Building Capacity, not Competencies

The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: the activity must lie in the phenomenon.

Maria Montessori

An eager young woman shows up for the first day of her medical internship. It is a new place, new people, new challenges. She has an opportunity to demonstrate what she has learned in her first-class medical school. Even more important, she has the opportunity to learn what the school could not teach her. One might even say that her medical education begins when she moves from the classroom into the clinical setting. With guidance from seasoned professionals, she will engage with patients and colleagues to assess and respond to unpredictable, and often intractable, problems. She will learn to be a physician by living the life of the physician.

Those of us who make our livings as teachers don’t like to admit it, but that is how most complex skills are developed—in real-world practice. You study music, then you perform. You drill on basic ball-handling skills, then you play against an opponent. You solve textbook problems, and then you design a bridge. You read about theory and pedagogy, and then you stand in front of a classroom. Real learning happens when real people are faced with real challenges. Maria Montessori used this insight to design an innovative approach to early childhood education, and at the HSD Institute, we use the same approach in our Adaptive Action Laboratories.

As the guides in the Adaptive Action Laboratories, we help people learn to cope with uncertainty and chaos. That is our job: Help people cope with what they cannot predict or control. The problem is that what we teach—coping—is a capacity that cannot be taught in a book or a classroom. This skill can only be learned as people cope with their own emergent challenges. Adaptive Action Labs set the conditions for accelerated learning that can come from structured engagement with real-world challenges.

As a learner, you bring your own Sticky Issue to an Adaptive Action Lab. The issue may be personal or professional, individual or team-based, historical or futuristic. The Lab sets conditions for you and the other learners to take wise action in response to a particular challenge. You also build the capacity to confront the unknown Sticky Issues that lie ahead of you. In discussion and interactive exercises, you:

  • See underlying patterns in your Sticky Issues. We introduce simple models and methods, based on principles of complexity science. You are able to see the conditions that hold an issue in place, even if you cannot know a root cause or predict or control the future.
  • Understand those patterns in useful ways. Usually people have easy explanations for complex problems. We can blame the economy, educational systems, cultural differences, or some other factor that is beyond our control. While those explanations may be true, they are not useful. In fact, such explanations make us helpless in the face of overwhelming odds. The HSD models and methods that support Adaptive Action Labs inspire immediate action because they focus on patterns that lie within your power to influence.
  • Take your next wise action to shift the patterns and, possibly, unstick the issue. This is the step in the Adaptive Action Lab that empowers learners and brings them hope, even in the middle of chaos. You don’t know the answer, you don’t even know the problem completely, but you can find a next wise action that will make some kind of difference. That action, and its consequences, may get the problem unstuck. Even if it doesn’t work perfectly, the act will teach you something about your Sticky Issue that you didn’t know before. Each time you learn something new or shift the pattern, the problem becomes less intractable.

Adaptive Action Labs break many of the long-standing rules about instructional design. Learning is:

  • Focused on real problems and real options for action, not on simulations or constructed case studies.
  • Learning is contextualized by the learner and for the learner.
  • The Adaptive Action process integrates theory and practice, so that no translation is required between what “should be” and what “is.”
  • All of the learning activities focus on a single Sticky Issue, but learners are not fooled. They quickly grasp that all of their Sticky Issues, like the one they brought with them, consist of patterns they can see, understand, and influence.
  • Learning works at many different levels at the same time. Individuals build their own self-awareness, analysis, and communication skills. Teams build shared identity while they work on shared problems. Organizational and community systems can be transformed by the micro-solutions that emerge from Adaptive Action Labs.

Every lab is unique, and within every lab, each learner’s experience is unique. In the context of the Adaptive Action Lab, each moment is a moment of innovation and co-creation that builds the capacity for more innovation and co-creation. We offer public Labs, where a diverse community may share a common concern like conflict, wellness, facilitation, or coaching. We also offer private Labs where colleagues within an organization can collaborate, often across silos, to unravel their shared Sticky Issues.

In the same way that the intern learns her way into practice of medicine, in an Adaptive Action Lab you learn your way into the adaptive capacity to cope with chaos and uncertainty. And, in the same way that you cannot learn to swim by reading a book, you cannot imagine an Adaptive Action Lab until you experience one. I hope you will join us soon to see the power of learning in the context of your own authentic questions.

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