Friday, 29 January 2010

Communication Error

The art of misunderstanding each other

This is a story from outside software testing, but it is extremely relevant. If we do anything as testers, analysts, developers and end users - it's communicating. Look here how easy it can go awry:

Last time I went to a school class meeting, one of the teachers decided to tell a little story to us. This was a meeting with all parents together, and no kids. There are other meetings as well, with the parents and the pupil meets the teachers in separate consultations. His story was about one of those and the story was told such as to make it a sort of a funny remark:

As you all know we've been exercising a lot on addition - and lately also subtraction - and each week the pupils must deliver a set of calculations. Then at one consultation the father looked brisk a me and -- please let me explain. [he went to the blackboard and wrote 12 - 9 with 12 on top, 9 under the 2 and underlining only the 9 digit]
So, that is what the kid had written and I thought, well, something must be done about the line, so I had extended the line, albeit in red, so it would also cover the 10s. And that the father went nuts about - obviously that is just the kind of thing I as a teacher have to put up with, but I would like to ask you all if any of you've got a similar, or any other problem at all, about these hand-in's ?

A very good story, which made people smile. I figure he will use the story for the rest of his career, but I do feel entitled to comment on it, because I happened to be that father. I did not reveal myself at the meeting, but clucked on the inside, because I saw what had happened.

The way things really went was like this (as honest and objective as I can retell it after all that time):

In the hand-in's all the calculations are set up in a small notebook with 1x1 cm squares. Each digit must be inside one square (we're talking first graders...). Also the page must be divided into six parts, so it all looks nice and beautiful (not counting in the naturally ínexperienced shapes of numbers a first-grader is capable of).

My daughter had some problems with this piece of homework. I realized that while she calculated with astonishing speed and precision, what took the time was making all the lines straight and putting all the numbers precisely inside the squares.
And, one day she was right out refusing to do her homework, because the teacher had made a bad-spot-remark in red around the end of a "3", because that end had somehow gotten into the next square.

So, when we had our little consultation, I pointed out to the teacher, that I thought the strict format was a bit over the top for first-graders, and secondly, marking it out as a fault to accidently have an itzibitzy bit of a digit invading the next square might have a bad influence on the child's motivation for learning calculus and mathematics. Being a first-grader she had many years ahead of her, so I thought, that the subject should be fun, not strict. When her technique and disciplin matured naturally in third and fourth grade, that format was due to be learned and honed. Right now, I would be satisfied with her learning addition.

So, did that account seem different from the teachers story ?

Yes, in his account, he was the hero - or at least the innocent victim of the unjustified rage of a mad father. To have him having altered the story this way was somewhat consistent with the feeling I had after the consultation - that he either didn't give a damn or didn't understand.

I got the idea of looking at this through the Satir Interaction Model, as described in Jerry Weinberg's book: Perfect Software and other illusions about testing.
It describes it so: intake -> meaning -> significance -> response.

In this case, the teacher's chosen take-in was probably just what I said (which as I recall was very close to what I wrote here). Everybody else in the room was silent when I spoke, except himself trying (and failing) to break in when I paused to breathe. He must have heard it all as he was also looking steernly at me.

His meaning-process would have failed to understand the actual problem, and focused on: "I'm being criticized. Damn!" Hence the details of what I told him got lost and he was unable to reproduce the actual problem, only catching that 'something with the extension of a line'. This would later serve him to make up a plausible explanation of the problem, which wasn't true, but seemed to fit the few facts that he remembered. (of course, such a thing never happens in software testing...)

The significance became thus, that this was a criticism of the hand-in-procedure in general, leading him probably to worry about whether other parents agreed with that. As he was responsible for teaching, this was a major threat to him personally.

The response at the meeting was, that he thought the hand-ins were good training (which I at the time agreed to and still do, probably widening his confusion). The delayed response was his remark at the common meeting, testing if the hand-in-element was indeed in bad standing among parents in general.

What could have been improved ?
I don't think he reads this blog, but anyway I'm not going to take up this subject unless he press it on to me. I take it as a learning point - for me.

I used words, where I could have drawn the example or have handed him the notebook to show him the exact problem.

As I don't have access to his intake-meaning-significance-processes, I should have attempted to make sure that he got the right meaning and significance. At least that we were talking about the same thing.

Another thing I could have done better was to recognize that his mutterings and break-in attempts were self-defense. I obvíously need training in recognizing and handling that.