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Monday / May 29

Walking the Talk: Them’s the Brakes

The school I teach in has three changes on the horizon: a change to the schedule, an increase in interdisciplinary offerings, and a heightened attention to Problem-Based Learning (PBL) strategies.

  • The schedule change has been pending for two years. The proposed change is actually incremental but does solve a few nagging problems, among them some students not having a lunch period and conflicts to some students’ schedules such that they miss one or two classes every cycle to attend a lab.
  • Nearly everyone agrees that interdisciplinary classes are more engaging to students and to teachers. These would be electives for juniors and seniors and some logistics need to be worked out to teachers’ schedules.
  • PBL, too, seems worthy of serious consideration as an engagement strategy. Most of our PD this year has related to PBL. No one is being asked to adopt PBL as a sole strategy. We are being asked to experiment with it where we can.

None of the changes are, to my mind, radical. Nor are they overwhelming in the aggregate. I have seen schools change far more far faster. And no one is arguing flat out against the merits of any of these changes, the research they are based on, or the good-will of those arguing for the change. Yet for all three, I can feel the brakes being tapped.

An underlying part of the work I did with the Quaglia Institute was structural analysis of the social systems in a school in order to understand and help promote change within the school. While Student and Teacher Aspirations, Student and Teacher Voice, and the 8 Conditions were unquestionably the needles we were trying to move, having a clear grasp of the way the school worked organizationally and the unspoken assumptions that operated under the hood was also critical. In particular, having as accurate as possible an understanding of the school’s “political” culture–who thought they were driving and who was really driving, for example–was essential for knowing how to proceed with the change process.

Given that our work invited schools to grow in some way (increase Voice, Self-Worth, Engagement, Purpose, etc.), one system archetype we regularly encountered was a Limit to Growth Structure.  Without getting into all the mechanics of Limit to Growth, suffice it to say that change means movement, movement means friction, friction means heat, and heat means controversy. Nearly all reinforcing loops (the yellow loop below) invite balancing loops (the white loop below). Those balancing loops eventually “limit,” and in some cases stall, the desired growth. This systems archetype explains why change is difficult and in some cases impossible. When you consider the sheer number of change proposals that have been put forward in the last twenty-five years in education and then consider how precious little schools have actually changed, you see the power of the balancing loop that is the limiting condition.

The leverage (and systems thinkers are always looking for leverage) in such a system is in the balancing loop. If you are trying to drive a car that has the emergency brake on, the solution is not to step harder on the gas pedal. It’s to take off the brake. Pep-talking the change or in other ways requiring compliance or conformity or buy-in or enrollment is not as effective as understanding the resistance (not the people who are resistant; this is a structural problem, not a personnel problem) and reducing or alleviating that resistance. Address what is controversial (at whatever scale) and you reduce the heat; reduce the heat and you reduce the friction; reduce the friction and the change can roll on.

As someone at a school and part of a change process I have a whole new appreciation for what Limit to Growth looks from the inside. It’s one thing to understand the processes (I think I do) and to have been part of encouraging change from the outside (I have). But it is another to experience it as a participant. To be in the car with the gas pedal pressed and the brake on. To hear good people raise the legitimately controversial issue of  “mission creep.” To actually know the people, and count them as effective colleagues, who point out the friction caused by not enough time. To feel the simmer of veterans who have seen far too many things come and go and come and go because of a lack of adequate PD.

What I am learning now as an insider (with apologies to those who try to teach me this when I was an outsider at your school) is that for a school to take its foot off the brake requires a genuine airing of genuine concerns. There are no doubt those who will object to change under any and all circumstances. If we hope to move beyond the inherited, industrial model of school we will inevitably need to respect their wish to opt out of the vehicles–and maybe the schools–of change we seek. But those who share our destination–the growth and learning of all students–must shift to the gas pedal with us or we risk never arriving.

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Michael J. Corso, Ph.D., former high school teacher turned adjunct professor of education and administrator, has been the Chief Academic Officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) for 15 years. In that role he provided professional development and training in Aspirations and Student Voice theories and frameworks to thousands of educators and students in hundreds of schools. Out of those experiences he co-authored numerous books and articles on the subject of School Voice, including Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014) and Aspire High: Imagining Tomorrow’s School Today (Corwin 2016). While he is still connected to QISA as a special consultant, he has decided to return full-time to the high school classroom. While many in education move from practice to theory or policy, Mickey has chosen to move from consulting back to the classroom. This blog is a weekly window into his journey of trying to practice himself what he has preached to others for over two decades as a researcher and PD provider.

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