Editorial Comment – Learning from Experience

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Among other things, Rob Shorrick’s article is a reminder of the versatility of the Five Questions. We will all of us have come across those questions in the context of Self Managed Learning, as the method to assist in the development of a learning contract. Having found them in that context can lead to our leaving them there. We can be great enthusiasts of the questions, and the way they work to clarify learning goals, yet have them so attached to that specific role that we fail to take advantage of their generality.

A moment’s reflection makes it plain that the Five Questions provide a much more rigorous goal-setting framework than is usually in operation in our organisations. It seems almost too obvious to state. Yet most of us do not apply it as widely as we might.

Goal setting is a process which is both encouraged and required, and it stands as probably the functional core of management. Yet all too often it is a process ineffectively approached and, therefore, incompletely accomplished.

My own recognition of the extra-SML significance of the Five Questions is brought home to me every now and again through the response of those being exposed to SML. In learning groups, people report on how they have used the Five Questions within their own work or give examples of how it has been used for clarifying the goals of their work team.

The incident which most immediately jumped to mind, though, on reading Rob’s article, happened at a recent meeting when Ian Cunningham and I were talking to people with an interest in gaining an alternative education for their children. Ian had just presented the Five Questions and talked briefly about their use in defining learning goals in a Learning Contract. The questions remained up on the flip chart when the vexing issue of costs arose. The State provision of schooling is free but alternatives must be paid for, and this presented some of the parents with a practical problem. It was very striking when one of the mothers pointed to the Five Questions on the flip chart and said, “Well, that’s the way to deal with it. That’s the way to deal with anything you want. Set the goal of getting the money you need, and fill in the rest of the questions.” She had immediately seen their wider relevance.

Personally, I often need such reminders. The Five Questions are so familiar that they no longer seem like a big deal. I take them for granted. Again and again I am surprised when I find they are not part of the goal-setting which goes on in many organisations. And when I see the consequences of their absence. I recall a dramatic example that emerged when some of us were commissioned by a high-tech company to research their organisational culture. The brief was to provide an analysis of how responsive the culture would make the organisation to the latest proposed change initiative.

The company was no stranger to change initiatives. What was new, in this instance, was the idea of checking the compatibility of the initiative with the existing culture, the aim being to use that knowledge to gain a smoother and more effective implementation on this occasion. When we heard of a whole history of past change initiatives we were, understandably, interested to know how they had fared. What had worked and what hadn’t. In effect, we were asking for the accumulated answers to Question Four, How will you get there? and Question Five, How will you know you have arrived? How had they gone about implementing past change initiatives and to what extent had the implementation processes met the criteria they had established for success.

Our questions were met with blank looks, followed by embarrassment, incoherence and distraction. The subject was changed, and our question became taboo. It was clear that Question Five had never been answered. It appeared that it had never been asked. For all these change initiatives no criteria were established for how they could tell whether or not the change had been successful. The company simply ricocheted from one change initiative to another, apparently with little being learnt in the process, or about the process.

The potential of the Five Questions is enormous. They could be ubiquitous in organisational life. In schools, too. And also in the lives of each of us, as individuals.

Graham Dawes