Our Moral Imperative

There’s change, and then there’s change.

We all know what I mean by that, right? I mean, in some schools, the changes are easy to see. Everyone has a device. Teachers meet in their PLCs. “Competency-based” is the approach du jour. Or “personalized learning.” Or “flipped.”

It occurs to me that most change that really isn’t change at all can be captured in a trendy phrase or buzzword, which in turn makes it easier to name it. To check the “change box” if you will. I mean, who doesn’t want to be “Future Ready” right?

But there’s another type of change that isn’t as easy to name which is arguably even more important. It’s the type that doesn’t just get to the practical aspects of the work of any organization. Instead, it’s the type that cuts to the foundations of who and why we are. Especially the “why?”

One frame for that distinction that has come across my radar a few times of late is Ronald Heifetz’s work around “technical” vs. “adaptive” challenges that educational leaders face. In short, “technical” challenges are those when the problem definition, solution, and implementation are clear.  These are not “new” challenges, and they can be resolved by tapping into existing knowledge or experience. “Adaptive” challenges, on the other hand, are not easily defined, and the solution and implementation require new learning of some type. Change comes from the “collective intelligence” of the community trying to overcome the challenge as they work through it.

“Adaptive” challenges are harder but, I would suggest, more imperative to work on. And “adaptive” challenges defy the assignation of buzzwords.

We’ve been talking about the big picture changes in the world that technology is advancing for over a decade now. And I’m finding more and more school leaders who are willing to engage in the existential questions around education that are now becoming more and more pressing. The “why do we exist?” and “what is our value?” type questions that have to serve as the frame for our work in education.

But when I was in South Africa last week, I heard the articulation of another “adaptive” challenge that I’ve been dancing around for quite some time but was communicated so clearly and powerfully that it actually took me by surprise.

The speaker was David Gleason, a psychologist and the author of the book “At What Cost?” which dives into the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, and depression and asks what role schools play in that. What surprised me is not that most of the educators around the world who he has interviewed readily agreed that we are putting too much pressure on kids, both in our schools and in our homes and communities as well. What surprised me was the  reason they said they couldn’t do much about it.

Gleason uses a protocol that I hadn’t heard of called “Immunity to Change.” Briefly, through interviewing and conversation, it seeks to identify the openly articulated “commitments” we make in the service of our students, and, importantly, the not so transparent commitments we make as identified by our behavior. For instance, and this is the ultra short version, we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, that we want to provide a nurturing environment for self-growth, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more). No argument.

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, that they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more.) Not surprisingly, these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.

Now comes the interesting part. The next step of the protocol is to ask people what their fears would be if they did the opposite of those negative practices. So, for instance, what would happen if we didn’t focus so much on college, if we deemphasized grades, or if we assigned less homework, etc. Here are some of the answers Gleason got:

  • If we didn’t … then we would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • If we didn’t … then our students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and we’d eventually lose our jobs.
  • If we didn’t … then we fear that we might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If we didn’t … then our reason for being would cease to exist, the value of our diploma would plummet, and no one would want to attend a school with such low academic standards.
  • If we actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, we fear that we might try and fail … we do what we’re comfortable doing.
  • If we did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture, we’d have to face our own shortcomings and areas where we need improvement; we’d have to face making adjustments in our program, which could have an impact on our jobs. (36-37)

Kinda fascinating, huh?

Gleason calls this the “bind” that educators are in right now.

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

This “bind” is a serious one. And it cuts to the very core of what we are about in schools. It’s once again about “doing the right thing vs. doing the wrong thing right.” Whose commitments do we honor?

There is a clearly a moral imperative to keep our commitments to our kids over whatever implicit commitments we keep for ourselves. Yet acting on that imperative requires courage and a dedication to mission that seems in short supply. But don’t be fooled…this is the work right now.

Five More to Read This Week:

Media Literacy Is About Where To Spend Your Trust. But You Have To Spend It Somewhere. – Mike Caulfield on reframing the conversation about literacy.

“MicroMasters” Surge As MOOCs Go From Education To Qualification – The continuing evolution of an “education.”

How to Help Your Kids Build a Better BS Detector – Because literacy.

Leadership is Enabling – The important alternative to “empowerment.”

Teach Kids When They’re Ready – Some much needed perspective on the pressures we put on kids.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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