HCD21 update: Identifying what makes our day difficult

You spend twenty-two years in military service retiring as a field grade officer in a combined-arms brigade, and you can’t help but think about vision and mission from an operational planning viewpoint. Aside from understanding the overall mission inside and out, one of the most important planning steps is to know the “enemy situation.” You make a thorough study, consistent with your operational level, of what is out there that can pretty much ruin your day. Knowing whom you face and what they are able to throw at you can make a significant difference between failure and success. And along with that is to understand the climate, terrain, and other forces of nature or man that might impede your progress.

When I retired from active duty and jumped from the frying pan into the fire as a public school administrator, I realized that the tenants of successful operational planning didn’t really change much. However, I now tend to take a different view of the so-called enemy situation, softening and broadening the scope of awareness to not only include the external forces working against us, but the internal forces as well. I learned from a former U.S. Army Ranger that in the civilian world, it’s more appropriate to call it “MODD,” things or people that “make our day difficult.**”  MODD is simply, “whatever gets in the way of accomplishing your goal,” both internally and externally.  And it’s understood in any military organization that until you have adequately dealt with the internal MODD, you won’t be very effective in dealing with external MODD.

In K-12 public education, we tend to give short shrift to MODD preferring instead to bull our way through some obstacle either by demanding more from those on our side, being critical of those who might be opposing us, and latching on to another “flavor of the month” initiative in hopes that piling on or expecting more will get us to our goal. But it doesn’t, at least not nearly as effectively had we dealt with our MODD in the first place. Every soldier knows that just throwing friendly forces at the combat mission won’t necessarily prove successful if the leaders in particular haven’t done their job fully understanding what the MODD can throw back at you in return. In public education, MODD is what holds us back from finally throwing off the shackles of our 19th century industrial model of schooling and moving forward with a model that best fulfills what is required to achieve our 21st century mission.

Human-centered design (HCD or preferably HCD21 as we are calling it in our district as its being used as a tool under a generous Steelcase Foundation grant) provides a structured process for identifying and understanding the internal and external MODD that restricts the change process. At the same time, it also provides clarity of the mission and what operational measures may be needed to achieve it. Public education is a process based on human nature and for more than a century, we have more or less defined it by policies, funding levels, physical structures, and programs that create both internal and external MODD, making it difficult to stay focused on the key operational component: the learning relationship between teacher and student. Not all of the structures are MODD and may in fact, when applied with empathy and the right purpose, enhance that critical relationship. For instance, one might assume that given the past fourteen years, assessment should be at the top of the list of MODD. After all, the United States has become infamous in the misuse of high stakes testing results taking up precious learning time and reducing the morale of teachers and students to a level never before seen in education. However, only bad assessments and the misuse of assessment results should be considered MODD as assessment done well and for the right reason can actual propel the teacher-student relationship.

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Aside from assessments done wrong, MODD can include interpersonal conflicts, inefficiencies in how we operate our schools and programs, negative or self-deceiving messages or perceptions, self-doubt, arrogance, fear of reprisal, or problems that don’t always show themselves but sap the energy and emotional levels of staff, students and parents. These represent the internal things that make our day difficult and preclude us from making the changes we need to be successful. Externally, MODD includes but is not limited to aggressive behaviors from politicians, wrong-headed reformers, misinformed media, or even new technologies, curriculum mandates, funding decisions, and the economy that may negatively impact support for public education or create problems for students and their families.

The first key step, then, of HCD21 is to better understand our MODD by getting to know people (our stakeholders including the key users of our schools) and the context within our which our district operates as we desire to produce high results and achieve our mission of educating every child within our system. That process is underway including conversations with staff, interviews with families, and gathering secondary research to better clarify the context. These activities, when understood through synthesis and pattern finding, help to give us a 360-degree view of the terrain and conditions and will identify our MODD while helping refine the problem statement. This will create a more solid foundation for exploration, creation, prototyping, testing and scaling solutions to raise the level of success for everyone involved with our district’s mission.

Not all MODD is necessarily a threat that must be dispatched in order for us to be successful. Sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to accept that some forms of MODD will certainly make the job more difficult, but trying to eliminate it may be impossible or just not worth the time and other resources. That’s where it’s important to fully understand the types of MODD we face and perhaps explore how others have been able to ignore it while achieving their goals. We have to be willing to take risks and avoid having problems that we encounter create paralysis and inaction. Freezing up on the battlefield will do more than make our day difficult. Should we encounter MODD along the way – and we will – it will be important to the success of our mission (and futures of our students) to make sure we understand what it is, what impact it can have on our success, and whether throwing scarce additional resources at it is worth the effort.

And my final point: it is far more important in our pursuit of excellence, and the educational structure needed to give every one of our students the best chance at future success, to fix problems while avoiding fixing blame. Once we gain better clarity and understanding through our HCD21 project, it will be ever more important that we all come together as a team and focus on solutions.

Let me close by simply saying, Merry Christmas to everyone in our Godfrey-Lee community and best wishes for the coming New Year.

** I first learned the term MODD while reading Rangers Lead the Way: The Army Rangers’ Guide to Leading Your Organization Through Chaos, by Dean Hohl and Maryann Karinch. Adams Media Corporation, MA. 2003. It felt like a much better way to term those things I normally considered the enemy situation when working in civilian organizations, especially those charged with preparing children for their future.

About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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4 Responses to HCD21 update: Identifying what makes our day difficult

  1. Kevin Gabrielse says:

    This may be your best post yet! I think that you are truly on to something with the relationships. We need relationships within the staff, between staff and admin, but most importantly with staff and students. With a solid teacher-student relationship, students will “jump on a grenade” (to stick with your military explanation) for a teacher, for other students, and for the better of the class. What can we do to build better relationships with our students?

  2. Pingback: HCD21 Update: Gaining Emapthy | Superintendent's Notes

  3. Pingback: HCD21: Year 1 report on redesigning our educational system | Superintendent's Notes

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