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Openness and Empathy: Essential Ingredients for Personalized Learning and School Change (Part I)

School change and innovation, including personalized learning, can throw everyone into the deep end at first. It’s disorienting. It’s also a must, because all progress takes place outside our comfort zone. Students, administrators, teachers, board members and parents will feel the personal effects of losing and gaining in the process.

I come to this topic as a bit of an ‘Everyman’ because I have closely touched or been in each of these roles through significant change in high-performing schools. From personal experience I know that, on any given day, school innovation can feel like the highest calling in education or like high drama in a gong show where people feel like they are drowning in change.

I believe that if we don’t leave room for the personal in our shift to personalized learning, things can go horribly wrong. This exploration is an attempt to bring our personal stories to the surface so we can breathe a bit easier and understand each other better while school change is underway.

As participants in school innovation, we can rise to the challenge most maturely when we open ourselves to two things:

  • honesty about our reactions to ‘everything new’, and

  • empathy for others and ourselves in the same change-story.

When we allow the human side of change to surface, something important happens. Our school’s change-story can turn from a lonely slog through doubt and dissonance to a daring plunge into certainty and anticipation alongside others who understand.

Your school’s move toward innovation will be ground-shifting, no matter how well-conceived or well-implemented your plan. Some instability and tidal fears can persist until each partner in the process has their own ‘breakthrough’. That’s the moment when we see some new possibility for students that we hadn’t seen before. The epiphany may come through our own research and learning as professionals or parents, or when a certain student’s learning is unleashed in unprecedented ways before our eyes because of a new approach.

It may also come when we go through enough institutional conflict and dissonance over the change process that we finally gain our own reasons to believe: arriving at the Change Necessity ourselves.

Regardless of how it happens, once we catch the vision, we simply can’t ‘unsee’ or abandon the need for change. We witness new solutions and achievements that are just too good for our children and our world to miss out on, and we don’t want to stall or derail them. Heaven knows we don’t need to keep wasting kids’ time.

However, school change can disrupt our long-held confidence about how we get ahead in the world through education. It’s a troubling situation, and we have to ask:

Is innovation worth it? Are we just running the same “Race to Nowhere” on a different track? Or is there something about innovation this time that’s not only worth the pain, but that’s essential and beneficial?

The answers to these questions will bring out many worthwhile opinions. When we see each partner and hear each voice, we create a satisfying path into the future together.

Here’s the thing. Deep inside, educators and many, many parents with a front row seat to massive change in every facet of society and industry, understand there is no turning back. There’s something inevitable and very, very exciting about the way change is unfolding this time. The future will be different than the past, and we must be responsible about taking it on, even if that changes everything. I’m sorry and thrilled to say that school will simply never be the same as we knew it when we were growing up.

What a task and what a daring challenge this is for all of us. Let’s not judge each other or suggest that the consequences should be easy or obvious for any party involved. But, let’s also not retreat. Here’s why:

School leaders are doing their research and seeing the signs of inevitable change. They see a widening gap between the education we defend and the education kids need for a disrupted future.

  • They see U.S. representatives unable to formulate intelligent accountability questions for Mark Zuckerberg in congressional hearings. Though well-educated, they can’t bridge the knowledge gap.

  • They watch elite universities and respected professionals offer open source courses, sharing their once protected knowledge with the waiting world through technology.

  • They see the deconstruction of so many accepted measures and approaches to success and a world that is breaking barriers and boundaries and definitions of things we thought we understood.

  • They see the skills and dispositions and ways of thinking and communicating and working together that this new world will demand. (The 21st Century Learning Litany)

And, they just know that they will commit educational malpractice if they pretend that the standard curriculum and the standard approach will suffice for the students they serve.

So they are acting, in good faith, to make sure that our kids can do some critical things that are long-overdue and full of daring possibilities:

  1. Learn and grow with their whole being instead of playing an increasingly irrelevant learning game called ‘school’

  2. Use their full capacity to learn foundational content

  3. Have the opportunity to explore interests through deep intellectual inquiry

  4. Have agency (voice and choice) in the process

  5. Meet and exceed standards through learning progressions on their own timelines.

These are huge shifts. The scary thing is that administrators and board members who lead toward this reality have never led or learned in this territory before. Their approaches to implementation can take a compelling ‘Why’ and turn it into a dreadful and disconnected series of ‘Hows’ and ‘Whats’ if they, and we, are not careful. But they can also align these factors in stunning ways that bring the possibilities together. So it takes a lot of finesse to pull this off, and a lot of openness and empathy from all of us along the way so that the trust required from every partner is strengthened not stifled.

We won’t get to a better place by arriving alone. Part II of this blog series explores how each community member is uniquely affected by the innovation process, so we can find ourselves in the change-story and maybe understand our neighbor’s perspective, too.

About the Author:

Mona Stuart is a former English teacher, dorm head, communications director, admissions director and is a current educational consultant. As a seasoned educator who has lived on four continents, she understands the story of schools, transition and change from both the personal and institutional perspective. One of her greatest joys was valuing, hearing and helping parents, teachers and colleagues make sense of complex educational opportunities and approaches in ways that connected and made sense. She has three grown children and lives with her husband in Ethiopia.

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