Sometimes, random dots create interesting pictures. Over the weekend, my disparate reading ventures raised some points that when connected together formed a nuanced line of thought around how to approach my role in supporting professional development for folks in the L&D field.
Dot 1: I read a lovely novel by Jodi Picoult, called Leaving Time, which included a great deal of information about elephant behavior. (Stay with me, there is a relevant point here…) Elephants “allomother” their young; the elephants in a herd, especially female siblings, all do their part to raise babies. They are for the most part endlessly patient in doing so, gently redirecting behavior and teaching the skills needed to thrive in the wild. Allomothers provide good role-modeling, give youngsters freedom to explore, set limits as needed, and staunchly defend their young from predators that might injure them. It’s always dangerous to anthropomorphize, but the behavior described reads like deep love and concern, a deliberate and gentle way of facilitating learning in a world that can be harsh.
Dot 2: I came across some articles and blog posts that were discussing the challenges of political correctness.* A key point from these pieces is that some of our critique of one another – pointing out offensive word choices and calling out people for taking opposing stands on hot-topic issues – is not conducive to our ability to educate one another. These days, conversations, especially online, can be strident and accusatory, and social media often exacerbates the sense of piling on when someone’s opinions are out of line with group views. There is too often little tolerance for making inadvertent mistakes (in language use, in interpretation), and little room given for opening a discussion and listening to varied perspectives. And yet we know that some of the most significant learning and education requires deep listening, questioning one’s own assumptions, and building from common ground. I have seen clear evidence of the kind of politically-charged conversations that were referenced in the articles, and I have also seen echoes of this same sort of back-and-forth in the blogs and Twitter feeds in our own field.
Dot 3: Because I’m teaching three online courses at the moment, I spent a number of hours reading discussion posts, mostly on the subject of learning and development strategies in organizations. As usually happens in this context, students’ comments provide opportunity to clarify theory and research on hot-button topics like learning styles, generational differences, proper phrasing of learning objectives, and the like. At varying times, I found myself torn between:
- wanting to be absolutely certain students adopt the “right” beliefs and practices (Read: my beliefs and practices),
- wanting to understand where these odd ideas come from and why they persist (Am I missing something? Do they know something I don’t?), and
- wanting to warn my students that some of their statements could get them eviscerated by others in the field who disagree.
When I connect those dots, I wonder if maybe allomothering (gently guiding) and asking deeper questions (not forcing students to be “p.c.”) is a much better way of shaping professional behavior than playing the professor/expert trump card and telling students and fellow professionals what to believe and how to do their work.
I realize that to some degree, people want to have experts (managers, professors, thought leaders) tell them what to do. And there is often overwhelming evidence and agreement that allows us to provide unequivocal recommendations. Like the allomothers, we may indeed know what is best. But that does not mean that we should come down hard on those who see things differently. If we act like p.c. police, we run the risk of alienating the very people we want to bring over to our points of view. We can’t educate if we don’t first seek to understand others’ perspectives. Making people feel small (with a condescending pronouncement or a low grade) isn’t the best way to persuade.
And there’s another reason to be cautious about our surety. Some debates are still bubbling. Sometimes we turn out to be wrong. Science uncovers new findings. The nature of the world changes. Newer techniques replace the old. There has to be room for us to talk with one another – to really question one another – or we will never hear the voices of those on the cutting edge leading us to new territory.
As I think about my own work, there are many times when I hear statements that stem from what I view as inaccurate interpretations of theory and research, surface understanding of key ideas, or belief in debunked or outmoded theories and models. When that happens, there are a couple of ways I can go as a teacher / coach / facilitator. I can take a strong stand: “I’m the expert, and this is the right model.” Or I can play the co-learner: “Here’s my understanding of the issue and my reasoning; here’s some additional research or readings for you to consider; tell me what you think and let’s discuss.” The latter approach communicates respect, allows for robust debate, provides opportunities to persuade, and has a much better potential for deeply impacting a developing professional’s theory and practice. And if I really listen to their responses, it also allows for the possibility that students and new professionals have something to teach me.
* My crash course in the consequences of political correctness all started with an NPR report that drew my attention here, and then I followed links here, here, and here before I really needed to get on with my day.)