Sunday, November 30, 2008

Teachers and Change--Part II

In my previous post I suggested that a part of teachers' notorious reluctance to embrace change in their schools and in their practice comes from having experienced a surfeit of "new ideas" and initiatives that have meant a great deal of professional sound and fury--workshops, seminars, committees, planning sessions, new lingo, new gadgets--but that have in the end signified little in terms of real, substantive school change. There has been a whole lot of stress, in other words, but often very little to show for it.

Not to contradict myself, but I think that in many ways this explanation is too easy, even a cop-out. "We tried this back in 1985, and it didn't work," or "We heard this all before when they told us that [name the practice or idea] was going to change everything, but we're still pretty much doing the same old thing; somehow it just disappeared, or the administration just forgot about it" are too glib, too simple. Sadly, excuses of this nature allow teachers to sell themselves short by positioning themselves as passive-aggressive warriors (!) standing firm against the ill-considered whims of administrators and educational thinkers. At its worst, it's a pathetic stance.

The other day a teacher returning from an exciting presentation by one of the foremost gurus of our time complained to me, "Why don't the administrators ever talk about this stuff when it's over?" It is a fair question, and one that demands an answer if we are to understand the relationship between teachers and change clearly.

Like teachers (which many of them once were), administrators are besieged by good ideas; because their work often requires delving into professional literature and discourse, administrators are probably exposed to even more of them. They, too, have memories of guaranteed paradigm shifts that never happened and painful, fizzled experiments in their classrooms and their schools.

To bring a powerful new idea back into a school and to sustain discussion of it presupposes the presence of a number of relatively unlikely circumstances. One is that there is a critical mass of people within the school that know about and understand the concept to start with. The second is that there exists the likelihood that a groundswell of interest and support will keep the concept moving forward. And finally, the idea, whatever it is, must be consonant with well-understood and agreed-upon ideas of the school's own mission and values; it is especially important that the school's governing body could be conceived of as seeing an organic, natural relationship between the new idea and the ideals and identity of the school.

Another friend suggested to me this week that in the past four decades there have only been a handful of true paradigm shifts with the force to engage (and to frighten, it must be acknowledged) all independent school educators. The first of these is the movement that can be described in most general terms as being about diversity and multiculturalism. The second relates to the whole matter of learning styles and learning differences. The third, just emerging but potentially the grand-daddy of them all, is the impact of technology, in particular "Web 2.0" in all its manifestations, on the way we think about curriculum and the role of schools.

Multicultural education and increasingly diverse educational settings have demanded that an overwhelmingly white independent school population of teachers to think in new ways not just about daily practice and relationships with students but about themselves, and about their role in a society characterized by a history of racism and the granting of unearned privilege to people in certain categories. The challenge of the work for many teachers has been to keep their own understanding evolving as theory becomes more sophisticated in an endless but necessary course of soul-searching and self-education. Those of us who were told in the 70s that "color-blindness" was the key have had to learn that acknowledging and understanding difference is truly the path toward understanding and efficacy, for example, and that becoming that "all-terrain" teacher is hard work that has no end. As even the most conservative of schools took on the challenges of becoming more inclusive and diverse, teachers could not in the end resist this change.

In some schools there has never been an aversion to acknowledging that students' minds come in many flavors, but in many established independent schools teachers have struggled with the notion that some students might learn differently not because they are lazy or stupid but rather because they are wired differently. When issues of learning style or accommodation were first raised in such schools, there was often a sense of disappoint or failure--that somehow that school's "greatness," as reflected in the intellectual quality of its students as measured by traditional standards such as college or next-school lists and standardized test scores, was threatened, or lost. Teachers were often quick to blame the administration or the admission office for "lowering standards," for admitting students whose need for extended-time testing or extra help was a sure sign of their deficiency and the admission office's lazy willingness to "accept anyone" in return for suspect pay-offs--athletic skill, perhaps, or development potential. It has been hard work for leaders in schools undergoing this transformation--or rather, doing the hard but necessary work of understanding the nature of intelligence and the complex business of learning and thinking--to give faculty first the understanding and then the tools for working in "cognitively diverse" classrooms. Of course, classrooms have been cognitively diverse all along, but what was missing was schools' and teachers' commitment to learning how to help ALL students succeed and not being satisfied that a bell-curve grade distribution represented a kind of natural educational morality.

The latest disruption in teachers' working lives seems to be coming from the role that new technologies can play in teaching and learning. The educational blogosphere is abuzz with commentary, for example, on the brilliant and controversial insights of Clayton Christensen and company in their 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Within a very few years, Christensen and his fellow authors say, schools will have moved to learning models in which curriculum and instruction is drawn largely from highly customized online sources. Schools will be very different places, and the role of teachers will be very different, too. Teachers will have to embrace the new paradigm, and there will no longer be places for those who do not or cannot do so.

(I might add that I love what Disrupting Class has to say, as in many ways its thesis and content support the "New Progressivism" ideology that I have espoused for some time, and it suggests how the equally disruptive ideas of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind can become not just aspects of but the basis for real educational practice. But I digress.)

Here are changes that teachers have largely been unable to ignore or resist, regardless of the nature of the schools in which they might work. When it comes to changes that matter, and that truly benefit students, even the most jaded teachers are likely to come around in time; if they don't or can't, they leave the profession one way or another. I'm not so naive as not to know that readers are thinking of a teacher or two in their own schools who are still unreconstructed on these matters, but for the most part the resisters have either gone or have so marginalized themselves within schools (who should be finding ways to either help or remove them, because they truly are dead weight that harms kids) as to be functionally invisible.

The answer to the original question, Why are teachers so reluctant to change? seems relatively simple, but the power of simple answers is always in their essence. Teachers can and will change when the new ideas and ways they are being asked to embrace are absolutely and fundamentally connected with serving their students in ways that are profoundly better. Change is no harder and no easier for teachers as a group than for any other slice of humanity, which history shows us has been extraordinarily slow to give up such things as slavery, sexism, capital punishment, and war.

The challenge for administrators, educational thinkers, and other would-be agents or cheerleaders of change is to connect the "new" approach, whatever it might be, with fundamental values and fundamental value, and then to work like crazy to see that the message is never lost and that the training, reflection, and professional conversations through which teachers process change in their professions (as they process change in their personal lives by sustained conversation and reflection) never end and are never diverted from the primary purpose of helping teachers accomplish hard things--hard things, yes, but great things!

In the end, ineffective ideas and clearly outmoded ways cannot resist good ideas. Even the best of those "great ideas" that I once pushed so hard but saw being ignored wound up taking root, not because or in the ways I espoused them but rather in better ways, mediated by the daily work and earnest reflection of teachers themselves.

What we cannot forget is that teachers tend to be born optimists who believe in children far more deeply than they believe in schools or educational ideologies. When ideas come along that are good for those children, teachers will, in time, accept, embrace, and then incorporate those ideas, not to please enthusiastic administrators but to serve their students.

1 comment:

Susan Carter Morgan said...

Peter, thanks for this (both the first and second parts). Change is difficult, but your optimism that good ideas will take hold is heartening. Pink and Christenson have shifted my thinking, and I am also seeing change in our faculty, as well. I've enjoyed your thoughts on the isnet ning, too. Thanks for sharing.