It’s Monday morning and my resolution to meet the #saskedchat blogging challenge this summer slipped by. Meditating on the topic, I perused my three common journals covering the last twenty years. I fell into the practice during a year of grad studies in the mid 90’s and much of my understanding of change comes from that period. Much of my thinking on change at that time focused on the barriers to innovation as I learned to shift in two ways: first, from instruction and assessment of content to skills and attitudes; and second, breaking free of quantitative assessments in favour of qualitative ones. Twenty-five years on, public education seems to still be engaged in this shift.
My meditations on change still seem to be informed by the forty year old work of Stenhouse (1976). He categorized seven barriers: climate, resource gaps, skills, materials, communication, culture, and facility (Which I defined as all those resources of power, authority, and influence called on to bring about change. Not sure what I was thinking.) I still relate to this as I work through personal and systemic changes in assessment and evaluation. I’m also conscious of the internal resistances to change that are often less obvious than the external ones.
There is a personally influential scene in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). Bethune has ended his journey in China working with the Communist Red Army in its war with Imperial Japan. Seemingly secure in his radical politics and social views, a crisis in his MASH unit forces him to be critically reflective about his own assumptions. He had a practically trained Chinese colleague who he refused to accept as an equal, because the man had no formal credentials. Realizing his error, Bethune publicly criticizes himself to his team. He confesses to them that while he has been fighting the fascists, he has failed to fight the fascist within. The phrase has always stuck with me. I suppose it also left me with a healthier respect for the efficacy of lived experience.
Stenhouse pointed out that our identity as teachers constrains innovation. We identify ourselves as learned and skilled in teaching. This is an important source of our self respect. Innovations deskill us and leave us with a burden of incompetence. The emotional impacts of change are not made easier by the reality that the changes we are reflecting on are extreme problems. We feel uncertainty about the source of the problem, the solution to the problem, and indeed, our ultimate goal. All change is caught up in the question, what is the purpose of public education? An inclusive answer becomes so broad that we defeat ourselves. Goals compete, we end up prioritizing, and securing post-secondary education trumps everything else. It is difficult to accept personally directed and paced growth as a goal for education. Bethune’s inner fascist seeking credentials again.
In the last few years I seem to have overcome my personal barrier to communicating with parents informally. Social media has provided me with the missing tools. Last year I messaged through multiple platforms: simple texts, Facebook, Remind, Seesaw, and ClassDojo. Beyond the obvious scheduling updates, I have been sharing moments of learning and the daily lived experience of students as individuals. It’s an uneven process. Some families are less accessible than others. For me it seems a revolution in assessment, but I’m aware that the term reports with their grades (call them what you will) still overshadow. What goes home three times each year in quantitative summary remains more significant than the qualitative story I’m trying to convey daily. Outcomes and indicators are fully entrenched in my elementary classroom, but qualitative assessment is very much a work in progress.
To return to Stenhouse’s observation that innovation deskills us as teachers. It’s important to remember that we continually deskill our students in the classroom. Despite our intention to prepare learners for each new step, to let their learning be an evolution, we generally keep them unballanced. You think you have mastered math? Not so! You are still ignorant, here is something new for you! We try to develop growth mindsets. Fortunately, I think we can agree young children are hardwired with growth mindsets. Unfortunately, we discourage that as they age by emphasizing failure as catastrophic. We are all champions, here’s your participation ribbon to prove it. However, these champions here get first place ribbons… please acknowledge their achievement. I digress. The point I intended to end with was our need as teachers to counter the discouraging barrier of deskilling with our own growth mindsets. I think we can find a way through all the other barriers to change too.
That may sound more optimistic than it should. I remarked that change is part of the extreme problem of educating young people. Public education is only one part of that. My social networks are full of catch phrases. Game changing is a popular one. Take a common game you know and think of the ways you could change it. Some are trivial, others significant. I read recently that if you want to really change a game, change the goal. The primary objective of most games is to win. What is your inner fascist whispering as you confront, or contemplate change?