e. a hoped for grade, a role in the school play being tried out for).  As powerful as this third set of R’s are in reaction to a perceived or real failure, they are way more attractive when they help us avoid problems in the first place.  This is just common sense to those of us who recognize the power of planning, but can still be a challenge for those who believe they can improvise rather than organize. 

Expectation 3 deals with an assumption and a resulting difficulty to be overcome.  As adult learners we can often ‘trick’ ourselves into thinking organizing is fun or at least less onerous, usually through making a game of something (strategizing) or incentivization and reward (our business plan actually worked!). The assumption of course is that what works in the adult world can be instituted on a simpler scale in schools.  On an adolescent level, the ‘trick’ is to make sure that these R’s are bundled at all times.  If separated, the sequential actions of analysis, replacement, and restoration, the problem-solving package that occurs when we reflect, reconcile and recover, might never move beyond being ‘conceptual’.  This implies then that breaking down the series (a typical strategy in learning) must be avoided, while maintaining focus on the goal (getting organized in order to break out to something better) is of paramount importance.

Expectation 4 deals with a potential behavioral difficulty to be overcome.  See if you can’t recall a time when processing functions were used as a way to modify behavior; which is often linked to punishment:

·          Reflection - “Go take a timeout and think about what you’ve done.”
·          Reconciliation - “Tell your classmate you are sorry, and that you won’t do that again”
·          Recovery – “Recess is 15 minutes only, you can resume your game at lunchtime.”

Of course there is seldom a conscious association between your desire to develop thinking strategies in the classroom and these other scenarios.  In fact, teachers and learners are usually completely unaware that the potential for substitution exists.  This substitution happens when ‘How I felt when I was timed out’ (even if that was in the distant past) now influences my ability to ‘intellectually review the outcome of a learning effort’.  Reminding learners that these R’s are not a behavior strategy may seem a little strange at first, but it can make a huge difference in terms of accepting the benefits of this processing cycle.  The alternative is the potential for prior experience to act as an impediment to evolving thinking, which is not how we want to see learning unfold.

The approach you take to dealing with excuses can be reactionary or pro-active.  For years I was in the reactionary camp.  When I did the research I soon discovered that there were ways that you could begin to reduce excuses by taking the time to talk about and practice the elements that construct critical thought.  Of course the more you expect because you insist on deeper reflection, stronger arguments, and timely recovery breaks, the more likely it is that excuses will NOT get in the way of significant learning outcomes.  Learners, who move from sense making, to appreciation of self awareness in learning development,  to eventually knowing what something means, tend to use fewer excuses.  Learners who sense that through specific effort refinement, there will be meaning made, tend to feel more in control.   Pointing out, and finding utility in the elements that develop meaning making, can go a long way towards reducing any systemic contribution to the justification of an unsatisfactory situation or outcome.