Another Teaching Opportunity

Had another “clueless” student (his words!) talk to me today.  As I circulated among the small groups Ryan said that he didn’t know where to begin.  After a bit of Q&A I invited him to the white board to take a fresh look at his problem.  As others were listening on the periphery, I invited anyone interested to join us.  Six did.

We started with the basics.  What’s your guiding question?

What is happiness?

While I sighed inwardly, I offered encouragement.  Good…Why?

I don’t know (the default response).

What’s your major?  What are you interested in?

Film studies.  I filed that away for the moment, and asked, what brought you to this question?  Why does it animate you?

I suppose I want to know what drives people.

Okay – something is preventing that success.  There’s a wicked problem behind your question.  How’d you frame it?


Your issue map?  You need to be able to see and discuss why this is an issue.

Oh. That’s where I’m stuck.

Okay. Let’s draw one together. As you know, an issue map is part of systems thinking. It is a tool that helps you visualize the problem’s complexity.  Ours is an open system, meaning nothing in it is predictable.  We know you can’t talk about any single part without realizing that the other parts interconnect and influence…What are the variables in your system?

The usual: social, media, economic, and political.

How are you defining political?

Like we did as a group: power.

That’s fine. What’s on your map now?

Not much.  Some questions….  (I looked – his map is very busy, but it’s superficial.)

No Religion, I ask?

No.  I couldn’t see how it would work.

No?  Let’s start there first.  What are some major faiths you know?

Catholic, Jewish, Islam….

These are your observations. Now – what do you know of their teachings?

After a few cartoonish answers, we arrived at “not much”.

Let’s form a question around our lack of knowledge.

What do each say about success?

That’s a good question.  We write it on the board.  As we’re only modeling the process I say that’s all we need right now. How about economics?

The seven students struggle to find the right observations.  I tell them to keep it simple.  We often describe economic status in this country by class, ie: middle.  What are all the brackets?  They list them.

Now, what’s a good question related to success?

Are people satisfied with what they have?

Very good!  If you’ve never seen color, B&W TV is really cool!  Now – between you and the group, complete media.

A moment of blank stares…(observations vs. questions still perplexes) but they decide advertisements (the observation) try to sell us on what is success. They form questions, including what kind of things are advertised as “success?”

And power? After a bit of discussion they wondered if power equates to success.

We haven’t even touched social, but we have enough to see some connections. I ask, what is the relationship between religious teachings and power?

Which vision of power should we trust?

It’s simple, but it’s a start.  They can now see that the word “success” is indeed quite complex.  Part of the problem is that they continue to put questions on their maps that sound more like mind-map questions.  They write what success might look like, or what it means to them.  I see questions and comments such as “earning good money” or “having a good family.”

I explain again – pointing to the developing product on the board – that the purpose of an issue map is to show us the complexity of our problem.  It’s not a map to a solution nor an end-product.  If we do it right, it will lead us to see new lines of inquiry.

Can you connect media to anything?

They could.  They connected the “satisfied” question under economics to what advertisers say is success…asking do advertisement prevent people from being fully satisfied by offering them a vision of what they “should” have.  I also had them think about how this could be aspirational too.

Then the ambush.   Ryan – you said your major was film…what if we swapped film and TV for ads?  How would you be contributing to this dynamic tension between the economic and the media?

What prompted me to go down this line of questioning was a student in our group who quipped that the Hannah Montana show always made her feel like she was unsuccessful.  She didn’t say this thinking of the map or the connections; she was bantering as we talked about the influence of TV commercials.

Ryan tentatively offered, does TV in general shape our perceptions of success?

Everyone nods.

Do you see a more interesting question emerging?

Does TV prevent people from feeling successful?

Good!  Tonight in your room think about the last variable in your system – the social.  Add that to your calculus and see what develops.

He’s not done.  He knows that he’s not done.  As his map grows more sophisticated he’ll see other connections and possible lines of inquiry.  He’ll also see potential new animating questions, questions that intrigue him.

It’s a start.



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