Reid, Brigid - Mutual Dependence of Challenge and Support

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

In the domain of nursing education, Brigid Reid has described the interaction between levels of challenge and levels of support, to explain the behavioral reactions to change initiatives among working professionals in professional development settings (Reid, 1993; Palmer et al., 1994; McGill & Brockbank, 2004).

Adult learners are active creators of meaning during educational events. They can be assumed to seek meaning and to construct it, and learning experiences can be constructed so that they enable this engagement. That means that educators should provide them with challenges that stimulate or require changes to their current ways of thinking. But this challenge has to be balanced against the right amount of support. With too little support, learners will retreat from the challenging stimulus, sensing that they do not have the resources to engage it. Skilful teaching or skilful coaching requires balance, which is often acknowledged in the field of sport with the observation that good coaches can demand a lot from their athletes, in part because they give so much to their athletes in return.

There are four zones of interaction between challenge and support, listed in PAEI order below. It should be kept in mind that the challenge described in this model is conceptual challenge – the challenging of old ideas, forcing us to think in a new way. Support can likewise be thought of as conceptual in this context, in the sense that professionally produced textbooks provide more conceptual support to students than do journal articles in specialist journals.

P – Knowledge Confirmation (Highly Supportive Setting, Low Challenge)
When an information processing or discovery task is well supported (by prior learning, well-designed learning materials, a responsive teacher, multiple available resources, knowledgeable peers, etc.), and when the level of challenge for that task is low, then the task will mainly serve to confirm existing knowledge, rather than generating new knowledge. Many such confirmatory tasks can be completed in a limited time, compared to more complex, less tractable tasks. Conversely, if one is concerned with completing many tasks in a short time period, they must be relatively simple and well-structured (low challenge).

The P style can handle very high levels of challenge in terms of throughput (the rate at which results can be produced), but this very strength means that there is no time to spend exploring anomalies or cases that do not fit their set of solutions heuristics. P tactics work best over known event types, rather than complex unknowns. When an agent is well supported, and the pressure to reframe experience is low, existing knowledge and mastery levels are confirmed. This experience of confirmation is one of the major pleasures of P.

A – Knowledge Stasis (Low Levels of Support, Low Challenge)
In a situation where there is little support for exploring new ideas, but also little in the way of challenges that force exploration, homeostatic norms emerge, and aberrations are simply assimilated to those norms as much as possible. In this mode, proposals to construct new concepts, procedures or skills seem risky and unnecessary – a costly and painstaking process, with no guarantee of success. A fair bit of support would have to be added to move from this state of stasis into a state where reframing and reformulating ideas seems like a useful and profitable thing to do.

E – Knowledge Growth (High Support, High Challenge)
In settings which encourage growth, some developmental “free time” is created wherein ideas can be experimented with, taken apart and criticized, recombined and realigned, all at a very low cost. These conditions are conducive to conceptual growth and refinement.

I – Retreat from Learning (Low Support, High Challenge)
High challenge with low support makes for an experience of being aggressed or overwhelmed by the complexity of input. There is no success in continued solo efforts. The person can either default to stasis, or begin to seek out the help of other people or other resources to provide the scaffolding needed in order to engage the challenge from a stronger position. This support-seeking behavior is an I tactic for overcoming excessive challenge.

1. Reid, B. (1993). “‘But We’re Doing It Already!’ Exploring a response to the concept of reflective practice in order to improve its facilitation.” Nurse Education Today, 13, 305-309.
2. Palmer, A., Burns, S., & Bulman, C. (1994). Reflective Practice in Nursing: The Growth of the Professional Practitioner. Oxford: Blackwell Science.
3. McGill, I., & Brockbank, A. (2004). The Action Learning Handbook. New York: Routledge Palmer.
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