If-Then: are we thinking about it backwards?

I was working with a small group of big thinkers today. We were trying to formulate an “If-Then” statement: “If we [take some action] then [we will see this desirable result].”

Tarmo Poldmaa (@TarmoPoldmaa) was one of those thinkers. At one point, as we struggled with this [surprisingly difficult] task, he mused aloud, saying something like, “Are we looking at this backwards? Instead of saying, “If we take this action, we’ll see this result,” should we be saying, “We want this result; what actions must we take to get there?” (Note: I’m heavily paraphrasing to remove the context.)

At first I thought, No, that’s the same thing written the opposite way.

Then I realized it’s not the same.

I had just finished a conversation with another teacher about how we can’t change one facet of our practice and honestly expect a dramatic improvement in student engagement. There are too many separate problems which are contributing to the common symptom of disengagement; removing any one of those problems can’t be enough (although it can help).

So Tarmo’s thinking is really important here. Instead of fooling ourselves into believing that a single change can correct this issue, we should perhaps try to grasp the larger picture. We look instead to the end goal and determine what conditions need to be in place and what actions we need to take to achieve that goal.

To be clear: the If-Then structure is still valuable for a single action or group of similar actions, but it won’t be enough to describe solutions to a multi-faceted, complex problem. Unless your “If” has a lot of “ands”.


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