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IF Discussion Reports as Lightweight Batons

IF’s public discussion Reports are akin to the curricular materials that all teachers rely on—with two critical differences.  First, citizens–no less than experts—have a say in what IF Reports say.  Second, and even more importantly, the end of IF Reports is to serve as an object of exploratory group discussion rather than individual study.

This latter distinctive feature has a number of key consequences for how IF’s Reports are developed—for what we call the “IF Discussion Process.”  But the purpose of IF’s Reports also has big implications for the Reports’ contents and presentation.

In order to perform their role in public discussions, IF Reports need to contain contrasting or distinctive policy possibilities.  This feature has been nicely addressed by several of my colleagues in recent posts, but one thing I’d like to add to what they’ve already said is that contrast begins to be lost as the number of possibilities in a Report gets beyond a certain number.  (To date, none of IF’s Report has contained fewer than six possibilities; none has contained more than nine.)  After a while, adding possibilities not only tends to obscure the bigger issues, it can even lead to a kind of paralysis—precisely the opposite result from the clarifying impact IF is looking for from its public discussions.

Similarly, overly subtle possibilities, however satisfying intellectually or compelling from an academic point of view, are usually out of place in IF Reports, since they tend to bog participants down rather than launch them into discussion.

(Incidentally, these are not just personal surmises or observations based on IF’s own experience but rather dynamics that are well grounded in the field of cognitive psychology.  For an extended—but not too extended—discussion, see Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch [New York: Broadway Books, 2010], pp. 49-72.]

IF Reports seem to work best when they are like lightweight batons, not weighty scrolls that leave participants burdened, mystified, awed, confused—or simply bored.  Fewer and crisper possibilities make for the lightest batons.