Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 1

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

We want – or we should want – to give our students safe experiences to deal with change, whether it is changing their approach, changing the way they perceive things, or changing themselves. Because if there is one thing we can predict they are going to have to be good at, it’s dealing with change. 

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” – John Wooden [source]

If you aren’t sure that you agree, think about the last time you were working with colleagues who have difficulty changing their approach, their perception, or themselves. When we think of  recent examples in our own work lives, our  shoulders stiffen and feelings of stress well up inside. You probably have a similar reaction. But then ask yourself: how often did our schooling focus on getting comfortable with change?

The message to students we have historically sent – and continue to send – is to “get it right the first time,” not because we don’t believe in teaching about change, but because the curriculum is a list of things to learn. It’s a checklist of content for a particular subject (multiplied by 6 or 7 to cover the traditional subject areas). This checklist approach to content crowds out a focus on skills, e.g. learning to deal with change, to grow from change, and to accept that change is constant. 

Buy in through choice

Students will get practice dealing with change if we build the need for change into our instruction. Instead of trying to be efficient, which tends to make us avoid student exploration, we might be well served to ease up a bit and give them time for discovery.

But they won’t just start doing this without our help. 

First, with our focus on speed, coverage, quantity, right answers, assessment, and rankings, we’ve trained students not to explore. Mistakes = bad, right answer = good. In perhaps one of the biggest educational ironies imaginable, what we might include in best practice might actually reduce student thinking. Imagine if that’s really the case.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” –Thomas Edison [source]

Second, we will have to work on school culture, not just content goals, to build a safe environment in which to explore. Exploration means making mistakes, which means freedom to make those mistakes, which comes with safety and trust.

And third, we’ll have to include in that culture a desire to persevere, to work through setbacks. Mistakes need to be motivating, not demotivating.

To do this, students must be engaged, which is often easiest if students have a real and significant choice in setting their own goals. We have unfortunately made choice difficult, what with our long list of adult-determined goals. Where is there room for students to learn to set their own goals, relevant to their own drive?

We clearly have work to do. 

Some thoughts on what that might look like in the next blog …

About Paul Magnuson

Several years ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.
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