Another Look at Issue Mapping

As I noted in my workshops (and on the narrated slides posted to Blackboard), one of the challenges facing students is the penchant for defining problems too narrowly. They begin the process believing they know a) what the problem is, b) that it has solutions, and c) that they can effect change simply by directing resources along clear lines of effort.

A century of management theory has us thinking in terms of puzzles, that there are a set number of pieces and through organization and effort, we can fit them together to form a solution.

But when dealing with “wicked problems” this tidy construct can lead us to aggressively and enthusiastically work at solving the wrong problem.  (Which often creates a new set of problems.)

Experienced systems thinkers know that no one variable created the complex problems we see today, and no one variable holds the key for a solution. In fact, we know there may never be a solution and that each approach changes the nature and scope of the original problem demanding that we continually reframe our understanding.

In doing this work we are asking, “What is the true nature of my environment, and as map connections between variables do other problems emerge that I hadn’t considered?”

It’s an open-ended, non-linear, ambiguous, and often frustrating process, which is why it’s hard to teach.  People are hard wired through evolution to quickly categorize, judge, and act.

The “issue map” is a tool we’ve introduced to help you get your students to pause, and reframe their thinking. It should help them see new connections, make new inferences, and pose new questions. As they work (in this iterative process) new connections and considerations emerge that cast new light on the problem.

Note:  Creating the issue map requires a strong background in critical thinking.  We need to be open to new ways of seeing, aware of our ego-centric points of view, and we must be prepared to interrogate all of our assumptions and hidden biases.

Issue maps should not simply report preconceived notions or conform to existing world views. It is not a schematic of possible solutions. It is a visualization that we are mindful of complexity.

This is why we ask as many questions on our maps as we make observations or conclusions; questions help us generate ideas. They promote seeking.

Those QFTs you’ve been doing will pay off handsomely here, but unlike the QFT where we frown upon judging questions good and bad, here a bit of discernment is in order.

Observations and Conclusions

The questions on our issue maps stem from observations and conclusions (inferences) that we make as we begin the process.  Therefore, it’s imperative that your students understand the distinction between the two.  It may seem self-evident, but it’s actually a hard distinction to master.

In my classes I usually start by having the students make observations about me. Most do well in noting simple facts: They describe obvious features: that I’m tall, wearing grey tweed, brown shoes, wear glasses, and have short hair.

I push back when they say, “tall” or “old” as these are less factual; they’re based on subjective preference or point of view. It’s acceptable to list these as observations, but your students should not call them facts.  We might, however, ask the question, “how do we define ‘tall’, or ‘old’?”

This is an exercise in critical thinking; students should learn to separate observations from conclusions drawn from interpretations.

Using an historical example I can say that the battle of Lexington and Concord occurred on 19 April 1775.

But it would be a conclusion based on my interpretation of this event to suggest that it was the start of the American Revolution.  Or that the Regulars were unjustified in their march.  These might be reasonable and well accepted interpretations, but a Brit might have a different view of the facts.   We might also ask how we define justified.

This is an activity designed to foster divergent points of view.  It force students to think about issues and questions in ways that they aren’t used to.

Another example?  Last year my class did an issue map on food and hunger.  One student presented as ‘fact’ that GMOs were evil and needed to be banned.  Yes, she said, evil.  Many students quickly agreed, but I asked whether they might think this way if they lived in a region where people regularly died of starvation.

This deliberately provocative comment led to a discussion of ethics and whether someone in a famine might see a drought resistant crop as ‘evil’.  It led to asking, “what role can GMOs play in regions where food security is less assured?”  We turned this fact into a legitimate line of inquiry.

I don’t always make a proper distinction myself.  My observations often prompt debate, but these discussions are great opportunities to tease out key elements of critical thinking: unexplored assumptions, the implication of our biases, recognizing ego-centric tendencies, as well as thoughts on reasonable judgments and discernment.

When they confuse facts and conclusions they close off avenues of investigation. By asking questions we leave the lines of inquiry open.

Building the Map

As noted, we create issue maps because we have a question or problem in mind that we wish to better understand.

Be wary, however.  Starting with a question can focus the effort, but it can also lead to fixation where they seek to answer their question or make observations and conclusions that serve an existing world view….like creating a ‘mind-map’ that details the problem as we know it today or worse, offers a path to a solution.

Watch for this trend and have some of your own questions on hand to bring the student back to a neutral frame of reference and an inquiry mindset.

For example, a colleague and I were recently discussing the nature of classroom culture and how we might improve it.  (You could say it’s my guiding question, so I discuss it regularly.)

It was clear from the get go that her views were cynical; she saw students as uninterested, unmotivated, and lazy.  Her guiding question ran more toward “how do we make them care.”

We started to discuss her observations, I thought she’d already made up her mind (that they did not care) and this was causing her to approach the problem too narrowly.  (I have also discovered that new insights emerge from the discussion – and the question or problem I start with may not be the question or problem I end with.)

Here’s how the dialog went:

“You start with the observation that the students don’t care.  Is that a conclusion or an observation?”

“If it’s a conclusion based on your understanding of the situation (it is) than how might the students view this?  If they were here, what might they say about the classroom culture?”

“What if we wrote the observation this way, “The majority of students – 80 %? – do not participate.”

With a measured, observable statistic in place, we can now perhaps ask some questions about out statistic, such as:

“Is speaking the only way to measure participation?”

“Do Professors do things to discourage participation?”

“Are their legitimate reasons for students to avoid speaking up?”

My colleague protested her innocence, but backed off her indictment of the students a bit. I suggested that we continue mapping out the issue to a) better understand the concept of “classroom culture” and b) to see if any other insights emerged other than “getting students to care.”

As with my peer mentoring, the goal of the faculty guide is to help the student get past the first impressions or conclusions made for them by others (in the news, from politicians, parents, past teachers, etc.) we know from our study of critical thinking, though, that ideas once anchored are hard to dislodge.

Mapping the issue through this disciplined process of careful observation and questioning helps us to see new connections or new ways of thinking that he could not when his conclusions were masquerading as observations.

The first thing we had to do is look for the properties, structures, or resources that we can observe in our system?  What helps our system function?  What will helps us understand its complexity?

For my colleague and I, we decided to look at five standard factors (or variables) that bear on most problems:

  • Political – authority, institutional power, grades, tradition or expectations
  • Economic – family income levels, financial aid levels, the need to work
  • Religious – the mix of different religions and their views on authority and success
  • Social-Cultural – age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity.  Perhaps commuter vs. dorm resident?
  • Media – News sources, social media, musical taste, advertising

You are not limited to these five variables.  You might explore Technology, Environmental, or Geographical factors.  Depending upon what you’re studying, you might combine the social and economic (socio-economic) add subjects like natural resources, or historical context.

We created a node for each variable.  We drew them as equally sized circles (this is a technique, not a requirement) because we did not want to give the impression any one factor is more important to our understanding than any other.

Before we could begin listing observations for each node, we needed to determine the scope or scale of our environment.  For us trying to diagram all university students might be too broad.  Trying to diagram her classroom might be too narrow.

You’ll have to think about scope for each issue mapping effort – a lot depends on the issue under investigation.  We elected to look at the culture at Quinnipiac.

As we started with questions of power and authority, we decided to continue discussing our observations about the political variable.  We observed that by institutional rules, the Professor is the authority figure, and that Professors must turn in grades.

“And there’s a great deal of of inconsistency from one class to another,” she offered.  But this, I suggested, might presume too much. It might be a conclusion in the same way we both believe grades should not be a form of reward or punishment.”

I suggested instead of observations, perhaps we offered them as questions.

“By doing so – by asking a question that did not presume an answer –  we leave open the possibility that a factor in student reticence might be faculty centered,” I said.

My colleague jumped in, saying “I remember reading a paper on this a few years back in a Journal on Teaching Philosophy.  It was called The Case for Motivational Grading.  There may be something to this.”

Question: what role do grades play in motivation?

Question: what if grades fostered risk aversion and a reluctance to talk?

“There are also more than 100 organizations and groups on campus. What if they helped with retention, but took the focus off of academics?” An observation and a question!

“What about study habits?” she asked.

For questions on study habits I suggested we look at the social, economic, or even religious variables.

“Let’s hold that thought,” I suggested. “I think we’ll see some connections between our student’s backgrounds (and perhaps our faculty?) and their study habits.”

In other words, we’re not only looking at observations and questions within each variable, we are eventually looking to see how they connect.  That’s a key point about the map’s visual format – if we simply created lists we might miss these relationships.

The visual helps us develop a holistic understanding.

On the Social variable we observed:

  • QU had a 60:40 ratio of females to males.
  • Most were 18-21
  • Nearly all were from New England, or the mid-Atlantic states
  • And they were roughly 80 percent Caucasian.

“Sounds somewhat homogenous,” I offered as a conclusion. “I think we also need to look at gender, asking if genders matters in seeing success?” Noted Linguist Deborah Tannen certainly thinks so.

“And the perceptions and perspectives of the Hispanic, African-American, Asian, or international students.”

We turned our thoughts into questions and put them on the board next to the variable.

“I think we might ask if there’s a connection between their common backgrounds and their view of authority, or whether (as NYU’s Jonathan Haidt offers) that economic status now trumps race and ethnicity”

All at once we were jumping ahead and connecting variables.  We drew a line between Socio-cultural and Economic and added our question: “does economic status matter more today than race and ethnicity?”

“I would guess,” my colleague said offering another possible question, “that the pressure is different for kids on financial aid, athletic scholarships, or who have to work during the year to pay for school.”

“We might also ask, given that we (pointing at herself) are older.  How might generational differences play a role in setting expectations?”

We barely discussed economics, and hadn’t yet discussed religion, or media, but already our possible lines of inquiry went from “getting kids to care” to exploring how the educational system that produced our students might the culprit, not the individuals, or how different financial pressures correlated to student effort.  Or that it might be us.

What emerged from our mapping process – our conversation – was a more sophisticated understanding of the problem and a readiness to consider other questions and approaches.  The problem didn’t stem from one variable, and neither would any solution.

You are looking for the same broadening of thought from your students.  It is not uncommon to see a student refine their guiding questions several times as they build their issue maps.

Practical Techniques, and Handling Superficiality 

Students often rebel at this depth and breadth of thinking. For most of their schooling they’ve been taught information and certainty of fact, and tested on their ability to recall the same.

They first attempts at this work will be perfunctory. Students will slap some facile ideas on the board in barely ten minutes.  They think the product is the most important component and they’ll rush to complete it.

The answer is practice.  Have them rework their maps, often.  Strive to make it a dialogue between students.  Encourage them to challenge their peer’s questions and offer ideas for new connections.

I’ve built maps as a whole class activity, but this is often unwieldily and allows students to become strap-hangers who merely observe.

To counter this I’ve used small groups to build parts of the map coming together to forge new ideas.  This is efficient, but you lose some of the “in the moment” insight generation.

My favorite method is to have two or three groups work on the same issue, but create their own map.  When they’re done – every often this takes more than one 50-minute session) they “publish” their work for group discussion.

This is fun as the class itself becomes a case student of perception and perspective…how one group can look at the connections differently than another brings out many good points!

NOTE:  I first published a version of this blog post in your QU FYS Faculty Guide.


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