Deerfield Magazine Winter 2014
By Peter Nilsson
If you grew up in New England, a “wicked problem” might sound like what happens when something wicked awesome goes wicked wrong. In fact, “wicked problem” is an academic term coined in social policy circles in the ’60s. Wicked problems are intractable and complex. They’re problems too big for any one person to solve. Problems such as global food supply chains, natural resource management, and nuclear proliferation. Problems that make or break civilizations.
Fortunately, as wicked problems have grown more complex, comparable tools and processes have emerged to engage them: The Internet brings together disparate areas of expertise; interdisciplinary programs integrate academic ways of thinking. Knowledge infrastructures and resources like these stimulate collaboration around today’s issues of deep complexity, which is timely, because increasingly we are seeing elements of “wickedness” in a broader range of challenges. What about raising the quality of a nation’s education system, for example? How should teachers train? Should we begin with subject mastery, adolescent development, or cognitive psychology? Or should we begin with the craft of asking good questions, or practicing empathy? Good teaching benefits from all of these.
Addressing wicked problems in education requires not only the work of great teachers, but also the work of scientists, historians, sociologists, organizational managers, and perhaps most of all: a healthy dose of human sensitivity. Successfully bringing together these domains of knowledge, though, turns out to be much more challenging—and interesting—than simply putting a bunch of people together in a room and hoping for the best.
In 2008, I was the keyboards player for a music collective called Red Rooster when the lead singer brought a new song to rehearsal. The band was an unlikely mash-up of Americana, blues, folk, hip-hop, and electronica. We performed with as few as one and as many as 10 or 12 members at a time. Our size sometimes made the songwriting process a challenge, but that synthesis of voices was also part of what earned the band its encomiums.
The song was called “Time to Go,” and in the room that day were drums, bass, banjo, two singers, sax, guitar, French horn, and keys, and our backgrounds spanned from classical performance (French horn) to jazz (sax) to bluegrass (banjo), and more. I had studied classical composition in college and brought some of those sensibilities to the group. Composing by committee can be tricky, but the results can pay off if the committee can learn to work with itself. We were pretty good at it, but we still encountered cognitive dissonances that caused static.
We played through the song a few times. It started with a pattern of chords: begin high, resolve down, return high, and resolve down again. Drawn in a line, the chord progression would look like teeth on a saw. The melody ran parallel to the chords: high, then low; high, then low. Principles of classical composition, however, suggest that harmony is best when melodies move in opposite, contrary motion, so if one melody moves down from high to low, then a harmony should move up from low to high. This is part of why the melodic ascent in the phrase “Row, row, row your boat” works so well with the descent of “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily” when sung as a round.
We were growing accustomed to the descending melody of “Time To Go” when I proposed inverting it. It was a suggestion borne from music theory, and I wasn’t sure how it would work, but we gave it a try and upturned the descending melody. Indeed, the harmony was more sonorous, but the move changed the mood of the song—for the worse. It turned melodic plaints into questions, which didn’t fit the lyrics. It turned a musical sigh into a musical “Huh?”
Working together is tricky in moments like this. Music is feeling, as is other creative work, like visual arts, writing, and teaching. We invest personally in it. We expose ourselves. And when we make changes to other people’s music or art or teaching, we change, amend, correct, and adjust their feelings: The lead singer is vulnerable when he brings us a song. We are vulnerable when we make suggestions that others will examine, and then accept or reject. I expose myself to criticism by writing this piece.
In this way, the mechanical work of collaboration—the bringing together of different ideas—is only a part of meaningful, collaborative work, and success depends on something else: the subjective, interpersonal element of the work. Part of collaboration is algorithmic; the other part is personal. Whatever expertise we may have on a matter, we may not have expertise in the interpersonal sensibilities necessary for successful collaboration. And so, effective collaboration requires not only comfort with criticism and change, but also, and more importantly, an environment that recognizes and explores the merits of a half-formed idea before it recognizes the idea’s shortcomings.
We worked and reworked “Time to Go,” dismissing melodies that conflicted with the meaning of the words, and attempting new harmonies against the chord progression.
We tested the limits of classical composition; something does feel right about the harmony of contrary motion, but when singing about the end of a relationship, something also feels right about a melody that spirals down. The melody changed; we created new arcs and shapes in the music by reshuffling, reshaping, and rethinking the musical phrase. And we ended up with something none of us predicted: a better song.
Collaboration like this isn’t about compromise. While it did take willingness to let go of our own ideas, it took, even more so, willingness to inhabit and explore other ideas.
It took openness to unfamiliar perspectives, a willingness to understand their merits, and the collective will to integrate what was valuable into what we already felt invested in. It’s hard and deliberate work.
Anyone interested in what successful collaboration looks like at Deerfield ought to visit American Studies, the integrated History and English course that Frank Henry and Bernie Baker have team-taught for over 13 years. It’s two teachers in the same classroom with the same students for two periods in a row. They prep every class together, grade every assignment together, and even write comments on papers together; every returned essay has ink from two different pens on it. “There is no economy of time,” says Henry. “It’s not a more efficient way of teaching. But, the cost is negligible compared to what we believe students are getting out of it.”
American Studies began in the late ’70s and was taught by Rick Melvoin, David Dunbar, and John O’Brien. Frank Henry began teaching it when he arrived in 1982, and Baker joined when he came to Deerfield in the late ’90s. In earlier iterations, the course had been two separate classes: a history class and an English class that shared the same students and coordinated their syllabi. They ran side-by-side, which enabled the teachers to plan related material. The decision to move to a single, team-taught class ushered in a new experience. “While a lot of the material might be the same,” Baker says, “the dynamic changes: the way we think about structuring the curriculum, the way we think about assessing kids, the way we’ve learned to pick up techniques, ideas, attitudes from each other. All of that is possible when you’re in the room together and you’re thinking about the same group of kids because you’re spending so much time talking about [the work].”
It isn’t easy, and they’ll share their disagreements. “Especially if you’re going to do it for the long haul,” says Baker, “the closest analogy is a marriage. You’re constantly finding ways to negotiate, accommodate, and see how together you can build something that’s significantly greater than what each person would put together by themselves.”
Henry frames their differences: “I’m a big fan of particularity,” he says, “and Bernie wants them to see an arc.” But planning classes and assignments hasn’t meant simply finding time for both of these approaches; it has meant integrating them. Over time, Henry and Baker have found a shared intellectual space—a course trajectory that
incorporates both of their visions. “It’s constant—and by design—built-in professional development,” says Baker.
The result has been new ways of understanding the material and new ways of teaching. “We have, over the years, slowly developed more coherence,” Baker says. And Henry adds, “That coherence, that consistency of approach. . . is also one of those compounding effects of two being more than two.” They describe a course in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
This kind of collaboration in the classroom is spreading in classes such as Global H2O and other interdisciplinary capstones that are emerging in Deerfield’s curriculum. Different voices are working together not only to bring niche expertise to particular problems, but also to achieve a synthesis of understanding—and of teaching practice. True collaboration like this stimulates growth. It isn’t simply a group of people working in concert towards a common goal. It’s a collective broadening of thinking, an interchange of perspective, an arrival at an unforeseen destination.
Bill Newell, founder of the Association of Interdisciplinary Studies and its executive director for over 30 years, agrees. When describing true interdisciplinary work, he uses the word “interperspectival.” He says, “A discipline offers a perspective on the world: a way of evaluating knowledge. Interdisciplinary Studies draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive understanding.”
“There is the unfortunate presumption,” he continues, “that interdisciplinary simply requires bringing people from different disciplines together and having them talk.
Too often, the result of conversation between people with conflicting worldviews is that they agree to disagree. Or, they compromise. Interdisciplinary studies develops techniques for creating common ground that go way beyond these outcomes.”
As Newell’s descriptions suggest, Interdisciplinary Studies focuses much more on process than on product. It is about techniques and habits of mind. It involves seeking out diverse perspectives, evaluating and modifying insights, and integrating understandings. What Newell describes is an academic approach to collaboration, a pragmatic process that brings out new understanding through working relationships. Ultimately, the goal of Newell’s interdisciplinary work is to solve real-world problems—wicked problems that require teams of people with disparate knowledge to work together, find common ground, and reach conclusions that none alone could have reached. It sounds like humbling work.
When applied to education, this work requires a different kind of deep knowledge and complexity. When students come to Deerfield from California and Korea, India and Idaho, New York and Northampton, teachers must navigate enormous differences in academic experience and preparation. How do we best welcome them? How can we ensure they all have the opportunity to excel? What makes up the essence of their shared experience? These are questions of deep complexity—Deerfield’s own “wicked problems”—and they are questions no one teacher can answer. Effective collaboration like the kind prompted by interdisciplinary work brings together disparate perspectives, moves us toward solutions, and inevitably brings us someplace new.
While writing a song may not address real-world problems in the same way, it too expresses something of deep complexity—and it highlights the personal risk of collaboration. The workings of the heart and mind are moved sometimes by incalculable forces. Collaborating over the songwriting process forces us, for the sake of
a shared goal, to expose the heart and mind to revision, criticism, and rejection. This can be difficult, and it’s a reminder that effective environments support this kind of vulnerability.
Sometimes the outcome of collaboration is public. Sometimes it is private. Some parts of the process are mechanical; most are interpersonal. In each case, the work is best when it is, as Newell says, interperspectival. When we integrate different perspectives, when we find the harmony in these contrary motions, we bring into being something bigger than ourselves.
I think this is some of the best kind of work. And if we live and work in an environment that creates more opportunities for this kind of collaborative engagement, then we are lucky indeed. ••