Why Change is Hard

I write a lot about the need for innovation and variety in education. It’s something I really believe in. However, I’m not totally insensitive to the difficulties faced by those who would like to create real change in their schools, districts, and states. There’s a lot of inertia in education at any level, and fighting it takes perseverance and leverage. Educational change can also be a challenge on a personal level, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

Imagine someone with a deep southern drawl, or a strong Boston accent, the sort of thing you have to grow up with. If you move away, as people point out (i.e. make fun of) your accent you will likely start to pick up a “General American” or “Midland” accent; what most of us think of as “no accent.” The more time you spend away from home, and the more schooling you have, the more likely you are to drift away from your original manner of speech. Spend a weekend at home with your family, however, and you’ll be pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd in no time (which, as many Bostonians will tell you, is a good way to get towed). It’s not just a mannerism, it’s a deeply ingrained pattern of speech. You talked that way when you were a kid, your parents talked that way, all your friends talked that way, and it just comes back naturally.

Teaching is similar. All teachers have gone through a substantial amount of schooling, and most of our schooling was by lecture. Unless we spent time in the most progressive of schools and avant garde of colleges, we ended up spending a lot of time with teachers talking at us en masse, and us taking notes or working problems. Lecture is how our teachers were taught themselves, and they’ve passed it on to us.

And because of that, it’s comfortable. To someone who has been lectured to for a dozen years and more, lecturing feels like teaching. Active engagement, directed discussion, contract evaluations, even laboratory setup, all those things take work and can feel strange. Lecturing (especially if you’re very good at it or very bad at it) is practically effortless compared to constantly watching ourselves and correcting our actions and words to fit into a new pattern. It’s not really that the methods themselves are that much more difficult for us; it’s the change. Changing to adopt a new mindset takes years of work.

Some of that inertia we have to overcome when we want to change education? Some of that is inside of us.

This is what makes a “community of practice” so vital. If you want to shed your old accent, you can’t do it while living at home and talking to your relatives. You can do it by moving out of the house and socializing with new groups of people. At times it will be uncomfortable and difficult. Teaching is the same way – you can’t give up an old mentality by surrounding yourself with people who still think and work that way. You know you want change, but the old ways are just so comfortable. We need people to kick us in the pants and remind us to put down the PowerPoint and start giving students time to really respond to our questions.

Think of it as grass-roots change. I would propose that it’s easier, even faster, to get most of the teachers in a school system on board than it is to attempt to change the system directly. Teachers don’t have to want to teach things your way, they just have to want some room for innovation, the chance to stretch their wings and be creative. Our practice is not about carving words in stone; our practice is giving people the tools to be intelligent. Each of us has something to add when it comes to that. Creating pockets of modern teachers, these communities of practice, is something we all need to spend time working toward, for our own benefit as well as for the students.

For those hoping to make a mark on future generations of teachers, I’ll leave you with a quote: “In every book of history, it is written how it’s done: if you want to change the world, you need only change the young.” If you teach with innovation and creativity, your childrens’ teachers will teach with creativity, and that’s a good thing.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on November 16, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’ve certainly hit on some key points here. One of the neat things is that your observations are actually backed up by some nifty neuroscience: http://www.strategy-business.com/media/file/sb43_06207.pdf

    The relevant part of the article is that inertia has a physiological basis – changing a long-established habit causes physical discomfort. (Or, as the authors put it, “Change is pain.”)

  2. Not a bad article in general. I wish they didn’t abuse the Quantum Zeno Effect; it makes me paranoid about the rest of their science when people do things like that. On the plus side, they have quite a few decent references at the end of the article.

    I’ll definitely agree with “change is pain,” especially given the lengths we’ll all go through to avoid it.

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