What if it’s not the engine that’s broken

Last year I was in northern Sweden and lectured. There I met a colleague, Daniel Påhlsson, who liked my car metaphors. So he gave me a wonderful car metaphor that even has its own sketch. It hardly gets any better! I thank and bow and write this blog post. All glory to Daniel.

The sketch is from a Swedish TV series, The service station, that was on air when I had just moved to Sweden. At the time I probably didn’t get all the layers in the series, not only because of the language, but also because I myself was working in a workshop at the time. I have discovered that the more psychology I’ve read, the more I understand the greatness of Winnie the Pooh, Moomin and also The service station.

The sketch is about two men trying to get an engine repaired. Click here to see the sketch, please note that it’s in Swedish though. The engine has died on them and therefore they have taken out the engine and brought it to Roy and Roger’s service station to get it repaired. Roger (I believe it is) is quite surprised. When asked why they didn’t bring the entire car the men say: “When there is a problem with the telly we don’t bring the whole house to the repairman.” Then they ask Roger if he can fix the engine. Because it won’t start. Roger asks if they’ve checked that the battery works. Totally surprised, they ask if one of those goes on batteries. When he shows them a car battery one of the men says that sure there was one of those. You know, right next to the engine. With a loose cord hanging down.

Roger says that they probably should just put the engine back into the car and attach the cord and it’ll start no problem. And here is the really interesting part: When Roger asks them if they know how to put the engine back into the car, they show him a drawing of their thoughts:

Roger looks somewhat surprised. His confidence in how it’s going to work out is probably not that great.

The metaphor

The metaphor as usual is simple: For sure, many children have been dragged off to Pediatric Psychiatry for psychological assessment, for sure, many students have been transferred to special school, not because there is something seriously wrong with the student, but because there are factors in the student’s environment that have not worked. It can be that the teachers in the school have failed to adjust their teaching, that the classrooms aren’t working due to lack of soundproofing and acoustics, that the chairs are of the kind where the students’ legs hang and swing, that the school yard brings conflicts in itself because no one has made an pedagogical assessment of it before it was built. Or schools with central halls, openings between floors, etc.

By making the student the explanation we unfortunately stick to a way of thinking that doesn’t work. We don’t change the school’s capability to deal with the student’s behaviour by putting the responsibility on the student. We don’t change the psychiatric department’s skills of treating people by belting the patient. And then this particular student or patient probably won’t be the last, we can’t handle. It corresponds to the powerlessness it means to believe that it’s the parking attendant’s fault if you get a parking ticket.

If, instead, we begin to look around and see what other explanations there may be, perhaps we find a very simple explanation that we can immediately handle so that the issue is addressed. Maybe all that’s wrong is a loose cord.