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Let’s be honest…raise your hand if you have uttered or have had thoughts of this word in the last 18 months.  👋 Me!  I have.  More than once.

Hopeless is a term that we often hear uttered in reference to challenging times.  When something bad happens and we can’t see how it will improve, we may say the situation is hopeless.  When our favorite sports team is losing a game and the star player is injured, we may say that a win is hopeless.  When a virus runs rampant through the entire planet and we see wave after wave of improving and then worsening conditions, we feel hopeless.

As I think about this term, it occurs to me that when we are feeling hopeless, we would be better served to hope less and act more.  Instead of hoping for good things to happen or for bad things to stop happening, we should engage in actions that have the possibility of changing the course of events.

Now, before you write me off as an annoying and over the top optimist who is throwing out rose-colored glasses that will only mask the pain and suffering that is our reality, please reference my most recent blog- It’s okay to not be okay.  I am not engaging in toxic positivity here.  What we, as a world, and (for the purpose of this blog), as educators, have dealt with and continue to deal with sucks.  It has been hard, it has affected our mental and physical health, it has robbed people of their livelihoods, and it has cost lives.  I have no desire to minimize any of this or suggest that hopelessness is not a valid feeling.  I am simply thinking about the skills and attitudes that we may want to develop in our learners so that they are equipped to deal with feelings and thoughts of hopelessness.

What are the skills and attitudes that learners – the students, teachers, staff member, and families in our communities – need to hope less and act more?  The first ones that come to my mind are:

  • Strong questioning skills
  • Desire and skills needed to explore new thoughts and ideas
  • Ability to engage in dialogue and collaborate with others

Coincidentally these are skills and attitudes that Challenging Learning builds and supports in our professional learning offerings and in our long-term work in schools.  You see, an important impact of our support is increased efficacy that enables learners to act more.  Let me expand a little more on my thinking around identifying these skills and attitudes as key to being able to act more:

Strong questioning skills

Sometimes a situation feels hopeless because we do not fully understand it and we are not clear on how it might be resolved.  We all know that if we want to understand something, we typically ask a lot of questions.  Think about a 2-year-old who is trying to understand the world.  They ask LOTS of questions.  Have you ever noticed that they often ask questions that do not really have one answer?  My middle child was notorious for this.  He would ask questions like- What if everyone in the world was purple? or What if rain was sticky like glue?  At the time I never really knew how to answer those questions, but now I realize I should have followed it up with MORE questions.  I now understand that he was just trying to explore the world and test out new ideas and thoughts.  Rather than thinking that I needed to have a concrete answer and feeling exasperated when I didn’t, I could have responded with exploratory questions.

Asking questions that allow us to truly explore the world around us is not always natural as we get older.  Once we enter school, so many of the questions that we ask and answer are evaluative and we lose the natural inclination to ask those exploratory questions.  Therefore, it is something we must intentionally practice.  In his book Challenging Learning Through Questioning, Martin Renton provides guidance for not only shifting questioning from evaluative to exploratory, but also for teaching others to make this shift.

Explore new thoughts and ideas

Even when we do understand the situation, we may not be comfortable challenging what we already know and believe.  It feels uncomfortable to admit that there may be another side of the coin or ‘more to the story’.  Once we ask the right questions and explore new thoughts and ideas, we also need to be comfortable stepping outside of our comfort zone and accepting the fact that we may change our thinking because of these new thoughts and ideas.  As we explore and gain new knowledge, we may realize that we now have two or more ideas about a concept that seem to conflict with one another.  For example, you may have a long-standing belief that you should never lie, but then encounter a situation where being honest with someone might hurt them. This is called cognitive conflict and it is what James Nottingham references as the conflict stage at the bottom of the Learning Pit.

To get to that point of cognitive conflict, we need to have the right attitudes such as curiosity, perseverance, resilience, open-mindedness, desire to learn, etc…, but then we must also have the right skills to allow us to work through the conflict and create new meaning and a deeper understanding.  These skills include being able to sort and categorize ideas, draw conclusions, make connections, analyze information, ask exploratory questions, make decisions…. and many more, of course.  In The Learning Challenge and The Learning Pit, James offers many suggestions for ways to build these skills and the great news is that they work for children and adults!

Engage in dialogue and collaborate with others

If we are going to change the world and create alternatives to hopelessness, we certainly won’t be able to do it alone.  We will need to engage in productive dialogue as we collaborate with others to act.

Last year when the US was experiencing a lot of political and racial unrest and things felt a bit hopeless, I wrote a blog about the importance of dialogue.  I mentioned that history has taught us the only way to heal wounds, bridge divides, and understand each other’s pain is through dialogue.  In that blog, I emphasized the importance of the listening part of dialogue because that is how we understand and gain insight regarding a challenging situation.

In the Challenging Learning Through Dialogue book, there are many strategies that can be used to help learners share their thinking through the use of reasoning.  It also provides guidance on creating a culture where learners use dialogue to be more reflective and collaborative.

When we engage in effective dialogue, we gain a better understanding of how we end up in hopeless situations but also how we might change them.  It is through dialogue that we can then problem solve and collaborate with others so that we may act on the situation and seek improvement.

We can help you do this!

Our Challenging Learning resources provide fabulous support to anyone trying to incorporate these attitudes and skills, but our team can also provide support.  We have a brand-new Academy that provides a long-term study of The Learning Challenge complete with an impact study, opportunities for reflections, and videos and text to deepen learning.  We also engage with schools and districts in long term work that is designed around the vision and context of the school so that we can maximize the impact on learning.  Complete the form below if you want to engage with one of our team members to learn more about how we can support a change in culture that will build efficacy and enable all members of your learning community to battle hopelessness by hoping less and acting more.