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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Revisiting the Knowing-Doing Gap in Schools

I stumbled upon a TED talk this week by Dorie Clark on why people fall into the trap of being constantly busy, feeling like they never have enough time. In it, she mentions a study by Management Research Group in which 10,000 senior leaders were asked, What is key to your organization’s success?

Perhaps not surprisingly, 97% of those surveyed determined that the answer to this question was “long-term, strategic thinking”. Yet, Clark goes on to explain, referencing a separate study by Rick Howarth at the Strategic Thinking Institute, 96% of leaders admitted that they don’t actually have time for this kind of work. The same study also found that 48% of executives simply lacked the training and tools for thinking strategically.

So what is going on? she asks.

This knowing-doing gap is, today, well understood, and the various “barriers” to turning knowledge into action have already been discussed at length in the context of school leadership. Reflecting on Clark’s question, however, I find myself wondering whether it is possible to unpack the issue in a slightly different way, focusing on the relationship between things that we know we need to do and things that we know how to do.

Allow me to illustrate the point with the following Model that we might name, for the sake of argument, The 96% Window.

A table illustrating the 96% window

There is a lot here to unpack. But think for a moment about all of the things that you have coming across your desk right now: all of the projects that you are involved in, and the objectives that you need to reach. My suggestion is that each one of these “deliverables” - the big ones and the small - somehow fall into one of these four quadrants.

Not immediately clear? Let’s take a look at what might be happening in each quadrant with the help of an example from everyday life.

Four individuals are each driving along the road at 120km per hour when suddenly they notice that their respective cars are pulling them slightly to the left or right; their steering wheels start to vibrate a little and the engines of each car appear to be much less responsive than normal. What is going on?

In this scenario, the driver in Quadrant 4 has no idea what is going on. He has little knowledge of car mechanics and cannot diagnose the issue. And, anyway, even if he could determine that this is likely to be a flat tyre, he would have no idea how to change it. He needs to stop, get out of the car, and determine what the issue is before calling for help.

The driver in Quadrant 3 is similar in that she cannot immediately diagnose the problem either. But once she has stopped, examined the car, and become aware of what has happened, she can draw upon her previous experience of changing tyres to solve the problem at hand.

The driver in Quadrant 2, by contrast, knows what the issue is as soon as he starts to feel the vibration on the steering wheel. He understands that it is caused by a flat tyre, but decides to call the local garage to assist him to make sure that the new tyre is fitted correctly.

Finally, the driver is Quadrant 1 is where we would all like to be in this situation. She immediately diagnoses the issue and has the motivation to get the job done by herself. Within a few minutes, she manages to change the tyre and is safely back on the road again!

Of course, running a school will often feel exponentially more challenging than driving a car along the motorway, or even changing a tyre once in a while. Yet, if we return to Clark’s point about the importance of long-term, strategic thinking as a key to the school’s future success, I am left wondering whether sometimes the knowing-doing gap in our schools is not just about finding the time, focus, and motivation to do what we know is right. Perhaps, if we are honest, it is because sometimes we don’t exactly know how to do the right thing.

And if we reach that conclusion, we’ve already started to make good progress. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.



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