Zachary Herrmann is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a former math teacher who researches and writes about teacher innovation. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
I've never met a teacher who doesn’t value collaboration, creativity, and curiosity. Why is it, then, that so many of our classrooms are devoid of these very traits?
I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about innovation. I draw from my experience as a high school math teacher, and I share the challenges and successes that emerged as I tried to close the gap between my values as an educator and my daily practice. I attempt to lay out an aspirational vision for what a classroom can be — a place where students work together on meaningful tasks that capture their minds and stir their inquisitiveness.
My audiences are eager, but their questions have become predictable. “I love these ideas, but how can I make it work?” After one presentation, a colleague told me that in a typical audience, 97 percent of people agree with what I say, but 96 percent are wondering how to actually make it happen.
But after a recent talk, someone asked a question I had not yet heard. Instead of how to do it, the questioner asked what he had to be willing to give up. I found this particular phrasing insightful, because it captured the challenge of change. As Ronald Heifetz, a leadership professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, has argued, resistance to change often stems from a fear of loss.
So what does a teacher stand to lose by changing her practice?
A significant barrier for teachers interested in changing their practice is a fear of losing competence. When venturing into a new way of doing things — when you no longer have experience to fuel confidence — you need to be willing to feel very incompetent. When I think about the aspirational classroom that I attempt to articulate to teachers, I now realize that I’m asking them to consider a lot more than a change to their practice; I’m asking them to consider a change to how they see themselves.
There is a comfort that comes with a well-designed and predictable lecture at a chalkboard about an idea for which a teacher has personal expertise and passion. I’m asking teachers to leave behind that comfort for a messy environment in which students will likely struggle to be collaborative. The outcome of each class period will be less predictable when student curiosity and creativity are a part of the equation, which means teachers may feel a loss of control.
As with any attempt at innovation, not every experiment will be successful, so teachers will inevitably experience failure. In other words, I’m asking a teacher to move from a predictable and comfortable place to an unpredictable and messy one, where wins won’t look familiar, at least initially.
But for teachers who truly value creativity, curiosity, and collaboration, the risk is one I hope they'll be willing to take. If we know that the current way of doing school is not serving all students — failing to give many of them the opportunities that will help them succeed in 21st-century careers, college, and society — then why do we see the status quo as more comfortable and less risky than thoughtful change?
Why do so many of us feel stuck between the values we espouse and our daily practice in the classroom?
Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have described the problem as “immunity to change.” When we act in ways that are contrary to our stated goals (that is, a teacher who says she cares about collaboration but resists having her students work collaboratively), we may have “hidden commitments” that drive our behaviors. Based on my own experience, I would argue that commitments to predictability and a personal sense of competence have powerful narrowing effects on the scope of things teachers are willing to try, even if they want to.
Undoubtedly, there are powerful forces that shape these commitments. School culture, instructional coaching practices, and evaluation processes can all influence a teacher’s willingness to explore her practice and express her teaching values in her classroom.
But teachers must embrace the same message we give to students: Learning is about taking risks, trying, failing, and improving. Every time we find a gap between our values and our practice we have an opportunity to reflect and ask, “Why?” What is really getting in the way? As leaders, are we creating environments that make others feel safe to take responsible risks? As teachers, how ready are we to feel incompetent in service of our own learning and growth?
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