Adaptive vs Procedural Understanding

Last week I have the privilege of sitting down and having a cup of coffee and a conversation with Al Rowe.  As always, Al had a number provocative, engaging, and innovative ideas to share.  I won’t be able to capture the full richness of the entire conversation here unfortunately, but there was one common thread that we spent a lot of time talking about:  procedural versus adaptive knowledge, understanding and doing.  This idea has really important implications for designing high quality competency-based education.

This concept has its roots in the work of Ron Heifetz from Harvard.  The big idea is that adaptive understanding is highly valuable.  It is the high ground, high-leverage trait that competent and successful people possesses.  It comes from a deep, working understanding of content knowledge and a connectedness with context.   Adaptive work also assumes that the whole of a quality experience is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is closely tied to the idea from knowledge management research that indicates as soon as knowledge is made explicit (easy to understand and replicable), it looses value (the adaptive trait).

While having a deep understanding of content is essential, navigating context is also critical to developing adaptive knowledge.   Knowing what minor adjustments are necessary based upon the surroundings.  These nuances can make all the difference in the world in terms of quality.  As Mark Twain once said about word selection in the writing process – “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug.”

I know ideas are rather abstract and complex. Here’s a concrete example:

Al was told me about the capstone experience that culinary students go through in the hospitality program at Kirkwood.  In order to exit the program, each student must progress through a week long run in the kitchen of the Kirkwood Hotel. During this time they are presented with situations that call for the skills they have learned throughout the scope of their program to be applied in unpredictable and often unexpected ways.  The instructional staff are observing and assessing the students.  The staff plans some of the challenges the students face during that week and others are totally unforeseen.  The students are evaluated on how they handle each situation.  The procedural knowledge students gained from classes on how to safely handle food, prepare specific meals, and manage the workflow in the kitchen all come into play.  But, only the students who can blend all of these ideas together (adaptively) and shift them as necessary in the chaos and uncertainty of the moment to solve problems are allowed to move on and graduate.  Students who cannot do this are referred back to the procedural classes and given another opportunity later.  But, students who cannot complete this capstone do not get credentialed.

When framed with this example, it’s pretty intuitive.  I think everyone knows adaptive teachers, adaptive school leaders, adaptive parents, etc….  I think most of us also know people who are bright and knowledgeable, but just don’t have “it” (adaptive understanding).  When I apply this lens to myself, I realize that there are areas where I am show the traits of adaptive knowledge.  There are also a number of areas where I display a lot of procedural, shallow understandings.  I suspect I’m not alone in this.

While I don’t have all the answers here, I am thinking about some really interesting questions.  How do we design more adaptive experiences for our kids?  How do we teach our leaders (including me) to be more adaptive in our leadership styles?  How do we teach teachers to assess adaptive experiences?  What structures do we have in place that are impediments to adaptive teaching, learning, and leadership?  And, what might we do to remove these barriers?

As always, I’m interested in what others are thinking on topics like this.  If this idea resonates with you, leave a comment here to let me know.  Of course, I’d also love to keep the conversation going as well.

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2 Responses to Adaptive vs Procedural Understanding

  1. ernie says:

    Lynn Ericsson’s work on making a concept-based curriculum guides many teachers in our district. As I visit PLCs I hear the tension between teaching concepts and teaching facts/procedures. No doubt we need basic facts and procedures in place but the end game needs to be conceptual understanding.

    One of my AMEN moments from our solution tree workshop is the need to drop existing labels we place on students. Many of the labels we use in education do little to encourage the adults to adapt their practice. Too often the label determines the degree of adaptive learning experiences made available to kids. Procedural knowledge has no hooks if it is never applied to new situations.

    If we are dedicated to building The Bar for ALL kids to reach it must include highly engaging, energizing, real-world adaptive experiences. To ensure every kid reaches The Bar will require every adult to adapt our style of work. The #20time work Kevin Brookhouser shared with us led to Creek to making it part of our daily structure. We are seeing kids gaining engagement and motivation to be at school and be part of the learning. This chipping away at traditional schedules and structures will gradually move us toward a CBE system.

    • bfeight says:

      Did you use the #GeniusHour model at all with the #20time work? After listening to Kevin Brookhouser’s presentation last fall I feel it could go hand-in-hand. Thoughts?

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