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

Openness and empathy are the secret ingredients of positive change. The moment we go from invisible to visible in the change process is the moment we come out of the shadows to participate more fully in the story. As long as we feel shamed or excluded because of either our enthusiasm or resistance to change, we can’t bring something better into being. The same goes for our colleagues and others when we make their responses seem invalid.

Find yourself and others in the change-story I’m about to tell. Listen for your voices, your perspectives. You belong in the middle of this moment for your school, and others need you to show up. Do you understand the unique role you play, the impact you have, the opportunity you share to improve education for this generation? Listen in.

Generally, the shift from traditional measures of knowing to more innovative learning approaches can trigger anxiety, comparison and control for all involved. It can spawn questions about the validity and fairness of new assessments; fear about the impact of new practice on a student’s GPA; panic about our graduates’ competitive admission to and preparation for top universities. It raises questions about initiative fatigue and teacher morale. We worry that content knowledge will be lost or erased -- wiping out the essentials that any ‘learned person’ should master. We fear that untested strategies will be a threat to the winning reputation of the school we love; not to mention to our high-performing children who we diligently skilled and drilled in numbers and letters before they sunk to become ‘play-based learners’.

The backdrop to these concerns is the ever-present fear that the pendulum is simply swinging again, from one faddish extreme to another. Families fear that when they get caught in the downswing, their children will be a part of the generation that loses out.

When you add the significant investment and disruption required to support change through updated infrastructure, curriculum, and training, it soon can feel overwhelming and costly -- for everyone.

At face value, innovative education can also feel punishing for those who have achieved celebrated results in traditional school settings. I say ‘at face value’ because there is a deeper value to innovation that can be an accelerant for all kinds of students, including high achievers. However, innovation makes many parents feel like they are losing ground and losing touch with the accomplishments they have been able to map and achieve with a kind of qualified certainty. That loss can scare us, deeply. Protectionism and control kick in.

Parents and older students can fall into a panic state, defending approaches that have always worked for them. In fact, students who have cracked the code for success under the current system can be the biggest resisters.

Other students and teachers, who have ideas and capacity that exceed ‘the school of the now’ cannot wait for us to take the lid off and let them run in ‘the school of the future’. They’ve been trapped for a long time in the status quo, and they want to get out and go beyond. They relish the courage and action of the innovators.

To find out what kids are longing to know and be able to do, we must tap into, hear, consider, and respect the student perspective. Make room at the table to hear students, and your changes will make a lot more sense.

The world is being turned upside down and we, as parents, must make decisions whose outcomes for children are uncertain. We want data and fool-proof directions, but pioneers can’t offer us roadmaps. Those must be drawn as we go.

The temptation is to outright resist, or stop the train, or to at least slow it down until our child’s aspirations are secured within the current well-mapped system. ‘After that, by all means, you educators innovate to your hearts’ content. But not yet. Just wait ‘til my kid graduates.’

In many cases, for educators, administrators and parents alike, the dawn of change makes us fixate on the things we understand. We double-down on areas of competence, telling ourselves these are precursors to effective change. By doing so, we avoid the necessary things we fear, because those things make us feel like beginners: something we’re not. It’s procrastination masquerading as other priorities that align with our competence.

If we ensure that high student performance is not lost in the pursuit of innovation and personalization in schools, we’ll be on the right track. When we bridge the gap between proven results and innovative practice, we set minds at ease over both the goal and the impact of change. This is one reason why the ‘Highly-Effective and Learning-Progressive’ model introduced in the book Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work: Student Agency Through the Four Critical Questions is so important to a discussion like this.

In the midst of all this, there are the believers: energetic, positive parents and teachers and administrators who are early adopters and pioneers, risk-takers, visionaries and those who simply see the signs and trust the way forward.

The believers jump in. They sign themselves and their own kids up for pilot projects and new options and trial courses. They give all children more benefits right away, both by their outlook and by their engagement. Sure, they get covered with more than their share of experimental dust and debris from the trial and error, but they give the rest of us courage to dare. We calculate; they create the opportunity for us and our kids, and they ensure the benefits for all. Bless them. They don’t always get the credit. They are disruptors, and they mess up our kingdom that was running so beautifully before their big ideas and boldness got in the way. They are rock stars and villains. Lauded and blamed. And, underneath, they are just trying to follow their conscience and their conviction about what will be best for kids and to get on with it. Again, Bless them. We think our caution and calculation would lead to better results sometimes, and they might; but we wouldn’t have any momentum without them.

Even if some teachers are wildly convinced that change is needed to prepare students for a disruptive future, it’s good to remember that school innovation can be concerning for many educators. It’s challenging and new. Educators want to grow and stretch and fulfill their professional best during changing times. But they don’t want to let students, parents or themselves down.

As a former hard-grading, high-standards, ‘I don’t give easy A’s English teacher’, I get this. I know that teachers have carefully built their qualifications, success and confidence on traditional measures and approaches that have been successful. Often, they have risen in the teaching profession while being hugely independent, maybe even individualistic, and this gives them center stage to distinguish themselves in a small but very influential and affirming universe with students. Student success in this approach is mutual, and something parents celebrate and protect as credit to a single teacher. We all remember our favorite, gifted teachers who helped us thrive within this system. It’s a very altruistic kind of success, not something for which teachers want to be faulted or, worse yet, extinguished.

But, progressive education disrupts this approach and makes us learners again. It can feel like a bitter compromise as we move to something more collective and co-created with others. Teaching becomes a shared profession: sharing resources, time, results, learning spaces, interventions, even learners. While research shows that these changes lift student and educator performance, they can rob teachers of control over the ‘ordinary magic’ they are used to creating in their self-contained classrooms around the world.

Forced to move from ‘knowing to applying knowledge’ in new areas, from autonomy to collaboration, and from mimeographs to artificial intelligence in the span of a single career; even seasoned and celebrated professionals can feel like rookies again. And, they face a certain kind of grief. We all face a certain kind of grief. It can be a powerful but hidden driver for our resistance, unless we feel it for what it is.

Yet, slowly, convincingly, the beauty of a more collaborative and innovative professional life can explode for reluctant teachers, too, into something wonderful for them and for students. As educators we see students breaking out of molds and limits and barriers and rules we have always placed on them. We see students in a personalized setting achieve more than we imagined possible or ever assessed or expected in our standard practice. While sometimes hard to admit, it can be downright exhilarating. We think, in our weaker moments, ‘Don’t tell my administrator, but this is incredible! In all my years, I’ve never seen this before.’

Still, the rest of us need to understand that educators are vulnerable to the scrutiny and skepticism of parents in times of change. They truly empathize with the challenging questions that parents and students pose about the viability and rationale for ‘The Change.’ Why? Because they simply care -- a lot. And, now, they are on the front lines, creating experimental programs they’ve never implemented before. And, they must make them shine, so the whole thing turns into a success story for their aspiring ‘innovative’ school. Everyone’s depending on them to provide the proof we all need to believe in change, and that’s a big burden to bear.

Because of this, I believe that as parents we should not and cannot depend primarily on classroom teachers to build our confidence around school change. And we cannot point to teachers’ thoughtful concerns about a new program as proof that the changes are problematic or unfit for our school to adopt. Teachers are allowed to doubt and wonder and process difficulties even when changes are good. If a school has any honest conviction, inspiring implementation and widespread adoption of personalized learning and innovation at the teacher level, consider it a vote of confidence. Truly. But it’s not fair to make the average teacher the proving ground for our parental doubts.

When a school adopts a personalized learning approach, it’s one of those moments where we, as well-educated parents, need to put our own education and/or experience to good use. Most of us who have been hiring this generation have the seen the ever-increasing gap between the demands of today’s world and workplace and the graduates that even highly esteemed universities are producing. We know students need to be prepared for a changing landscape, the impact of technology and data on systems, the ability to do things with what they know. We should be demanding that our students have relevant, inspiring and self-directed experiences in school that make them think beyond standardized test results, honors and grades. We need to research the current trends and the future of education. The case is out there, and the solutions are compelling, especially when a new approach to learning is both Highly Effective (results) and Learning Progressive (approach). To understand the necessary tension between maintaining high learning results while increasing student agency, include this resource when you dig further. Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work: Student Agency Through the Four Critical Questions

Bottom line: It’s not the time for us to sit back, expecting school-based educators alone to convince us that students need something new at this moment in history. If schools are designed to equip students to effectively participate in and serve society’s needs, how is it possible (or even ethical) that the whole world can change, but schools shouldn’t or won’t?

Staying-power in any change comes when we find reasons from within. Yet we often insist that others convince us. And then we spook each other out of valid or compelling reasons, over and over again. The hardest part for leaders and communicators is when we suggest that no one ever told us about the change in the first place. Or didn’t do a good enough job of communicating it– often after months or years of incremental or even radical initiatives took place all around us that only hibernators could miss.

Let’s face it, we often don’t pay attention or want to hear. Further, we don’t want to believe that change is knocking at the door until it’s pounding in our own hearts and minds.

Is it possible to move from denial or reluctance to facing the change before us with anticipation and eagerness? Part III tells the rest of the story and looks at leading through fear to trust.

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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