Educators’ Love Affair with Change

I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed. George Carlin, comedian [i]

The quip echoes a disappointed reformer eager to improve public schools and classrooms but coming up with zilch. The one-liner suggests that change and its flip side, stability, are inextricably tied together. Just as a shadow cannot exist without light, change and stability cannot be separated from one another in organizations. Constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang, helps explain why so often well-intentioned leaders often fall on their faces after adopted policies aimed at altering what happens daily in the nation’s classrooms end up unimplemented. Smart, energetic decision-makers frequently miss the importance of seeing both continuity and change at work in classrooms, schools, and districts. Like George Carlin, they insert a dollar when they adopt policies and are disappointed when they see little change.

The embrace of change (one can substitute “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., high-fashion and automobiles get re-worked annually, re-inventing one’s self is common, moving from one place to another is a national habit, standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable). Change is equated with progress toward material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.” [ii]

Improving education as a worthy goal in of itself has fueled myriad reform efforts over the past century. Reformers from the political left and right—each seeking different goals for U.S. schools–have assumed that public school officials and practitioners often oppose designed changes to keep things as they are. That assumption is in error.[iii]

The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.

In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance).

No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.

_____________________________________________________________

[i]“Funny Comedian Quotes and Videos” at: http://funnycomedianquotes.com/funny-quotes-and-jokes-about-change.html Retrieved March 10, 2015.

 

[ii] Robert Nisbet, The History of the Idea of Progress (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995); Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).

 

[iii] For a recent and typical example of this genre of critique see Jeff Livingston, “3Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education,” U.S. News and Report, February 5, 2013.

 

15 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

15 responses to “Educators’ Love Affair with Change

  1. Hi Larry

    Great post. The theme of change, with no change echoes some of my MA dissertation from 2010 [1]. I have been disappointed by the changes made to our education systems, at huge expense, with little evidence of success [2] – in fact, your Oversold and Underused [3] that I came across in 2008 is one of my ‘critical moments’. The theme of a lack of evidence of efficacy was recently echoed by the editor of the British Journal of Education Technology (@bjeteditor) at a Learning Technology meeting last week: #sigclans

    Given your suggestion that policymakers don’t understand how to reform, perhaps the Learning Technology industry needs to take a more explicit role in such reform?

    [1] http://dbcallaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/education-should-be-learner-led.html
    [2] http://dbcallaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/what-evidence-is-there-suggesting-ict.html
    [3] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Oversold-Underused-Computers-Larry-Cuban/dp/0674011090

    https://twitter.com/bjeteditor
    https://twitter.com/hashtag/sigclans

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, David, and the links also. Yes, the point is that the tech industry, surely the large players, have to be more aware of past efforts to reform.

  2. JoeN

    Insightful and accurate as ever Larry. I would even argue that most policymakers in this field are motivated more by the attractions and challenges of “change” than of education.

    And something I often use in presentations just to underscore your point about policymakers mistakenly grafting practices borrowed from business organisations onto schools.

    Until the much lauded National College for Teaching and Leadership website in the UK was scrapped and relaunched last year, the most popular, most read resource on the entire website was in the Leadership Essentials section and was called Leadership Overview. This was the first paragraph from it.

    “All organisations need good leadership. Well-led organisations tend to be more productive, competitive and responsive to change. Their employees have a greater idea of where they are heading and why, and are therefore more engaged and motivated. Last, but not least, organisations that excel at developing leaders tend to achieve higher long-term profitability.”

    It had been cut and pasted straight from a Harvard Business Journal and no one had even stopped to question the word “profitability.” And the NCTL was in charge of training everyone seeking to become a head teacher in the UK state sector.

    • larrycuban

      No one questioned the word “profitability,”–now that, Joe, was a surprise in your comment. Thanks for passing on the connection to UK.

  3. Gary Ravani

    The fashion and automobile industries are dependent on change, or rather “planned obsolescence,” because they are driven by commercial values. You are right that these values, as well as other business oriented strategies like the fetish with metrics, are disastrously misplaced when applied to education. This article reminded me of an experience years ago with the author of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” which from the title you can ascertain advocated for wholesale, or in today’s lingo “disruptive,” change in the schools.Then about a decade later he wrote “Teaching as a Conserving Activity,” advocating (basically) the “dynamic conservatism” you discuss. The author asserted he had two reasons for writing the second book: 1) for an author, renouncing one’s previous book’s premise was good way to sell the new book (a joke i presume); and, 2) over the course of a number of years he had gained some perspective and wisdom. Happens to the best of us.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Great conclusion: “Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.”

  5. GE2L2R

    As I read through your post, and your observation that “constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang”, two different analogies occurred to me.

    The first was that this interplay describes the process of evolution. It would seem that educational reformers seek a (r)evolution in our schools and are frustrated by the slow pace of evolution. Whether in biological or educational systems, it is that dynamic tension between the constancy and change that provides the balance necessary for meaningful change to occur.

    The second was the balance between the sail and keel of a sail boat. Either without the other, and the necessary tension between them, is doomed to failure. If one were to attempt to construct a boat that was to include but one of these structures, unaware of the role of the other, the results would be myopic and the boat’s progress would eventually be off-course.

    Such is the nature of change and constancy within educational systems.

    Thanks for providing an intriguing perspective of the necessity of the yinging and yanging that is missing from the current discussion of the “nature” of educational reform.

  6. Pingback: Innovamos para aliviar la enseñanza | co.labora.red

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