One of the great misconceptions we often carry throughout our lives is that our perceptions of ourselves and the world are basically accurate and true, that they reflect some stable, ultimate reality. This misconception leads to tremendous suffering, both globally and in our personal life situations.
—Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
As our school prepared for construction and renovation, staff members started piling old and no-longer-necessary resources into the hallway. Colleagues could snag them if they found a purpose for them; otherwise they ended up in the dumpster.
When I saw my lunchroom stop-and-go light on top of a podium, I paused. We cannot get rid of this, I thought. I just purchased it a couple of years ago, to help kids monitor their volume in the cafeteria.
As I picked it up and fiddled with the wires in the back, making sure the hardware was still in working order, one of my teachers spotted me in the hallway. “Um, we are throwing that out, right?”
I paused, not sure what to say. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “it did not seem effective when we used it. I remember some kids would yell just to get the light to turn red.”
I laughed as I shared that same memory. Considering his argument, I set the stop-and-go light back on the old podium, conceding it to its eventual home in a landfill.
Why do we perpetuate outdated resources and practices when they have reached their expiration date? I have learned that, quite simply, we still hold on to the belief that they work. And to let go of that belief and shift to a new way of thinking involves admitting that this resource or practice may have never been effective, at least as much as we initially thought. We become attached to the object or action as if it were a part of who we are, instead of seeing it for what it is: ephemeral and imperfect.
This conundrum exists in all professions. For example, doctors continued to operate on a certain type of ulcer even after it was proved that it could be cured with a simple dose of antibiotic. In fact, it took 20 years for this safer and more effective practice to become commonplace in medicine.
Researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have referred to this resistance as “immunity to change.” In their book of the same title, they acknowledge that many of the challenges we face today are not simple. (This applies particularly to literacy practices; it is not often clear what the “right” solution is when developing readers and writers.) So instead of engaging in complex problem solving, they found, people hold tight to their current belief systems to feel safe.
Fortunately, the researchers offer a process for engaging ourselves and faculty members in self-reflection and renewal. These steps help us address our “immunity to change” in a way that is logical and preserves people’s dignity (see: ego).
- Identify Your Improvement Goal
- List Behaviors Contrary to Goal
- Uncover Competing Commitments
- Uncover the Big Assumption
- Run an Experiment to Test Big Assumption
Here is my lunchroom stoplight challenge as an example.
- Improvement Goal: Reduce noise in the cafeteria so lunch is more peaceful.
- A Contrary Behavior: Signal to students when they are being too loud with a red light.
- A Competing Commitment: We are not teaching students to self-monitor their volume.
- A Big Assumption: People tend to change when the conditions are more positive than negative.
- An Experiment: Let’s spend the first week of school guiding students to self-monitor the volume of their voices and recognizing their efforts and successes.
How might this apply to a questionable literacy practice? Let’s consider guided reading. On its face, guided reading makes sense: group students around a common need they have, such as a strategy or a skill, using one text. However, there are issues with this approach:
- What are the rest of the students doing when the teacher is working with two or three kids?
- If this strategy or skill is beneficial to these couple of kids, is it also relevant to the rest of the class? In other words, why not engage everyone in this lesson?
- How do these students in the guided reading group feel about being pulled for support?
- Related, am I depriving my guided reading group of learning from and with their peers?
These questions lead to a larger and more complex challenge of meeting the needs of all readers and writers and creating a more equitable classroom. So let’s begin there as we reconsider our belief about guided reading.
- Improvement Goal: All students receive relevant and responsive literacy instruction.
- A Contrary Behavior: When more time is devoted to a few students, the rest of the class may miss out on effective instruction as well as smart ideas from the kids being pulled.
- A Competing Commitment: All of our students deserve our attention regardless of current capacity.
- A Big Assumption: I can leverage the power of the whole group and guide the construction of meaning of what we read.
- An Experiment: For the next week, I will hit Pause on guided reading groups and instead try shared reading to teach the skills and strategies that everyone can benefit from.
This experiment could resemble a small action research project, something simple enough to try that would also yield data about the experience. Doing this as a team or schoolwide might be even more powerful; the social aspect could create healthy accountability through collegial discussion.
Would this work? Hard to say unless we try it. Even if the results suggest that we might want to drop an outdated practice, it may not lead to change. People tell themselves stories that they want to believe, if the alternative is more difficult to address. Yet these narratives can be disrupted over time and with many opportunities to try to apply new ways of teaching and learning. As leaders, we are responsible for creating these conditions for renewal.