Changing the 4Rs in Education means jumping hurdles

Humans don’t like change. It takes us time to adapt to any situation and once we’re comfortable, any change is the threat to our comfort and safety. Any change has to jump the multiple hurdles such as fear, comfort, prejudice, assumptions, new understandings, and existing habits. In schools, change challenges teachers the most and each person has a uniquely variation of these hurdles.

Parents generally go for any education that keeps their children happy and keen. Most parents are optimistic about progress and change (we surveyed them) for a number of reasons but primarily because the majority of children seem less and less inspired when returning home as they go through the years at school. This week, a parent said to me during enrolment “Anything that might invigorate my teenager’s drive to learn again is worth trying.”

The lack of experience and habits makes children more than comfortable to adapt to new ideas and approaches, in fact, most find change exciting. Any teacher starting a lesson with “today we’re going to do something really different” is seen as a positive by everyone in the room, but only because the teacher’s comfort comes from having made the decision and their status as leader.

Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on the slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?  – Principal’s Publication, 1815

Albeit popular, this quote is not true (Thanks to @JennBinis for pointing this out) but its popularity online reflects the regular experience in schools of teachers struggling to adapt to change … a lot more than the students.

Teachers in heavily routined schools come to rely on those routines for survival and it is change to their routines (not introduction of tech) that really presents as a personal threat until those changes are fully understood and bolted to the floor.

The 4 R’s

My school was first in New Zealand to introduce compulsory BYOD but as most teachers only substituted the paper for a screen, this didn’t significantly challenge teachers in:

  1. their role and responsibilities in the classroom;
  2. the responsibilities of the students;
  3. The hierarchical relationship where teacher is master
  4. the time, place, and pace of lessons
  5. the shape of assessment.

It’s when progress challenges the four R’s (Roles, Responsibilities, Relationships, and Routines) that people really start to get uncomfortable. It’s hard to imagine any future where these 4 R’s have changed and people can fight this type of progress. Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s apparently probable that Ford didn’t actually say these exact words but the sentiment runs parallel to his writings and it’s popular because people recognise it as natural human behaviour. People wanted faster horses because it meant not changing their role, routines and relationship with travel.

Leading a 4R change.

As a progressive educator tasked with leading the dismantling of the industrial high school model in my school, I am learning how to support 140 teachers who react to significant routine change in 3 ways: excitement; confusion; and fear. The teachers in my school divide up equally into these 3 groups. As we look at more and more examples of our planned future as a school, the confused and fearful are starting to move into the excited group. But I continue to learn and in the past week have put much effort into talking to the fearful who are either worried or in a small number of cases angry at the proposals.

I want to present myself to the worried and angry as someone who is here to learn from them how we can better explain the changes, what doesn’t work for them, and find those all important points we agree on as common ground to working out a way forward. Most of the concern raised by our current change have come down to communication errors. Each time we find the successful way to explain practicalities of what one of the 4 R’s will look like, fear dissipates a little. But it’s finding a way of jumping each teacher’s unique set of hurdles that is the challenge for me.

It is not only the role of being a teacher but also the role of school in society that is being questioned. For example,  if schools do not continue with their existing routines, will they achieve the same goal of university entrance (be it with only the minority the school system is truly designed for), while apparently achieving new objectives pushed for by progressives like me?

For now, I will continue to visit and support individual teachers in their own classroom and hope we can share our hurdles and find common ground to build on. Although many parents and students see the positives, it’s teachers’ who have to change their 4 Rs and it’s this that makes progressing education a matter of understanding human nature in the context of any kind of change.