If the Teacher Hasn’t Learned, the Teacher Hasn’t Taught:

teacher hasnt learned

One of the key phrases of Training Within Industry (TWI) and Lean is – “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” To this I say, “If the teacher hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” Or even – “if the teacher hasn’t learned, the student hasn’t taught.” I say this from two aspects, the first from the aspect of the teacher, and the second from the aspect of the student. To explain my statements, I will use ideas from Cybernetics.

Circularity:

The core of this post started with the thought that Teaching should be a non-zero sum activity. As the old saying goes, teaching is the best way to learn a subject. From the point of Cybernetics, teaching is circular. The idea of circularity is best explained by Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, and one of my heroes.

What is meant by circularity is that the outcome of the operation of a system initiates the next operation of that system: the system and its operations are a “closed system”. This is to allow that an experimenter considers her- or himself as part of the experiment; or that a family therapist perceives of him or herself as a partner of the family; or that a teacher sees her- or himself as participant in the learning/ teaching process in the classroom, etc., etc.

The teacher learns as part of teaching. The outcome of the teaching goes back as a feedback. This could be a new train of thought that was sparked from the conversation with the student or a new perspective that was brought up by the student, and so on. The next time the teacher teaches he adapts based on their reflection.

Communication:

Teaching is a communicative act between the teacher and the student(s), that is circular in nature. In order for this communication act to be efficient and effective, the participants should first learn about each other. The teacher should learn from the student just like the student should learn from the teacher. This learning is about each other. This allows for communication to progress as a dance, rather than it being a one-person act. The teacher has to reflect just like the student has to reflect.

As Philip Baron notes:

Human communication is subject to several perceptual errors in both listening and seeing, which challenges the success of the communication in the education system. The ability of the teacher and the learners to effectively communicate with each other is a factor for the success of each reaching their goals. The teacher imparts her knowledge in the classroom, but according to von Foerster, “it is the listener, not the speaker, who determines the meaning of an utterance,” for the listener contextualizes this information based on their own past lived experience. Thus, the student’s epistemology and their expression of their understanding is integral in the classroom context and should be actively included into the education system… The ability of the teacher and the students to communicate effectively with each other is a factor in the attempt of each reaching their goals.

Information is not a commodity that can be passed around. The teacher cannot pass the information onto the student and expect that the student completely processed the information. I will go back to a von Foerster gem that might explain this further (also noted by Baron in the paragraph above):

“The hearer, not the speaker, determines the meaning of an utterance.”

Any physical artifact such as a book or a pamphlet contains information, however this does not mean that the reader was able to completely transfer it to their knowledge domain. If we take a step back, the person who wrote the book was trying to codify his knowledge. But this codification operation is not at all efficient. This falls under the realm of “Tacit Knowledge” by Micahel Polanyi. We know more than what we can say.

Organization Closure:

I have written about Organizational Closure before. The idea of autopoiesis and organizational closure is explained very well by their creators Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:

Autopoietic systems are organizationally (or operationally) closed. That is to say, the behavior of the system is not specified or controlled by its environment but entirely by its own structure, which specifies how the system will behave under all circumstances. It is as a consequence of this closure that living systems cannot have “inputs” or “outputs”-nor can they receive or produce information-in any sense in which these would have independent, objective reality outside the system. Put in another way, since the system determines its own behavior, there can be no “instructive interactions” by means of which something outside the system determines its behavior. A system’s responses are always determined by its structure, although they may be triggered by an environmental event.

The Cybernetician, Bernard Scott adds:

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

This idea extends what we spoke about earlier – information is not a commodity. However, I want to focus on another aspect this brings in: ‘the student is an autopoietic system’. From this standpoint, the student teaches himself; the teacher is there to perturb the student. Learning is an autonomous activity.

Even as you read what I am writing, I am not passing any information on to you. Any thought or idea that is generated is that of the reader, one that is constructed purely by the reader.

This is where things get interesting, if the student teaches himself, then what we have been saying so far is applicable to himself too. Thus, we are also talking about a second order act. Maturana said – “Anything said is said by an observer.” To this, von Foerster added – “Anything said is said to an observer.” The second order nature comes, when we come to an important point raised by von Foerster, “An observer is his own ultimate object.” This is reflected in Maturana’s statement from 1988, “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or herself”.

As von Foerster adds – in second order, we now reflect about these circular processes which generate structure, order, behavior, etc., in those things we observe… We reflect upon our reflections. We are stepping into the domain of concepts that apply to themselves.

Final Words:

I hope that this post helped the reader to reflect upon the notion of teaching and learning. I stated the importance of the concept of second order, the idea of asking questions such as – “what is the purpose of the stated ‘purpose’?”, rather than just asking – “what is the purpose?” Nike’s slogan, “Just do it!”, a first order slogan can perhaps be updated as, “Before I just do it, I need to stipulate what is my purpose of doing it.” This makes it a second order slogan.

I will finish with a great von Foerster gem:

I can still remember the big motto in the Stanford School of Journalism that said, “Tell it like it is.” When to my horror, I saw that motto, I walked in there and said, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen, it is as you tell it, and that’s why you’re responsible for the ‘it.’ Because you tell ‘it,’ it ‘is’ as you tell it. You can’t say how it ‘is’ – no one knows how it ‘is.’ And when it ‘was’, no one can reconstruct how it was.”

In case you missed it, my last post was Wu Wei at the Gemba:

Wu Wei at the Gemba:

wuwei

In today’s post, I am looking at wu wei. “Wu wei” is an important concept detailed in the Chinese classic text “Tao Te Cheng” by Lao Tzu. This term is generally translated into English as Wu = No, Wei = Action, or no-action. There are other similar concepts in Taosim such as Wu-shin or no-mind.

Alan Watts, the delightful English philosopher described wu wei as “not forcing”:

The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality that all goes together and this totality is the Tao. When we can speak in Taoism of “following the course of nature; following the way”, what it means is more like this. Doing things in accordance with the grain. It doesn’t mean you don’t cut wood, but it means that you cut wood, along the lines where wood is most easy to cut, and you interact with other people along lines which are the most genial. And this then is the great fundamental principle which is called wu-wei, which is not to force anything. I think that’s the best translation. Some call it “not doing”, “not acting”, “not interfering”, but not to force seems to me to hit the nail on the head. Like don’t ever force a lock, you’ll bend the key or break the lock. You jiggle until it revolves.

So wu-wei is always to act in accordance with the pattern of things as they exist. Don’t impose on any situation as a kind of interference that is not really in accordance with the situation. It will be better to do nothing, than to interfere without knowing the system of relations that exist.

As a person interested in Systems Thinking and Cybernetics, Alan Watts explanation left a strong impression on me. When we try to solve a problem or “fix a system”, we assume a position outside the system looking in. We don’t realize that in order to manage the system we need to be a part of the system. The system itself is a conceptual model that we are using to make sense of the portion of the world we are interested in. The system is not a real entity in the world. The system is exactly a construction of the observer. Second order cybernetics teaches us that I, the observer, am a part of the system that I am observing. In a similar manner, there are other observers in the system as active participants. Their “system” is different from ours. Each observer stipulates a purpose for the system from their standpoint. Any human system is highly complex. Take for example, the health care system. It means different things to different people depending on how they view themselves in the system. The first act of systems thinking is to understand that the system is your mental construct, and that there are several such “systems” constructed by the participants. We need to seek understanding on how others perceive their purpose in order to make sense, and then collaborate to improve.

From a wu wei standpoint, Alan Watt’s advice of understanding the constraints, the pattern of things as they exist is highly important, if you want to make sense of the system you are interested in. At the same time, we also need to understand the perspectives of others interacting. We should also be aware of the environment we are in, and how we interact with the environment, and also how it interacts with us.

The paradoxical lesson of wu wei is that in order to act, one must not-act. This does not mean not doing anything, but as Alan Watts taught – don’t force anything, go with the grain. This brings me to Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster was the nephew of the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Von Foerster was also a great cybernetician and gave us the term, the “second order cybernetics”. He defined first order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems and the second order cybernetics as cybernetics of observing systems. In second order, one reflects upon one’s reflections. One of von Foerster’s imperatives that aligns with wu wei is his therapeutic imperative – “If you want to be yourself, change!” This may seem paradoxical at first. My view on this imperative is that the only constant phenomenon is change. Therefore, to remain yourself, you need to change with your environment.

How does this all go with gemba? Gemba is the actual place where things happen. It is the environment; it is the reality. Most often, we come to gemba with our agenda and understanding of how things really work in the real place! We may start making changes without truly understanding the relations existing; without truly understanding that the system we are trying to fix is just our perspective with our imagined causal relationships. We cannot manage unless we are part of that which we are trying to manage. We cannot stipulate purposes for others. We need to seek understanding first. Wu wei teaches us to go with grain rather than against the grain. Wu wei is taking action with knowledge of the relations existing. I will finish with more lessons from Alan Watts:

Anybody who wants to alter the situation must first of all become sensitive, to all the conditions and relationships going on there. It’s terribly important than to have this feeling of the interdependence of every form of life upon every other form of life…

Wu-wei is the understanding that energy is gravity. And thus, brush writing, or dancing, or judo, or sailing, or pottery, or even sculpture is following patterns in the flow of liquid.

In case you missed it, my last post was Karakuri Kaizen:

The Illegitimate Sensei:

sensei

In today’s post, I am writing about coaching. My inspiration is Heinz von Foerster, the giant in Cybernetics. Von Foerster was the nephew of another giant in philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Heinz von Foerster defined an illegitimate question to be one for which the answer is known. A legitimate question is one for which the answer is not known.

Von Foerster dreamt of a society where there was an educational system that promoted asking legitimate questions. The idea of an “illegitimate question” is a fascinating one. Von Foerster’s point was that our education system teaches kids to learn answers to questions that they expect to be asked in a test. This is rote learning and does not make them think. Along these lines, I thought about senseis in Lean. Sensei is a Japanese word that literally means “person who came before you” or elder. The word has come to mean “teacher” especially in martial arts. In Toyota Production System, the original Lean, much emphasis is placed on developing people. One of Toyota’s slogan was “Good Thinking, Good Products.” Another slogan used by Toyota is “Monozukuri wa hitozukuri” or “making things is about making (developing) people.” Additionally, one of two pillars of the Toyota Way is “Respect for People.” In this light, one can see that a Lean sensei’s primary focus is on developing his/her disciple.

A sensei should take care to not just impart his wisdom by giving answers to problems. The sensei should probe the disciple’s current knowledge and guide him towards learning. All managers are senseis in many regards. They are tasked with developing his or her team members. Generally, the manager’s first instinct is to tell people what to do. When you think on this further, you can see that here the emphasis is on the manager getting his or her job done. This means that the employee is replaceable. You could bring in another employee and expect the job to be done. This is mechanistic thinking at best. The manager is viewing the employee as a machine that can get the job done. The employee will learn the task to be done this way. However, the employee does not get developed to think. The employee becomes an accessory to the manager to get the job done. This does not improve the quality of life for the employee. Telling an employee what to do is a reductionist approach, while training them to think and come up with ways to solve the problems is a holistic approach.

Suzumura Style and Cho-san Style:

Bob Emiliani [1] talks about the Suzumura style and Cho-san style of coaching for kaizen. Suzumura was one of Taiichi Ohno’s disciples and was famous for being short-tempered, strict, and sometimes demeaning. This is one of the stereotypes of Japanese Lean senseis. In fact, Emiliani called it the “Scary style”. On the other hand, is Fujio Cho, Toyota’s ex-President, who was well known for his gentle, caring nature on the floor. Cho was also a close disciple of Ohno. Cho is famous for his lesson of “Go See, Ask Why, and Show Respect.” Ohno talked about scolding supervisors at the gemba. [2] He said:

When I scold the supervisors on the gemba, the workers see that their boss is getting yelled at and they sympathize with their boss. Then it becomes easier for the supervisor to correct the workers. If you call the supervisor away to a dark corner somewhere to scold them, the message does not get through… When the workers see their boss getting scolded and they think it is because they are not doing something right, then the next time the supervisor corrects them, they will listen.

This is an interesting approach by Ohno! In either case, the employees are not being spoon fed the solution. The sensei is trying to challenge the supervisor to see the waste, and make improvements. The sensei gives the demand and the autonomy to the supervisor to get to the challenge. This way, the supervisor learns what needs to be done and becomes creative. Finally, the more problems that are solved, the better the supervisor gets at finding and solving problems. Additionally, they are now at a position to develop his or her subordinates.

Double Loop Learning:

The idea of Chris Argyris’ [3] Double Loop learning also falls nicely into place here. Telling an employee what to do may train the employee to do that task well. This is similar to single loop learning, where doing a task again and again helps with doing that task better the next time. Coaching the employee to find solutions on their own is similar to double loop learning. The employee gets to understand the “why” behind the problem, and modify his/her mental model and thinking to come up with creative ways to solve the problem. This type of learning improves the employee’s ability to solve a new problem in the future. Solving today’s problem gives the employee the experience and wisdom to solve a completely different and new problem in the future. Argyris wrote:

Organizational learning is a process of detecting and correcting error. Error is for our purposes any feature of knowledge or knowing that inhibits learning. When the process enables the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its objectives, the process may be called single loop learning. Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action. If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning.

Final Words:

Heinz von Foerster had a way with words and was a very wise man. I will finish with his lesson on legitimate questions. [4]

Tests are devices to establish a measure of trivialization. A perfect score in a test is indicative of perfect trivialization: the student is completely predictable and thus can be admitted into society. He will cause neither any surprises nor any trouble. I shall call a question to which the answer is known an “illegitimate question.” Wouldn’t it be fascinating to contemplate an educational system that would ask of its students to answer “legitimate questions” that is questions to which the answers are unknown. (H. Br ̈un in a personal communication) Would it not be even more fascinating to conceive of a society that would establish such an educational system?

The necessary condition for such an utopia is that its members perceive one another as autonomous, non-trivial beings. Such a society shall make, I predict, some of the most astounding discoveries. Just for the record, I shall list the following three:

  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.”
  2. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.”

A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:

  1. “A is better off when B is better off.”

Von Foerster called the third idea a moral imperative.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Book Review – Seeing To Understand:

[1] Better Thinking, Better Results – Bob Emiliani

[2] Workplace Management – Taiichi Ohno

[3] Double Loop Learning in Organizations – Chris Argyris, September 1977 Harvard Business Review Issue

[4] Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception – Heinz von Foerster