Sunday, May 2, 2010

The power of rich conversations

In the 1990s, while working with the De Bono Institute in Melbourne, Australia, I realized that many thinking, learning and decision making methods could be captured using just 6-7 rich, open-ended questions to guide really fabulous conversations.

These methods take learners and decision makers on a voyage of discovery, from what they know to a new * model * theory * learning outcome * decision * feedback * design, or * action plan.

This approach has it's origins in an open-ended highly abstract knowledge creation method called the "future search" conference pioneered by organization change consultant Fred Emery.

Some people, particularly those who like or need structure, feel very uncomfortable at a search conference. They get lost in the ambiguity.

So we decided to try question sequences which take people on a step-by-step journey in bite-size chunks, where each step is doable, and not too overwhelming, but achieves the same objective of the future search which is to explore every nook and cranny of an issue.

The process is self-organizing. At the end of the conversation, the conclusions just "pop-up" or emerge from the morass of ideas as a consequence of our collective struggle. New order for free.

The ideas we generate along the way are often useful as end-products in themselves; such as marketing or business plans, project outlines, a descriptive design of a product, a chapter of a book, a report or a research design.

Margaret Wheatley, author of "Leadership and the New Sciences" explains why these kinds of methods are now essential and why we "can't use neat and incremental methods to make sense of the world any longer". She says: "we need to be experimenting with thinking processes that better suit our neural netlike brains, those processes that are open, nonlinear, messy, relational."  Through a process of "reflexive conversations", we need to be looking for information that "is startling, uncomfortable, and maybe even shocking." That helps us invent our way to the future.

At Zing, we have taken the "rich conversations" concept one step further. We have invented a process to invent radical new conversation methods based on the ideas of thought leaders. See the workshops at Colorful Conversations blog based on TED talks or the Maverick and Boutique blog which showcases the  amazing people in our network of consultants.

Few people learn these kinds of /thinking/relating skills at school, because thinking and decision making is most often taught/learned as an individual cognitive activity. And not as conversation.

Even the methods devised by brilliant change agents such as Edward De BonoEdwards DemmingMichael Hammer or James Champy are most often taught as personal tools. De Bono showed us the power of lateral thinking to think about a problem. Edwards Demming asked groups to collect data and make sense of manufacturing quality problems. Michael Hammer and James Champy developed techniques to speed up organization processes. All their methods are incredibly powerful when used as the basis for conversation

You might learn de Bono's methods in Australian and British schools but not in America or Europe. You have to wait to go to business school to learn about quality and business process redesign. Even then you might merely learn the theory and not the practice

When we train teachers in thinking skills it's often via Blooms taxonomy, which classifies cognitive processes in terms of increasingly more complex cognitive processing - what we know, what we understand, how we use it, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. But teachers teach these techniques one at a time, in isolation, and rarely as sequences. Its' like throwing a dart at a dart board and picking a technique at random.

So here's an activity to create a set of rich open-ended questions to start a conversation in your classroom:

1. Describe a topic/issue in five words or less.
2. What is the context for the learning activity? Discipline, focus, age and experience etc.
3. What will excite, engage or amaze the learner?
4. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we would like the learner/participant to discover.
5. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we could expect the learner/participant to already know.
6. Craft a series of RICH, open-ended discussable questions that explore the topic in engaging/amazing ways. Include scaffolds, rich language etc.
7. How will we organise the questions into a logical sequence that builds knowledge as the learner goes? From what they know to need to know…or don't yet know, or would love to discover.

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