Switchtracking is a pattern in feedback conversations that is so common that it’s instantly recognizable: someone gives you feedback and your reaction to that feedback changes the subject.

A switchtrack is that place where the track is going a long and there is a switch. Depending on the way the switch is turned the train will glide smoothly onto a second track or stay on the first track.

So what’s happening is a conversation starts, the first person stays on their own conversation, the second person smoothly switches to a different topic which is their own reaction to the feedback and often the feedback that they have themselves for the first person. They get further and further apart and they don’t even realise that they’re going in different directions.

There are really two topics on the table… and [each participant] is hearing the conversation through the lens of their own topic. They’re not even realising that there are two topics on the table.

Sheila Heen discusses switchtracking on the first episode of Shankar Vedantam new Hidden Brain podcast. The Hidden Brain podcast is one I’m going to continue to listen to. You should definitely listen to this episode, if only for Heen’s entertaining example of switchtracking.

Heen was right. Switchtracking is instantly recognizable. I’ve been focusing on improving the conversations that I have with other people, both at work and outside of work. While I had a vague notion that either I or someone else was “changing the subject,” having the idea of “switchtracking” is going to make it much easier to identify when I’m doing this.

It will also make it easier to identify when someone else is doing this. As with asking more questions, identifying when someone else is switch tracking is useful not so that I can catch people out, but so I can identify what is important to the person with whom I’m speaking. Heen also addresses this in her discussion with Vedantam:

For the person doing the switchtracking, you’re just thinking, “Well, that’s not the most important thing to talk about. What we need to talk about is your problem.”

The person who started the conversation sometimes actually does realize that the other person is changing the topic, and they view it as making excuses or distracting or trying to take us off on a tangent. To the second person, it’s not a tangent at all. It’s the most important thing going on.

So that’s what the fight then becomes about. We’re both aware we’re having an argument, and the real argument is about what’s the most important topic here between us.

Interestingly, Vedantam asks Heen what happens when both people feel their topic is the most important and neither wants to give way. Heen’s response: “You’re sunk.”

This, for me, was the key insight of the podcast. I’ve been in more conversations that end like this than I’d care to admit. “You’re sunk” is exactly right. Those conversations go nowhere. Or rather, they go round and round like a screw that’s lost it’s thread.

These situations aren’t irrecoverable. The parties can come back later, but in the heat of the moment, an impasse is reached. To overcome this, someone has to give up their agenda and start listening. I’m working on becoming that person.

Ask more questions

There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions.

Jason Fried offers this nice comparison between asking questions and pushing back in Give it Five Minutes. The advice to “give it five minutes” comes from a conversation Fried had with Richard Saul Wurman after Fried immediately started critiquing various points in a talk that Wurman gave. As Fried points out, giving it five minutes is about thinking something through rather than immediately disagreeing.

Over the last few years, one of the big efforts I’ve made is to listen better. I’ve written about it repeatedly over the last two years, though it feels longer than that since I first wrote about listening up. It’s been a big focus of my life recently.

Nevertheless, I constantly catch myself reacting to something before I really give the other person a chance to explain their ideas. Instead of asking “why?” five times or restating what I’m being told to make sure I understand, I put forward an idea of my own or explain why I don’t think their idea will work. I’ve improved, but slowly. I’m still working on listening and asking questions instead of reacting to an idea I don’t like or falling in love with my own idea.

Yesterday provided good examples of both my success and failure in this realm.

A conversation at work involved several people with different points of view. Instead of immediately putting forward my opinion, I asked questions about the problem and the various solutions being proposed. The conversation concluded with everyone speaking their mind. Not everyone got their way, but everyone got the chance to explain their ideas.

A second conversation between a colleague and myself didn’t go so well. It started off well, but got derailed when I made a point about in idea the other person had. The other person dismissed my idea and proceeded to make the same points they’d previously been making with more force. My response was to make my points with equal force (perhaps even more force, if I’m honest). And with that our conversation became a heated argument.

This exchange reveals a weakness of mine: I respond to pushback by pushing back harder. A later conversation with the person I’d been arguing with was helpful. It made me realize that if someone is pushing hard for an idea, that it’s because they believe in that idea. It seems obvious, but it’s something I often overlook.

I think that the Peel mantra applies here. If I don’t understand or don’t like someone’s idea, I should assume it’s my fault. Rather than poking holes in some of their arguments, I need to get a better understanding of two things: what problem are they trying to solve and why do they believe their solution is going to solve it. In short: ask more questions. I have the techniques to do this, but those techniques go out the window when things get heated.

Apparently, Jason Fried has experienced something similar.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is a life long pursuit. It’s tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. But I’m really enjoying all the benefits of getting better.

I whole-heartedly agree. The are definitely benefits to working on this. Professionally, I feel that it equips me to make better and better-informed decisions. Both professionally and personally, it has improved many of my relationships. Listening up is worth it, but it’s not easy.

Guided collaboration

In some ways, too much of a focus on collaborative tasks is bad for students.To make group work successful teachers have to give pupils a very specific activity to complete, otherwise things get too chaotic, and outlying ideas get shut off. Also, one group member tends to take control and the thoughts of those who are quieter or don’t fit in socially are disregarded. I’m not saying that students can’t recognise good ideas, but they don’t have the broader perspective on the subject that a teacher does. I’ve frequently seen people roll their eyes when someone’s making a point, but actually what’s being said is very interesting. You need a teacher to make sure these ideas are recognised and drawn out.

The Guardian has a very interesting interview with Diana Senechal about the loss of quiet reflection in schools. She maintains that collaborative learning has been overused in schools, and that space should be made for quiet reflection.

Although I clearly believe in collaboration, I also know that space had to be made for children with a different approach to learning, particularly more introverted children. I would say that there is a big difference between Senechal’s quiet reflection, and children sitting alone studying for exams. This, though, is part of her point.

Part of the reason there isn’t enough room in schools for solitude and intellectual thought is because there’s a focus on exams as an end goal. When I first introduced the new philosophy curriculum we didn’t have tests. One day a pupil said to me, “But professor Senechal, we’ve been trained to think only in terms of the test.” I thought that was so sad. Some students find their way through and realise that the subject is interesting and get taken away by it, but others are trying so hard to do things right that it ends up being a neverending struggle. Young people are under so much pressure to get perfect grades that there’s really no wriggle room for imperfection or taking risks.

I couldn’t agree with her more.


Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success. Sure, science, technology, engineering and maths are necessary, but without the initial creative stimulus for solving a problem or imagining the possible, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Jon Kamen of the Rhode Island School of Design explains STEM is missing a crucial ingredient. Kamen and many others are suggesting that STEM be changed to STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

I like the idea of adding the arts to STEM to get at the idea that creative problem solving should be encouraged. But as Vince Betram points out adding an A to the acronym might be missing the point.

I’m often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM — incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It’s not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It’s about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It’s about nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

One crucial point that adding the arts to the STEM might gloss over is encouraging students to learn from one another. In the arts in particular the belief in the myth of the lone genius is very strong. Getting students working together rather than sitting alone at their desks is crucial for preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.

Connective listening

This is listening of the highest order, and it’s the human listening that all of us crave. It’s listening into other people to discover what’s going on inside them. It’s listening on their terms, not yours. It’s understanding where people are coming from to establish genuine rapport.

To master the art of Level Four Listening, resist the urge to defend yourself, explain yourself, or offer quick fixes. You can help more effectively later, when the time is right, if you don’t pre-judge what another person needs (which might be very different than you think). Instead, remember that you are listening to learn.

Mark Goulston and John Ullmen discussing how to listen past your blind spots.

In both my personal and professional life, listening is something I’ve been working on improving. The four levels of listening that Goulston and Ullmen outline are definitely familiar. I have definitely been guilty of avoidance and defensive listening. On my good days, I hope that I’m capable of problem-solving listening.

Much of the advice they offer to master connective listening reminds me of the psychoanalytic practice of mirroring. It’s a technique, along with yes anding and the five whys, that I’ve been using to improve my listening, to get to the heart of a problem and to try to understand where people are coming from instead of jumping to conclusions.

The ultimate goal is to become a better collaborator, neighbor and friend.

Let’s try

A few weeks ago my wife and son recently came back from a week’s holiday. I missed them, as I always do. When they returned, my son taught me a valuable lesson. Twice.

Before they left, my son told me that he wanted me to make two paper airplanes and two lighty-up flowers like I made for Mother’s Day. When they got back, I had a new paper airplane book ready for him. I suggested that we make the airplanes and flowers together.

We folded way more than two paper airplanes. The book was a good one. It had seven designs, but over 200 pieces of pre-printed paper with planes that looked like rockets, robots, circuits, bugs etc. As usually happens, after we folded and tested a dozen or so planes, my son decided he liked a particular folding pattern he liked (the ‘Bug’). He then chose a piece of paper that liked. It was a ‘Dart’ not a ‘Bug.’

The kid: Dad, can we fold this plane like a ‘Bug.’
Me: Well, it’s a ‘Dart,’ so we should probably fold it like a Dart.
The kid: I like the dart more.
Me: If we fold it like that, these lines won’t line up, and it might look a bit funny.
The kid: Let’s try.

So, we tried, and it looked pretty good. He loved it. We folded another non-Bug design into a Bug. He was satisfied with the three planes (one for him, one for me, and one for his Mum). He could also stack them to give his plane three different functions (one was a ‘searcher,’ one was a ‘walker’ and one was a ‘zapper’).

After that, we proceeded to make the lighty-up flowers. The deal was that I’d make one for him, and he’d make one for his Mum. I made his. When making it, I cut the petals a bit “too big.” As I was making his little flower. He was also getting me to cut out bigger and bigger “ice cream hearts” (the petals are folded and cut so that they fold out from an ice cream cone shape to a heart to a cloud to the open petals). As I was doing this, he was piling them on top of one another.

Once I finished his flower, he said he had an idea. We could tape to pieces of paper together to make a big ice cream-heart-cloud-flower. We did, he opened it up, said, “It’s huuuuge” and giggled gleefully.

The kid: Now let’s make Mummy’s flower.
Me: OK. What color do you want it to be?
The kid: Yellow. A sunflower. Let’s make it like this one!
Me: I don’t know. If we make it that big, it might not say on the straw. (We were using straws for stems.
The kid: Let’s try.

One again, we tried. The flower was huge! And it worked. It hasn’t fallen off the stem.

The huge flower worked very well!

In both cases, he proposed something I thought we couldn’t do, but he thought differently. I tried to discourage him, but not that hard. He asked me to try and I did. In both cases, it worked out well. It’s interesting that this happened shortly after I watched Beau Lotto’s TED talk in which he discusses how play celebrates uncertainty.

It’s also a reminder that I need to be careful. Although we eventually tried what he suggested, I initially discouraged him. When we’re tinkering and playing, I need to adopt a yes and attitude.

We want them to be active

A lot of students gain a tremendous amount of their learning from the other students in the class. Variability is the is the way you get more of that kind of learning from other students.

As you’re learning something and you’re starting to get a grasp of something, when a fellow peer says it correctly you’re more likely to learn it than when a teacher says it or your read it again. Unfortunately, in a lot of our class rooms by age 8 if you child hasn’t learned what to be passive and listen, they get in trouble. We actually want the opposite: we want them to be active and knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do. That’s what great teaching can do.

John Hattie, whose work on improving education I discussed yesterday, appeared recently on BBC Radio 4’s The Educators.

It’s worth a listen. I was surprised by the things that don’t actually make a difference: class size, homework, uniforms and “streaming” (which I’d never heard of before).

What struck me, though, was his recommendation that kids learn better when they can learn from each other. This isn’t surprising given my interest in collaboration

I also have a very active son, who definitely learns well through active exploration, but not so well through listening to boring old me (though I often find he listens better than I give him credit for). What I fear most is that school is going to extinguish that curiosity (and rebelliousness). What I most hope for are brilliant teachers who will encourage his active curiosity, rather than sit him down and prepare him for a test.

This also seems to align with what I’ve been reading and listening to from various educators who try to encourage collaborative learning.

Autonomy is different from independence

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Wester Europe, but also in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Wester locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 90

I’ve written about the Dan Pink’s research into motivation twice before: once to highlight the idea of intrinsic motivation and once to discuss the importance of having a purpose.

A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Drive. The idea that stuck with this time was the importance of autonomy in ensuring people are motivated. Not surprisingly, people are not very motivated when they feel that they’re working on something they have no control over.

What really struck me, though, is the distinction between autonomy and independence: that having autonomy is not the same as working entirely on your own. I’ve certainly found that I work better with other people than on my own. It’s not just me, at Pixar managed collaboration is prized over genius design and Steven Johnson has written about how breakthroughs often come about through the collision of different ideas.

What has also occurred to me is that the distinction between interdependent autonomy and independence is very much at the heart of the distinction that Lewis Hyde makes between civic republicanism and commercial republicanism. The more I think about it, the more I’m firmly convinced that I am a civic republican. It’s a model that provides better exposure to other ideas and helps people learn the habit of compromise.

The habit of compromise

People point at gerrymandering, money, special interests, hyperpartisanship—but that’s to mistake correlation for causation. We are now more insular and more ignorant of the other guy’s thinking. There is greater mutual ignorance than a generation ago between people who live in close proximity. When there’s no habit of compromise, then the very idea of your Congressman reaching across the aisle is apostasy. The politicians in Washington who won’t do that are actually responding to their constituents’ wishes.

Marc Dunkelman on what he believes is the root cause of the political deadlock in the United States: the erosion of our relationships with our neighbors.

Much of the article is dedicated to what happens when we choose to interact with one another via diminished substitutes.

What I find interesting about Dunkelman’s ideas is that living side-by-side with people we don’t like makes us better people, better able to listen, understand another point of view and compromise.

A long hike with no trail

Of course, the most rewarding part is the “Aha” moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.

I find discussing mathematics with colleagues of different backgrounds one of the most productive ways of making progress.

Maryam Mirzakhani, who recently won the Fields Medal prize, talking about what she finds the most rewarding or productive. I was struck between the similarity of this and Steven Johnson’s idea of the slow hunch.

There is also this:

The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.