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This post, by Nick Major, was originally published as part of a uChoose newsletter in September 2017. uChoose is a mentoring and coaching programme offered by CORE Education.

September is here and Spring has sprung. This is the time we are encouraged to tidy up, declutter and breathe new life into things. I can see that both my garage workshop and laptop desktop could do with a good declutter. In preparing some ideas for facilitating a PLD session with a Kāhui Ako’s lead teachers on professional learning conversations and reminding myself about the importance of inquiring into the often unconsciously held assumptions and beliefs we have, I began to wonder what I could do about the clutter in my mind and in my thinking?

You may know the story about how hunters in India (Africa in other accounts) use a coconut to trap monkeys. The hunter gets a coconut and bores a small, cone-shaped hole in its shell, just large enough to allow a monkey to squeeze its paw inside. The hunter drains the coconut, ties it to a tree, puts a piece of orange or banana inside, and waits. Any monkey that comes by will smell the fruit, put its paw inside the coconut to grab the fruit, and since its fist is clenched holding fast to the fruit, its becomes trapped in the process.

Image source: Hungry monkey. CC ( BY NC ND ) licensed Flickr image by CJ_Supreme:

As Moss and Brookhart assert, “Capturing the monkey doesn't depend on the hunter's prowess, agility, or skill. Rather, it depends on the monkey's tenacious hold on the orange, a stubborn grip that renders it blind to a simple, lifesaving option: opening its paw. Make no mistake: the hunter doesn't trap the monkey. The monkey's abiding tendency to stick firmly to its decision, ignore evidence to the contrary, and never question its actions is the trap that holds it captive.”

“The beliefs that we hold also hold us. Our beliefs are the best predictors of our actions in any situation (Schreiber & Moss, 2002). And, like the monkey's death grip on the orange, our beliefs are deeply rooted, often invisible, and highly resistant to change.”

So, how can we discover, detach and declutter our minds from the assumptions and beliefs that are past their use by date and are stopping us from realizing greater insights in our lives and our work? Coaching offers a way forward to surface and examine our beliefs and practices.

To begin with we can apply self coaching questions to become more aware of our thinking and reasoning. You will recall an earlier newsletter explored the Ladder of Inference (after Argyris), which provides a useful tool to understand how, in a our quest to make meaning of events, we make mental moves from observable facts to increasing levels of abstraction to derive assumptions, and then form beliefs and opinions that determine our actions. Those beliefs then create a reflexive loop that influences what data we select in future.

Acknowledgement: Source: Jim Yates, Pivotal Thinking,

By asking ourselves questions about how we got to each rung of the ladder, it is possible, although not easy, to unpack the mental moves we make (often unconsciously) in arriving at our beliefs and conclusions. Having identified the rung we are at, we can then pose questions to help us climb back down the ladder.

From example, from the top, we might ask ourselves:

  • Why have I chosen this course of action over others? What alternatives might I have considered?
  • What were my beliefs that lead to that choice of action? How well-founded are those beliefs?
  • What conclusions did I draw in forming those beliefs? How sound are they?
  • What assumptions did I make in adding meaning to the data or observations I selected?
  • What personal life experiences and/or cultural influences contributed to that meaning making process?
  • In selecting data or information, what did I take notice of and what did I miss?

A second approach, and one that I personally think is more effective, is to have a trusted colleague (critical friend, coach or mentor) help you inquire into and challenge your thinking and reasoning. You might advocate you beliefs and conclusions by stating your ideas, make your thinking visible to others by explaining how you arrived at these, and then invite others to critique them. In essence, advocacy takes us up the ladder and reflection / inquiry takes us down. Should our conclusions or beliefs prove wanting, it is probably safest and less embarrassing to fall off a lower rung!

Acknowledgement: Learning Targets by Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart (2012)

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