A maxim that I have been testing, applying and thinking about a great deal over the last few years is that “nothing changes unless mindset changes.” On reflection, admittedly it is a little extreme, however it does present an urgent (and often much needed) provocation regarding the way we are thinking about learning in schools and other organisations.
Einstein has become a veritable one man maxim generator as people mine his missives and printed articles for quotable quotes. His reference (in the image) to the need for changing our thinking, altering the routines and habits of thinking that were present in creating the problem, to perhaps solve it, makes a lot of sense to me.
Thinking Wild and Free
In fact it gives us license. Changing mindset takes time, for many it is a long process of practice change coupled with ongoing coaching and reflection binding it all together. We don’t just wake up in the morning with a new mindset. Those habits and dispositions are baked in. I read today how long it takes to create new learning habits, on average at least two months for new habits to become automatic behaviours.
Thinking routines and activities can be picked up and used more flexibly. Although someone may have a particular mindset or disposition, thinking routines can still be practised and activities used. Rinsed and repeated.
Changing our thinking might just change our mindset.
To underline the importance of mindset or disposition on the work we embark upon and the relationships we have Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance pointed out:
The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.
Perhaps he is referring to the disposition or thinking condition of those present, their mindset. We can have all the plans or ideas we like, but unless the mindset is synchronised, nothing changes, or we are at least limiting our chances of success.
Otto Scharmer refers to the lack of awareness of this interior condition (mindset) as a leadership blindspot. Something to explore further, not simply how reflective we are as leaders, but also how well we know the influence of our own disposition, and those of others around us, on our projects and ideas,
Get Out of the Swamp
Another logical and confronting part of Albert Einstein’s challenge is the conclusion that we know more now than we did when the problem was generated. We need to change our thinking to adapt to this new information. Dr Terry Cutler piqued my interest with a reference to conventional wisdom being the enemy of an innovative culture:
William Blake reminded us – in chilling words – that the person who does not alter their opinion in the face of new knowledge is like a “stagnant pool which breeds reptiles of the mind”
So if times have changed, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:
I recently asked my newsletter subscribers about their biggest challenges in changing other people’s thinking habits. One of the biggest obstacles was resistance to change, people actively choosing not to engage in new thinking routines, persisting in defence of a particular problem generating mindset.
Let’s not beat around the bush, these ‘reptiles of the mind” are very much part of the problem itself. This touches on some of the intricacies of the work of culture change and relationship centred development. Learning is a complex and wonderful thing and sometimes it is hard to discern how much influence people have on the conditions for learning (+/-).
Don’t Expect A Paradigm Shift
An example, just as a thought experiment, might be that a class of Year 6 children are poorly behaved during lessons with a particular teacher. The behaviour has formed a discernible pattern and seems to be associated with, and in reaction to a highly prescriptive and didactic approach to teaching from the teacher. There is a mindset at play here. The notion of planing creative learning activities, and spending less time talking at the kids is an alien one for the teacher. Something to be guarded against. “Why change?” comes the defensive play. What would you do to help the teacher and the class?
Start with empathy.
- How much do we understand the mindset of those in this situation?
- How can we move to a closer appreciation of the truth of this experience for those involved?
- What situations are similar to this and how might we draw on those experiences to inform our decisions here?
Dig deeper. Complex problems like this one are rarely anything to do with the surface signals. 5 Whys is a great activity to explore to help dig deeper when used in support of other data gathering.
- Why are children behaving poorly? They are not engaged in the lessons.
- Why are they not engaged in the lessons? They are not doing enough thinking for themselves.
- Why are they not thinking for themselves? There is too much teacher talk.
- Why is there too much teacher talk? Lessons are imbalanced towards lots of a didactic teaching method and this is poorly differentiated
- Why is there this imbalance and poor differentiation? The teacher has been designing learning on their own for a long time and has not had the same chance to work collaboratively with others, and have their work critiqued and reviewed.
A couple of things to share about this scenario. First of all the disposition (of the teacher) is not suddenly going to change, we don’t get out of bed and suddenly all is reversed remember. So maybe we need to defer the paradigm shift expectation for one associated with the way we are thinking about the design of learning. Sure these overlap, but by changing the thinking routine, in this case through more collaborative planning, perhaps the situation will change.
Intentionally Creating Problems
My son pointed out that maybe when you create maths problems it is an exception to what Einstein is saying. This was affirmed by fully grown adults too on Twitter who shared a similar opinion. I wonder if it is something to do with how intentional the genesis of the problem was, along with the level of complexity the problem has.
Complex or wicked problems rarely involve single answers and are the product of a similarly complex, turbulent crucible of conditions. This would be true for coral bleaching as it is for poor collaboration in an organisation. In my book what Albert, let’s call him Albie, is referring to is the level of thinking needed for complex problem solving. Problems that are created in conditions defined by disparate and multiple dispositions pulling in different directions perhaps.
I wonder how much our intentions play a role here as well. We rarely intentionally create problems at work and at home (hopefully) and so it is with a lack of awareness that problem conditions set in. An increased awareness would be a good example of a change in thinking that might lead to a solution. For the teacher example above this may also be true, just increasing awareness of too much teacher talk may help to resolve things (in the short term at least).
Intentionally creating problems suggests a level of awareness of choice, causality and consequence. You might expect this awareness when solving such problems too. So maybe we need different types of thinking when we didn’t intend for the problem to occur.
If I return to my original reference, “nothing changes unless mindset changes”, through writing this post it has helped me explore the notion that changing our thinking in aggregate might change our mindset. It has been good to define those key questions for unpacking problem conditions which I hope you find useful.
from The Curious Creative