Sticky Issues and Messy Learning

two girls inquiry.001Learning may be a natural and necessary meaning-making process, but it can also be messy and frustrating, especially when we get “stuck” — when we face a seemingly intractable problem. Seth Horwitt, who teaches 5th graders, tells about how he and his students make sense of their sticky issues with Adaptive Action — a three-step inquiry/action cycle (What? So What? and Now What?)

Seth says:

Often, one sticky issue is “nested” in a larger issue.  Finding and addressing that larger sticky issue is what brings system transformation. I have to say that I find myself constantly going through Adaptive Action cycles, large and small. It seems that these cycles flow from one to another. . . I have come to describe sticky issues as nesting dolls.

I agree. It is sometimes hard to tell where one inquiry ends and another one begins. Here — in Seth’s words — are some of those messy but necessary learning cycles.


Adaptive Action Cycle #1


This year our district lost all class-size-reduction funding.  As a result our classrooms are minimally at 30 kids per room.  This has had a dramatic impact on student behavior, especially during recess and lunchtime. The biggest problems arise at kinder lunch. My principal got very frustrated and shared that frustration in an e-mail to the staff.  She stated that teachers need to “crack down” on the kids’ behavior.  But I thought there had to be a different way (than cracking down) to approach this problem. Students are not behaving as they should.  This has caused frustration and this frustration will be communicated downward to the kids.

So What Does This Mean?

We have tried this in the past.  “Cracking down” (whatever that means….) is the usual way that school systems respond to discipline issues.  What methods and models could we apply to this situation that might give us insight into creating a novel solution? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Has cracking down on student behavior been tried before?  If so, what were the results?  Did this action provide the results that we were looking for?  Were these results lasting and sustainable? What could be tried that has never been tried before?

Now What Shall We Do?

One pattern that we as a site and as a district have been trying to establish is one of student engagement in critical thinking and problem solving. So, how can we look at this “problem” as an opportunity to amplify that pattern–to invite students to think about it?  I decided to turn this problem over to my class by engaging it in an Adaptive Action.

Adaptive Action Cycle #2


I presented the class with the problem: kids are not walking in the hallways.  We made a three-part chart: What is the problem? Why do we think it’s happening? What can we do to solve it?  After discussing the issue at length with the class, the kids were ready to report their findings. My students and I collaborated on an e-mail to the faculty. As I wrote the message, taking their input and projecting it on the screen, the students saw the text being typed, and they negotiated the content to get it just “right.”  The kids were totally empowered by the experience. . .

Our discussion was all about asking questions…particularly “why”…in order to understand how things “are” so that we could help make them better. I wanted to make sure that it was NOT intended to blame anyone for anything. I sent this message to my colleagues:

Dear Teachers, After reading the principal’s note about running in the hallways, I asked myself what I could do to help the situation. It occurred to me that I needed more information about the problem in order to address it in a meaningful way. So, I decided to take a risk and ask my class what they thought. I didn’t have a lesson planned; we just had a discussion. Wow, was it eye-opening!

Here is what my kids had to say: Big Picture: We have a lack of respect problem at our site.  While we say that our school rules are, “Be safe, Be respectful and Be responsible” that is not how kids are treating each other at recess.

So What Does This Mean?

As we talked, it became a clear possibility that the reason that kids aren’t respecting the rules, it that they don’t feel respected by one another.  This is not a teacher/kid issue, it is a kid/kid issue. I asked my class to think about why kids were ignoring teacher’s requests to walk in the halls after lunch.  They were extremely clear about why kids were motivated to run. We only addressed two main reasons. There could be more, but I wanted to share these with you now.They are very solvable.

The first issue the kids mentioned is that there aren’t enough red flags to play “Space Invaders” or Capture the Flag at lunch.  Whether this is true or not is irrelevant.  This is what kids believe.  According to my class, kids are running to make sure that they get to play.  A possible solution that my class suggested was for grade levels to take turns—maybe a 3rd/4th grade day with the flags and 5th grade playing on the grass and then switch.  Or, maybe, more red flags?

The second issue is much bigger.  According to my class we have SERIOUS issues at four-square.  Basically kids are making up their own rules.  The most detrimental “rule” that the kids have come up with is that whoever gets the ball and court is in charge.  In essence if you get there first, you get to control the game for everyone for the entire recess.  That is why kids are running!

The rules being made by the kids are neither safe, respectful or responsible.  An example of a “rule” that kids have made up is “GOD POWER”.  God power is more powerful than “punchies”, “spinnies” or “slammies”.  A possible solution for this problem that my class suggested was a four-square rules refresher course.  The kids also suggested training kids to help solve four-square problems, using a printed copy of the rules as reference. The crux of the issue, according to the data that I collected from my students, is that we have a pervasive pattern of disrespectful competition between kids.  It seems highly likely that this is starting to spill over into kids’ interactions with teachers.

Now What Shall We Do?

I believe that if we start to address the issues kids are facing at recess, we will start to ameliorate the overall “behavioral” problems that we’re seeing at the site.

On a pedagogical note, the process that I went through with my kids to come up with this information has really impacted me.  We, as a site, have spent a great deal of time and energy encouraging our kids to be independent thinkers and powerful collaborators. I now understand that I need to put those skills to work to solve real life problems, not so that I can get a grade for them, but so I can empower kids to actively engage in decision-making about their lives.

Kids may be causing “problems” but they’re also our best asset in finding “solutions.”

Sincerely yours, Seth


So those are two of Seth’s “nested” cycles of inquiry and action. The next cycle is all about how his colleagues —and campus administrators—responded to his message. Stay tuned for that post.

The point here is that authentic learning (and problem-solving) is all about asking “What? So What? and Now What?”  — over and over again! In curriculum documents, the inquiry process can look fairly linear, predictable, and pristine. In the real world, as Seth’s stories illustrate, it’s messy—messy, but not hopeless.

And maybe the messiness is where we can learn the most!


Further Questions?
Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.


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