The Heroism of Incremental Change (Part 2)

In a recent  podcast, economist Ed Glaeser and journalist Stephen Dubner were discussing “big bang” solutions, big leaders who make dramatic changes, and the folly of looking for such “solutions” and leaders. Here is their exchange on civil rights between the 1940s and 1980s.

DUBNER: So civil-rights reform strikes me as one where, incrementally, there have been massive improvements, and yet it seems as though the appetite for an overnight  solution to every civil-rights issue is kind of expected. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s massive hue and cry — even though, overall, the trend has been moving in the right direction. You see that as well, or do you think I’m wrong on that?

GLAESER: No, no I agree totally with that. And it required people who — the NAACP for example, which worked for decades before the Civil Rights Act, right, to move the ball forward. Often in, you know, ways that were important, but seem today quite modest. I mean fighting up to the Supreme Court. Fighting the attempts to zone by race, for example, which it did in the teens. Right? You know, American segregation would’ve been even worse if cities could explicitly zoned by, by race, but they couldn’t. Fighting restrictive covenants as it did in the 40s. Fighting segregation in American schools as it did in the 50s. Decade by decade, increment by increment. And once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, we lose that, we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.

In short, important changes in our individual lives and our society simply don’t happen out of the blue. Small changes aimed toward a larger goal accumulate and make a huge difference when considering a longer time frame. And that is the case with schools and individual teachers.

Schools as Institutions

The thirteen years that every child in the U.S. goes to tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. For voters to tax themselves including those who had no children in order to support schooling meant that larger goals were at stake beyond literacy. The connection between a public education and a working democracy were explicit in the minds of political leaders in the  early 19th century.Building an institutional framework for public schools took well over 150 years. But it was built.

Early 19th century public schools were part-time and scattered across the largely rural U.S.  Those children who attended went for a few years to one-room schools–racially segregated by law–where teachers taught lessons to 6 year-olds and youth altogether over the course of the few months they were open.

As cities grew, innovative age-graded schools, an import from Prussia in the 1840s, slowly replaced one-room schools. The “grammar school,” a building housing grades one through eight, became the norm. By the late-19th century, high schools catering to the academically inclined began to appear throughout urban America. At that time, one out of 10 teenagers went to a high school.

By the early 20th century,another innovation, the junior high school arose and elementary schools became grades 1-6, as the  7-9 organizational innovation spread across the U.S. Once academic high schools slowly became comprehensive ones offering multiple curricula for those who sought jobs after graduation and those who went to college. By 1950s, kindergartens–a late-19th century experiment added to public schools–had become widespread enough for school districts to become K-12 organizations.

By the 1970s, pre-kindergartens were appearing in public schools and tax-supported community colleges open to high school graduates now made public schools pre-K through community colleges a publicly financed institution. That steady process of incremental organizational changes has not stopped. It continues now.

Incremental changes added up over nearly two centuries to become the existing public school system. Surely, its incremental growth then and now has become a target for critics at every stage of of its steady growth, with critics proposing innovations at every phase of its expansion. And in the early 21st century, a proliferation of options at every level of schooling exist including alternative schools, magnets, and charters. There were no “big bang” changes then or now.

So tax-supported public schools didn’t happen out of the blue. They were built slowly and steadily into a vital institution by those who saw the essential linkages between schooling and democratic life. That “heroism of incremental change” occurred in public schools over time. As it has for classroom teachers.

Classroom Teachers

Listen to Kim Hughey, a 15 year veteran math teacher at a central Texas high school, recall an incremental change she made in her teaching a few years ago.

During our inservice meetings before school, we had a great speaker who was not only humorous, but was full of helpful advice that could be applied to any classroom.  One of the things I took away from her presentation was a discipline technique that is simple and effective with any age of student.

Over the years, I’ve learned it is best to avoid direct confrontation with teenagers and to not put them in a position where they have to defend themselves in front of their peers.  Although I do my best to avoid this type of nasty situation, there are times when for one reason or another, I find myself having to confront unwanted behavior in my classroom.

The technique the speaker presented is simply to avoid conflict by addressing the behavior and not the student.  She demonstrated several situations and did a great job by using dramatic pauses as she addressed the evil deed doer.

So this week when I saw headphones in Johnny’s ears, I didn’t say a word to Johnny.  I simply gazed out into the classroom and said, without looking at anyone in particular, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have earbuds in your ears, I am going to need you to take them out at this time”.  The entire class looked around trying to figure out who had the earphones and the guilty person sheepishly took them out while I continued teaching.

When charming little Ashley had her cell phone underneath her back pack and was busy texting, I stopped my lesson and calmly said, “If you (dramatic pause) currently have your cell phone out, I am going to need you to put that away”.  Again, instant compliance and I don’t think anyone other than the offender had a clue who it was that had their cell phone out.

In one class after lunch, I looked out and saw several heads on the desk, so you guessed it, I simply said “If you currently have your head down on your desk, I’m going to need you to lift it up right now.”  Every single person complied without a single argument.

I literally used this technique every day  last week without a single problem.  The flow of the lesson was not interrupted by someone trying to defend themselves by saying “I’m just checking my phone to see what time it is or “my earbuds are in, but my music is off”.  There was no need to defend themselves because I never pointed them out in front of the class. 

Incremental changes like the one Hughey made are the meat-and-potatoes of teaching. The small but significant change she made in addressing a common management issue in lessons–noting behavior rather than the individual–was a big deal for her. The heart of teaching and learning is having a firm, caring relationship with a class and individual students. The small change she made–an innovation for her–strengthened that relationship.

From changes in content, how to approach different skills, room arrangement, trying out a new piece of software, letting students make key decisions on content and projects—I could go on and on with examples from so many teachers including instances from my years in the classroom but I won’t. Making bite-sized changes, trying them out to see how they fit and then shedding them or incorporating them into one’s repertoire is what teachers have done for decades and continue to do now.

Nothing dramatic. No headlines accompany such changes. But over time these small changes add up to who a teacher is and what she does. And what students learn.

Like primary care physicians, classroom teachers practice the “heroism of incremental change.”


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3 responses to “The Heroism of Incremental Change (Part 2)

  1. jeffreybowen

    Terrific and insightful! Of course, I would react this way because I too am an incrementalist! I think John Goodlad’s critical view of unchanging public school classrooms is tempered by your explanations. Also, you have gotten at why radical or dramatic innovations die out. People tend to resist change. It is scary. And as pointed out so well in the book LEGISLATED LEARNING, mandating change just doesn’t work very well. We are such stubborn beings!

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