School Climate & Safety Opinion

K-12 Leaders: Here Are the ‘5 Whys’ to Solving Problems

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 30, 2015 5 min read
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When a leader enters a classroom to do an observation in an area with which they are not familiar, or have never taught, what obstacles prevent the time spent from being generative? What value can that leader add to the conversation that can motivate the teacher, or help with a needed course correction, or open doors? When a leader holds conversations or is invited into one, what prevents the time spent from being a learning experience in which those engaged in the conversation have grown to a new place? Why does it seem like so many of the classroom observation and other conversations are similar year after year?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t ask enough questions. Perhaps it’s because we don’t ask the right kind of questions. Perhaps it’s because we are supposed to have the right answers instead of the right questions. But, this is the right time in the school year to consider what questions to ask this year.

Reflecting on the professional development planned for the year, we expect you will find very little, or worse, none focused on the development of questions that elicit more from the questioned than a yes or no, right or wrong response. But here is why it is important to spend time building this learning and leading skill.

We can learn to ask questions to provoke thinking and reflection, to get us in touch with feelings, to invite insights and intuitions, and to place the control of the conversation in the hands of the person answering the question. This is an important ability for leaders. The daily interactions between the leaders and the teachers can become one of carefully developed questions and thoughtful answers that are received with sincerely intent ears. It can also permeate the way in which teachers interact with their students.

Almost routinely, people express opinions based on their own experience. Often, it closes them off from hearing another’s perspective on the same issue. We enter point/counterpoint immediately. Or, it becomes who wins, who will be heard most loudly. For leaders, this tendency is complicated by the position we occupy and its inherent expectation that we be the solution person. We need to claim the right not to have all the answers. If we can do that, it opens up room for us to introduce new questions into the culture of our organizations. It may keep us out of perpetuating the “either or ness” of our decision making, generate new dialogue and build understanding.

Take some easy examples. A teacher walks into your office objecting to a field trip or an assembly because it is scheduled inconveniently for him or her. Maybe it is a time that conflicts with the flow of a unit of study, or competes with a scheduled guest presenter in a classroom, or someone else got approved for a trip and why didn’t they? Or, a teacher throws up his hands about a student, or a class, who is creating problems. He wants something done...now. Or, a parent questions how we are applying rules and questions whether we are fair and equitable. Or, a board member calls to be sure we pay attention to an applicant or a bidder. The fix-it answer is to do something or say something that allows us to move on to the next urgent thing. The result is either satisfying one person or one group or another while trying to keep the offended and disgruntled at a minimum.

The solution of the immediate robs the potential for worlds of advantage. A kneejerk reaction to solve problems so often seems like the quickest way to fix something. Some actually get rewarded for that leadership style.

But rarely are issues or problems presented with the root of the concern exposed. The surface issue or the trigger are really what is most often presented. The ability for leaders to pause, to listen deeply and ask questions before framing the solution in our head will be the game changer. It will allow us to address the deeper issue and prevent it from coming back with simply new faces.

The 5 Whys
One suggestion about changing the dynamic comes from the founder of the Toyota car company. Sakichi Toyoda’s embraced the “5 Whys technique.” Asking “why” for five successive times helps drill down and help get to the larger or deeper issue that even the one being asked has yet to uncover. Listening carefully as each layer is peeled away informs the leader of more than the problem presented.

Open Hearted And Open Minded Intentions
But remember, even the simple act of asking the “5 whys” won’t work unless the questioner is asking with an open mind and an open heart. And, certainly, we don’t expect to see opportunities for professional development in those arenas any time soon. So, we are on our own. How do we find the courage to keep an open mind and an open heart? It is a personal responsibility and one that is more important than knowing the answer or how to solve a problem. Thinking back on our own experiences, who is remembered, the one who solved our problems or the one who engaged us with an open minded question and open hearted moment?

Being Listened To Deeply Is Life Changing
So many of us just want to be heard by someone. If leaders and teachers can model that, think how it might bring the alienated student into the conversation. It invites understanding, trust, safety, and wisdom. With each experience of where deep and careful listening happens followed by sincere questions, the problem that comes into our view is something more true. Yes, it may be deeper and more challenging than we can handle in a moment but it will present the opportunity to make a difference, if we can hear it and move it to a better place even so slightly. Patterns may emerge that will allow us to see concerns about equity, fairness, safety, communication, or timing. These are the larger issues that need attention.

It is a difficult thing for a leader whose time is always in high demand to take the time with every person. But, it makes a big difference and after all, most of us made a choice to lead so we could make a difference, didn’t we?

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