Questioning the Givens

February 17, 2021

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

When students entered Dr. Anita Sherwood’s class she handed each of them a tennis ball. “We are going to do a simple demonstration today. I want each group to form a circle. You should give all the tennis balls to one person who will start the demonstration. Then that person will pass the tennis balls to others in the same order. The time when the last tennis ball gets to the final student will be measured. You will get three attempts to improve your time.”

The results of the three groups were as follows:

Group 1 – Completed the first trial in 15 seconds. They were then able to reduce their time to 7 seconds on the second trial. As soon as they saw the results of their improvement, they quit.

Group 2 – Was never able to make an improvement. In fact, they got worse as they continued. They argued over what should be done.

Group 3 – Looked at the demonstration as a creative thinking challenge and went from 8 seconds to 1 second in one trial.

“Think about the lessons that we can learn from this demonstration,” said Dr. Sherwood. “These lessons will be critical to the discussions that follow:

  • We tend to impose limits on the way we think. We imagine reasons why things can’t happen rather than thinking of possibilities.
  • We fail to challenge our perceptions of the givens. Givens convey our sense of what will be allowed. We tend to get stuck on very narrow interpretations of what the givens might mean. (Group Three made a remarkable improvement because they questioned their assumptions about how they could do the exercise.)
  • We become complacent with initial ideas without considering whether other ideas are possible or whether initial ideas can be improved.
  • Our backgrounds may limit the way we look at issues. It’s hard to have an open mind about something when our perspectives are challenged. That’s why we need different perspectives in our discussions.

“As you go through the discussions in class, I want you to be able to answer essential questions like these:

  1. Are we framing the discussion around the issues that really matter?
  2. Have we stripped away our preconceived ideas and begun to think about the issues afresh?
  3. Have we avoided limiting our thinking by self-imposed givens that may not be valid or required?
  4. Are the possibilities we developed good enough or can we make them better?
  5. When do we know that our exploration has gone far enough and further exploration would not be worthwhile?”

These are tough questions that every collaborative discussion should be able to answer but few may even think to ask. As a result, discussions might develop possibilities that make sense but that are not relevant to the issue or that do not go far enough. Other discussions may never have explored the real issues because they didn’t challenge what they thought were the givens. In some cases, the proper issues were explored but the possibilities could have been more fully developed. And then there are discussions that never seem to end because the participants could never quit tweaking the possibilities they were developing.

Collaborative discussions need to work at two levels. Level 1 would focus on the issue they are exploring. Level 2 would focus on the discussion approach itself. Unfortunately, there is little attempt given to Level 2 in many discussions. What practices can we use to help collaborative discussions reach Level 2? How can we help groups challenge their assumptions and explore possibilities more deeply?

* * *

P.S. You may be wondering how Group Three made their improvement. Perhaps you can make a guess? The key lies in their willingness to engage in creative problem-solving and to rethink the task by questioning the givens.

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” – Charles F. Kettering (Automotive pioneer)

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays. 

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