Should you be a reflective practitioner?


Well… sort of.

Well yes.  But… I suspect there’s an obstacle to achieving this goal in our rhetoric.  Let me suggest an alternative rhetoric that would achieve the same aim.

I learnt long ago now about the distinction between two kinds of mindset.  One is process oriented, the other is objective oriented.

It that the only path to the objectives…?

When given a task to do the process oriented person (or team, or organisation) asks themselves “What is the process for doing this?  How effect this process?  How can I maybe do this better?”

Here’s an example from business: hand dryers.  For years companies asked themselves “How can we build a better hand dryer?” and they answered their question by looking at the process of drying hands: “Hand dryers work by blowing hot air onto people’s hands so as to evaporate water. A better hand dryer is one that dries hands faster.   The hotter and faster the air the quicker their hands dry.  We need to build a dryer that blows hotter air onto people’s hands than our competitors, and it needs to do it faster.”

And so for years we encountered generations of hand dryers that would blow increasingly hotter and faster air onto our hands.  Occasionally some learnt to tweak around the edges by adding in things like sensors that would detect when hands were under the dryer rather than having a button to push, or a cool blue LED that make the dryer look better.

The future of hand dryers?

Over a decade ago I took a summer job in door to door sales.  In it we were taught that almost anyone will buy almost anything, the biggest variable lies in how it is sold.  In each interaction at the door there were two stages:

Stage 1 objective: Be welcomed into that person’s home.  Reason: people are more likely to buy from you if they are in what they perceive to be a safe, comfortable space that they control (nobody buys anything from a doorstep!)

Stage 2 objective: Sell product.

At the start of the summer I was knocking on between 80-100 doors each day, and sitting in the homes of maybe 9-12 people talking to them about the products on sale.

By the end I was still only really sitting in the homes of around 9 people a day… but the difference was that now I was only knocking on 12 doors.

The objective of stage 1 was to interact with a complete stranger at the door in such a way that after only speaking to you for around a minute or so, they would feel comfortable having you in their home talking to them about what was on offer.  If you didn’t achieve that objective you were asked to think about why you didn’t.  What did you say?  How did you say it?  What did they say?  How did they react to you at each point?  What was their body language, choice of words and voice inflection?  You wouldn’t go through all this at the end of the day, you’d do it at the end of each failed interaction, before moving on to the next.  You would spend time shadowing a more experienced and successful sales person.  You would observe them, think about what they said, how they said it, their body language, voice inflection, the interaction with the person and so forth.  You would discuss all these things with your mentor. and figure out what you could try differently.  You’d then try it differently at the next door, they’d now observe you and give you feedback at the end if it wasn’t successful.  Maybe you didn’t quite do what you said you were going to do, and you need to try again, or a few more times.  Maybe you caught someone in the middle of their dinner, and nothing you did or said was going to change the fact that you were the last person they wanted to speak to right now.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

I’ve also worked doing door to door fundraising for charities more than once; the whole process is much the same.

You could picture your job as going through the process of knocking on doors and reading out the script you were given.  You could attempt some half-hearted reactions to the elements of the job that would naturally go off script.  Do all this, and take home no money.  Seems fair, because you didn’t really do your job.  Your job wasn’t to go through the process of selling, your job was to sell!  If you didn’t sell, you hadn’t done your job.

This was described to me as having an objective oriented mindset.  You focus on your objective, not the process.  Did you achieve your objective?  This is the only question that matters, everything else comes from there.

It changed my life.

Do you teach a child who makes excuses all the time, who starts every sentence with ‘Yeah but…‘?  I was that child (I guess many of us were!)  It was learning to think with an objective oriented mindset that finally changed that for me; it no longer mattered what excuse I could concoct, if I hadn’t achieved the objective, I hadn’t achieved the objective.  It was what taught me to stop making excuses.  It was what taught me that words mean little, promising to do something means little; doing it is what counts.  In fact so resolutely determined was this new mindset that if anything I actually had to work hard to learn when a task might have failed because an expectation was genuinely unreasonable or unattainable, how not to just say ‘yes’ to everything and then be met with an unmanageable workload.

Ever seen one of these in a school?  How many pupils do you think have stopped making excuses as a result of this simple rhetoric alone?

How does this translate to teaching?  Well let’s consider two teachers: one process oriented, the other objective oriented.

A process oriented teacher – at an extreme end – could turn up to work, ‘teach,’ and consider job done.  Whether the children learnt or not is immaterial.  ‘I taught, therefore I have done my job.’

The objective oriented teacher on the other hand would consider their objective as being to ensure that their pupils learn X.  At the end of a lesson they might therefore ask themselves “Did everyone learn X?”  If anyone didn’t, why didn’t they?  What could I have done differently?  Since the job still isn’t done, since I didn’t achieve the objective, what am I going to do now to ensure that child *does* learn X?

What I’ve just described above is essentially the process of reflection.

When I joined teaching there was a *LOT* of rhetoric around being a reflective practitioner.  I mean, a *LOT*.  I was even handed a reflective journal.  As I read about the process for the first time it was instantly recognisable to me, in part from the experiences described previously from door to door work, but also in part through many other experiences and reading.

Here’s the irony though, for me.  Reflection is a process.  Meaning, that the rhetoric in teaching obsesses over a process, and therefore encourages teachers to continue to be process oriented!  All we’ve done is moved process oriented thinking up a level, rather than aspiring to what I would argue we need to aspire to, which is objective oriented thinking.

This isn’t just a semantic argument.  If you focus on the objective then you are free to imagine any means of achieving that objective.  You might borrow from all manner of what’s gone before, or you might choose to innovate.  This whole process happens naturally, though.  When you focus on a process, you tend to get tunnel vision, thinking too much about the one way you know to do something.  We don’t want teachers thinking about ‘how they can be more reflective,’ we want them thinking about how they can make sure their kids learn… yet we ask teachers to focus on being more reflective!

Instead, focus rhetoric on the one question: Did you achieve your objective?  all else will follow.

One day a relatively new technology company, one that was founded with innovation as a core principle, turned its attention to hand dryers.  While every other company had asked ‘how can we make a machine that evaporates water faster than any of our competitors,’ this new company asked ‘What’s our objective?  To get hands dry.  Is there a way we could achieve that objective that no-one’s thought of before, and that might be more effective?’

If you hadn’t guessed already, that company was Dyson.  As you probably know, they realised that air could be used to ‘scrape’ water off hands much faster than it can be used to evaporate it.

The future of hand dryers?





About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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2 Responses to Should you be a reflective practitioner?

  1. Pingback: Objective Oriented – 6 – Mental Models for Education | …to the real.

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