Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why is change hard?

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague from my district the other night via Twitter (another example of why I have come to really appreciate the professional value of Twitter).  She has a tendency to pose some very good and interesting questions which get my neurons firing.  Her question was "Can adult learners be more difficult to teach because they don't feel they have to conform?"  My first reaction was that adults fear change.  I sent her the first message of "Adults fear failure in a way that children do not. Kids don't know what they can't do, adults tend to believe in their limitations."  This was followed with "Ask a kid to do something and they will ask how?, ask an adult and they will tell you why the can't."  She had other ideas so I sent back one more argument "to change you must be willing to admit that there is a possibility that you did not have the answer."

After having given it more thought I had to reflect on why I am reluctant to change some aspects of my life/personality.  Why am I reluctant to conform?  For a brief moment I thought I might ask my family, but I was not sure I would be ready to hear their reasons, and my mother very much seems to enjoy sharing stories about us when we were kids and all of the embarrassing things we did.  No, this journey is definitely going to be one of self-reflection.

I don't like to be embrassed.  I do have great difficulty in putting myself out there.  I am mortified to be on stage and have to do anything other than talk into a microphone.  Our staff went to a dinner theatre, and because I was the principal, I was chosen to go up on stage in a costume.  The routine?  No shirt, coconut bra, grass skirt and having to do a striptease.  I was so red at first that I probably could have stopped the entire downtown street traffic.  I got through, swallowed the little pride that I had at that moment at went on stage and did a weird version of a striptease which one of the staff dutifully recorded for me.  So I guess that is lesson one, if you want people to conform to the expectations don't put them in a situation where they are going to be embarrassed.  There will be some people who will make it work, but many others may never go back.  I fear returning to the dinner theatre because of what I may have to do next time, but I survived and am game.

There have been times where I have come to a cross-roads in my educational belief since the start of my career.  There have been a few occasions when I have heard a presentation at a pro-d and thought "This is a load of bs.  I would love to see that person in my class trying to do that stuff.  Why don't they leave the ivory tower, get their hands dirty and see what teaching is like in the real world."  I also know that I was not the first, nor was I the last, to have those types of thoughts in my head.  I used to think that was the case with problem solving in math.  How can I do this?  How much time is this going to take up?  There is no way that the parents are going to accept this in Math!  Fortunately the prof from SFU, Peter Liljedahl, was very good at convincing.  By the time that I was done listening I was converted.  It was not a "Thou Shalt" seminar, it was not a "That is old school and wrong the way that you were doing it" type of presentation either.  He stood there in the firing line and took the questions, turned them around and convinced a bunch of grade 8 math teachers of the value.  End result?  I could do it in the class, it was not going to take any more time after I got going then it did in the past and the parents loved it when I took the time to explain it to them.  I guess Lesson 2 is, if you want people to change, don't bash them on the head and insinuate that they are teaching in the caveman era, but rather respect what they have done and are doing and show them how this accentuates what they are already doing.  It also requires someone to be ready to change.

I guess what is toughest is how to address the question of comfort.  What can be done when someone is a comfort zone, has been doing a good job, is well respected by the staff and the teaching community.  What right do I have to go into the classroom and tell them to do things differently?  I know myself in terms of my habits, they are hard to break.  If things have been working well for me then why should I have to change?  Do I give time?  Do I bring in experts?  Do I mandate the pro-d that they must attend?  If they do not see the need to change, is forcing going to be effective?

I was reading a great blog entry, 10 things teachers should unlearn, and it made me further reflect on change.  If they do not feel the need to change, how to you help them want to unlearn what they have learned?  As educational philosophy and theory shifts, there are those who see it as another fad or trend that will shortly go the way of the albatross.  In BC the pendulum has shifted in several directions with several examples such as moving from phonics only to whole word approach and settling somewhere in between.  I have overheard the conversations along the lines of "Here we go again", "New principal, new agenda", "This is the district's new pet project".  Too often a great initiative is started and then because of finances or a change of direction at a school or within the district it loses its momentum and dies.  Teachers become frustrated by this and become pessimistic as a result.  At times we are our own worst enemy.

How do we facilitate change?  By showing how it will be better for the kids and it not an add-on but rather a supplemental strategy.  We stand up and answer their questions, respect their knowledge and work with them.  We try to make sure that they understand that we are not asking for the whole approach to be change.  We provide the time and the collaboration that is needed for them to value the ideas.  Sometimes we need to recognize that it is going to take time.  Uncomfortable is OK, embarrassment is not.


  1. Remi - great to see you thinking / writing about the difficulty of change. I want to challenge the statement you made in your last para. You ask "How do we faciitate change?" then answer it with "By showing how it will be better for the kids and not an add-on but rather a supplemental strategy". I suggest that is only one aspect. I think that we're seen more changes, driven by technology, that are becoming completely disruptive to current practices or ways of thinking. Think about the iphone or ipad... these are filling a need most people didn't know they had. ipad type devices are likely to be the displacement device for textbooks as we know them. As virtual reality matures and embeds itself in all learning and teaching, major changes will come rapidly.

    That said... your reflection on some of the things that cause us to not engage in change are accurate... in education. I think the response of education to change will itself change, is changing. Look at yourself - using twitter, blogging, that's pretty radical for someone who claims not to like be "out there". If you can do it, others can and will.

    The other reality with change is it's a slippery slope... as we adopt one change, making another incremental change gets easier, until we're way past (disrupted) where we were. History proves this time and again.

    Love that you're writing about one of my favorite topics! Keep going...

  2. How I wish more principals were open to the challenge of bringing change to their schools. I applaud you for this step you want to take.

    You said, "I guess what is toughest is how to address the question of comfort." I know that was one of the major difficulties I had as a principal. Working with teachers who not only had a high degree of confidence in their performance themselves, but also a high level of confidence from their peers and the parent community. The trouble for me sometimes was seeing these very strong teachers caught up in routines and practices that did not change from year to year, despite a changing need from students for different approaches. In our business as principals it is sometimes to easy to say, "Well, satisfactory is satisfactory."

    I'm not certain that bringing in experts or having mandated pro-d is the solution. Your other suggestion - time - has been something I have seen to be more effective. Find the teachers who have adopted change in their environment, and give them the time to spend with others. And, make that time class time. I am not sure what amount of teaching you may have as part of your assignment - where I live, principals have to teach themselves a fair amount - but if you can do it, cover the class for an in house mentor and let them help others to investigate change on a peer to peer basis.

    Enjoy your work ... retirement may come too soon and then you will really have change to adapt to.