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Bridging the gap – The space between WHAT and WHY

There’s a whakatauki in te ao Maori that has been sitting with me over the last couple of weeks. Ka mua ka muri - "Walking backwards into the future".

When I googled this whakatauki a few weeks back in preparation for a professional development session, I was met by a series of images denouncing the idea that you cannot walk into the future whilst looking backwards. These ‘inspirational’ self-help, Instagram worthy quotes, superimposed onto images of roads/mountains/beaches (take your pick), promote a predominant Western philosophy that, in order to progress, we must be moving forward.

George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By argues that we use language and metaphors to understand reality. One example of this is the phrase ‘onwards and upwards’. It demonstrates how we naturally associate progression with upwards movements, how we assume that progression cannot be separated from growth. These metaphors permeate our vernacular, when we’re “feeling a bit down” or “on the up and up”. We couldn’t be moving forward if we are looking backwards.

The problem is that we assume a western philosophy that is inherently dualistic. Look at the Myers Briggs personality test as a classic example. We are quick to categorise people as Extrovert & Introvert or to split thinking & feeling, body & mind. You are either being subjective or objective. You can’t be both. Mason Durie (2011) describes this dualistic western philosophy as centripetal (inward focused). Non-western indigenous models, he argues, are more holistic and centrifugal (outward oriented), which allows for more nuance.

So what does any of this have to do with teaching?

I think these dualities exist throughout the education space. I’ve written previously about the haste with which we classify things into binaries. Good vs evil, masculinity vs femininity, individuality vs conformity. It is only recently that we have come to see these issues as an “and and” space. Why can’t a school can be both Traditional AND Progressive? Teachers can be “sage on the stage” AND a “guide on the side”. Maybe we could move forward and look backwards.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek suggests great leaders inspire change through articulating their WHY — the purpose, cause or belief behind WHAT they are doing. Sinek introduces a concept he calls The Golden Circle. If you haven’t heard of it, you can click here to watch a video. He argues that when businesses begin with their WHY, to inform HOW and WHAT they do, they are more likely to see success.

Here’s the thing: I love starting with WHY. I love thinking about big ideas, reminding myself of the purpose, questioning the deeper reasons that inform my practice. I love looking backwards and learning from what has come before. I’ve also got colleagues that love the WHAT – they’re the people in an organisation that think practically, they want to get stuff done, they want to create action steps, plans, and start enacting them. They want to move forward.

However, neither of these approaches work without the other. If we are quick to act without thought and reflection, we are bound to repeat mistakes and get caught in process for process’ sake. If we spend our entire time thinking about what we’re going to do, without enacting it, then we become paralysed. There’s a space between these two. A liminal space. The world of HOW.

The truth is that WHY vs WHAT is not a binary, it’s an ‘and and’, with the bridge between the two being the HOW. We need to think deeply about the work we do and why we do it. Then we need to ask ourselves how we can enact that work and what needs to happen in order for this to take place. In Pasifika culture, there is the concept of the Va – a space in between people, as well as between people and the environment, ancestors and the heavens. How we navigate the Va is critical to bringing about effective change. We may be ‘big picture’ or ‘detailed oriented’ but as organisations we are ‘big picture AND ‘detail oriented’. We aren’t one or the other. We need both.

Sitting in the ‘and and’ space isn’t necessarily comfortable. A Eurocentric education system tells us we need one or the other; we need the western dichotomy. What if as educators we began to weave together the strands of reflection AND practice, thinking AND doing, looking backwards AND walking forward, what strong foundation might we create for the next generation?

What does this mean for me?

Here’s some reflective questions to ask yourself:

· Which resonates more with you – looking back or looking forward?

· How might developing more of an “and and” framework add to the work you do?

· In my organisation, what are meetings predominantly focused on - Why or What?

· What are some tools and strategies that might help us navigate between the Why & the What to get to the How?

· Are the conversations I have with others more transactional (What needs to happen) or more ideas based (Why do we do our work)?

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