Cultivating Thought Partnerships

I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days with my colleagues in Academic Technologies along with my friend and colleague, Enoch Hale, who facilitated the event for us on cultivating thought partnerships. This was framed as an interactive workshop to help us think through the shift we are attempting to make in our work – and our identities – from “fixers and coders” to “consultants and thought partners.” Making this shift requires changes in how we approach our work as technologists, along with the development of new skills and practices. We covered plenty of ground over the course of the two days…and I’m still churning away on much of it…but I wanted to try and capture a some ideas, questions and insights…

What is thought partnership? – First, let me say that members of my team are at the early stages of exploring this together, and we don’t have it neatly sorted out just yet. At the heart of it though, is a desire to engage in meaningful work with faculty members as we think with them about the intersection of teaching, learning and technology. This represents a different approach, and is distinct from the break / fix, and focus on support for technical questions that I think often shapes much of the work of educational technologists. In an effort to better understand what faculty hope to do with digital technologies – and not rush to simple answers and technical solutions – we are recognizing the importance of using questioning frameworks as a part of our consultancy practice. Using clarifying questions we can gain better understanding of what faculty hope to do, as well as help them to explore and explicate some of the assumptions, concepts, purposes and goals they have for using technology. We want to establish thought partnerships…among ourselves…and the faculty members with whom we work.

Clarifying questions and lenses for thinking – OK, so I’ve known for some time the power of asking a good question. Good questions can drive reflection, yield new insights, and yes, generate better questions. But what are the kinds of questions we typically ask faculty members when they come to us to talk about ways to use a particular technology? How do we address pedagogical questions that are sometimes in search of a technological solution? All too often I think we default to “fix it” mode and jump to the ready made solutions. We assume there is a shared lexicon and perspective. We miss opportunities for learning and thought partnership. In our workshop conversation, Enoch introduced us to a simple but powerful set of clarifying questions that I think can really serve to support consultancy practice, while also assisting faculty members in explicating their goals and perspectives. Enoch had a few acronyms to describe the list of questions, but I’ll just pitch them here: How do you define that? Can you share an example? Can you elaborate on that? Can you illustrate that? This set of questions can really serve as lenses to open up a range of perspectives at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology — they can change our thinking. Importantly, they can serve as a foundation to support meaningful instructional consultation that can grow thought partnerships.

Consultancy as shared exploration – There is plenty that gets wrapped into the conversations that faculty members and educational technologists have about using technology in teaching. I know that in my own work with faculty there are always varying expectations, issues of power, layers of expertise, different perspectives, questions of identity, and a mix of desires – to help, support, achieve resolution. Sometimes there is a question, or some general uncertainty, that is delivered as a conclusion…”I want to flip my classroom.” We can rush to assume shared understanding, and offer quick advice about tools that will “get the job done.” We fall into the trap of obeying the tool! In fact, there can be an expectation that this is in fact what educational technologists do. This gets reinforced every time we offer quick fix technically focused solutions to layered questions about teaching and learning.  In the work we are pursuing with cultivating thought partnerships, I think we are seeking to problematize this for ourselves – to refine the kinds of conversations we have with faculty members. For me, the practice of instructional consultation is both humbling and energizing. Ideally, it is a shared exploration of ideas, interests, desires and questions — it takes longer and requires some commitment — but I think we all get to a richer and more meaningful understanding about the ways technology can enhance teaching and learning.

During the course of our workshop, Enoch encouraged us to consider the notion that, “…cultivating thought partnerships might be a hamster wheel.” As he always pushes and extends my thinking, I didn’t see this as a caution, but the seed of a question for helping us to be aware and reflective on how to move forward in an intentional and meaningful way. Onward!


5 thoughts on “Cultivating Thought Partnerships

  1. Thoughtful post as is the notion of cultivating thought partnerships; simple yet powerful. I was first introduced to the clarifying framework you reference in the following text: Nosich, G. Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. Pearson. The real work, however, is applying it mindfully.

  2. @Enoch…thanks for your comment here and including that reference. As an aside, I returned to one of the short guides for critical thinking from the Foundation today…good stuff to revisit.

  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for your write up. As I read about the shift from a break-fix mentality to a thought-partner one, I can’t help but analogize this with shifts from a scarcity to abundance mindset, or a centralized to decentralized. I haven’t quite zeroed in on what, exactly, there common thread here is, but it involves several aspects:
    * Service before self (to steal from the Air Force’s core values)
    * Recognizing that people (in this case IT ‘customers’) are a value-added proposition, not a burden
    * Maybe a better way of putting the point away, it is a shift away from the misanthropic organization
    * Facilitating P2P contact, you are starting to put a distributed service model in place, rather than the dehumanizing batch-processing we are so familiar with.
    * Relinquishing total control: to have thought-partners, you need to have partners. That entails some kind of equitable relationship.

    From the sharing economy, to open source projects, we are seeing the old paradigms of human interaction being swept away. Thanks to recent advances in computing and communications technologies, individuals are empowered as never before. We have cognitively extended ourselves to the point that we no longer need intellectual babysitting. If this is the species’ adolescence (pimply and awkward as all get out!), mindsets such as yours are the bridge to our eventual maturity.

  4. @dansurgent Thanks for your thoughtful comment…and for extending the thinking here. The bit about the equitable relationship – particularly in the context of higher education – will remain a very real challenge. Power functions in both implicit and explicit ways…and sometime these are tough to decode…takes time and interest forging a different relationship.

  5. Re-reading this post and thinking of the alignments to the posts I have done these past two weeks. Per Tom Peters, consultancy is a human endeavor, not a technical one. Good stuff here!

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