Been There: Why Nothing Really Changes

Another workshop. Another late afternoon, the light fading as the enthusiasm and energy of the presenter grow. An unsettling whiff of change floats in the air — new ideas about learning and teaching, new programs, new ways to think about motivation and engagement. The presenter feels wariness begin to stir in her audience.  She can almost read their minds: “This sounds like too much work.” “Here we go again.” “I have been doing it my way for years, and it works fine.” “If it ain’t broke….” And so she offers the inevitable reassurance: “Don’t worry.  I’m sure most of you already do this.”
The death sentence. The most effective weapon in an arsenal meant to intercept and destroy new ideas before they land in our schools.  It’s a formidable arsenal, filled with time-honed strategies:  There’s the gag order—people new to a school must remain silent for at least three years, regardless of how many years of experience they bring from other schools or how perceptive their new, young perspective might be. There’s the benign banter — there-goes-old-Joe-or-Mary again, the jocular dismissal of repeated suggestions from anyone who has been around for more than three years. There’s the flag of tradition — the way we have always done it was good enough for us. There’s the White Rabbit (too busy) gambit — no time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late. And there’s the pit-and-the-pendulum — here we go again; we did that back in the ‘60s, and it didn’t work then. But the death sentence seems the most popular.    

I’ve listened to this sentence for years—the magic words for deflecting change, for keeping it at bay. Teachers and administrators use it to protect themselves from really having to confront or think deeply about fundamentally new ideas. “I already do that.” Presto, the new idea is safely transformed into an old idea. 
And now, even those with the new ideas use the sentence more and more frequently as a way of converting resistance into acceptance. It’s a sales strategy, they hope. Like good salespeople, they believe (as one told me) that change requires this sort of gentle, cajoling approach. “Change that announces itself and brazenly marches through the door seldom works,” they say. “Change has to sneak up on you. Change has to sidle close and worm its way into your thinking and get under your skin if it is meant to really take hold.  You get people talking about an idea, get it in the air, get people comfortable with it, and change starts to happen; it’s evolutionary." 
I don’t agree. What’s the point of selling a new idea that is fundamentally misunderstood —that is mistaken for something familiar when it actually challenges the familiar?  A misunderstood idea can never be implemented. You can’t change minds or practices unless people genuinely push themselves to understand an idea and to do the hard work of thinking about its implications and being open to the possibility that the new idea is superior to the old one or that the old one needs to be improved, if not replaced.
I listen to the sentence every summer at workshops that present new, even unpublished research on the connections among thinking, learning, and emotion. “We heard that in grad school. We already do that. We know emotion is important to learning.”
“We already do that,” so nothing changes. Schools really are not fundamentally different from what they were when John Dewey suggested that confining children to chairs and talking at them might not be the best way to educate them. Despite the work of many individual teachers, despite the courage of some schools scattered about the country, despite initiatives like the Coalition of Essential Schools, Understanding by Design, differentiated instruction, student-directed learning, the system itself remains remarkably impervious to fundamental change. New initiatives are quickly absorbed into the status quo. The majority of educators continue to believe that teaching, telling, and learning are synonyms. The majority of educators also ignore the past 20 years of significant research and insights into the biology of learning — most of which suggest the need for entirely rethinking our assumptions about school practices and designs. What sort of profession allows its members to ignore relevant research and development in its field? Teachers tend to teach as they were taught, so it’s little wonder that schools remain fortresses of tradition, fortresses of solitude. Instead of really thinking about challenges to tradition, everyone makes nice — I’m ok; you’re ok. I already do that; you already do that.
Here is my experience with comfort and sidling and evolution. In the ‘80s, some of us at my school thought maybe Dewey was right and learning could be improved by replacing lectures with much more open-ended discussion. So we began using discussions in our classes.  Students talked enthusiastically about the change, and we cajoled others to try it.  We did a lot of sidling; students pressured other teachers to let them talk more; and soon, everyone was pretty much saying, “I already do that.” 
Superficially, they were correct. Students were generally talking much more in classes than they had been, but a closer look revealed that fundamental change had not taken place. Lectures and open-ended discussion are fundamentally different from each other. Lectures involve the delivery of truth from authority, while discussion involves constructing truth, often several differing truths, among individuals. What we found in many classrooms (what we still find today, 30 years later) were lectures disguised as discussions, games of guess-what’s-in-the-teacher’s-head—which are not effective as lecture or discussion. Most teachers had found ways to incorporate student voices while continuing to deliver the authorized version of the truth, which they continued to expect to find parroted on tests and in essays.
Comfortable change is an oxymoron, and trying to make it comfortable by suggesting or accepting that we “already do that” simply lets everyone off the hook so no one has to face the very real pain and hard work of engaging new ideas and, perhaps, admitting that the old ways aren’t working.  Comfort fuzzes the edges of change, creates safety, and allows for the illusion of change.  Fuzzy change has the benefit of being non-threatening and the liability of being amorphous enough to embrace just about anything with the right name attached.  “Discussion” comes to mean simply allowing students to talk more, thus creating the illusion of not lecturing while maintaining the essence of the lecture — the presentation of Authority’s truth. 
So what can we do instead?  Well, we probably need to begin by understanding and addressing one of the most valid reasons that teachers resist change — they don't have time for it. I once computed the number of hours an experienced independent-school English teacher spends preparing classes, teaching, and reading and commenting on student essays. The conservative total (using my algorithm) came to 51.5 hours a week, and that didn't even account for the hours of extra help and responses to parents (meetings, phone calls, email, mid-term and end-of-term comments). If she coaches, the time expands by a conservative minimum of 11 hours a week during the coaching seasons. If she lives in a dormitory, add another conservative 18.5 hours (which misses completely the psychological reality of that job). During a 62- or 81-hour work week, who has time even to change clothes?  Or spend time with the family? Or think? Survival forces teachers to do what they can, which means relying on familiar patterns and habits.
Although too many teachers are not themselves the lifelong learners they insist their students become, others are desperate to explore new ways to improve their students' learning and their schools. They try their best to invent new lessons, discuss different approaches with colleagues, read professional journals. Some of them attend various "Learning and the Brain" conferences and workshops, get excited about new ideas; they return to their schools intending to excite their colleagues or take a new risk in the classroom. But enthusiasm quickly dissipates as those colleagues' eyes glaze over and Billy fails another test and his parents demand another meeting. Administrators need to nurture this enthusiasm, give these educators the resources they need to test their new ideas, and encourage others to participate.
Psychologically, when you don't have time to fix things that you know need fixing, it simply becomes easier to deflect the voices that demand change — both the voices cajoling you in those overwhelming, numbing one-day workshops and that guilt-inducing inner voice.  For example, change requires time to focus on new insights into, how the brain learns; time to wrestle with these ideas; time to internalize them by reconstructing them in order to make sure you understand them and can explain them in your own words — can illustrate them and see their implications and creatively apply them; and time to test these applications to see if they work, to subject the results to peer-review, to adopt them, reject them, or amend them.
Teachers and administrators need time to think.  Daily life during the school year is like multi-tasking at a carnival and hardly nurtures the sort of quiet reflection that supports meaningful research, development, experimentation, and creative interaction with colleagues.  Adults need time to work together when the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won —when the kids have gone home. Improving education may well depend on an extended calendar, not for students but for teachers. 
The challenge we face is daunting: rethinking an entire system. For too many years, individual teachers have struggled to make changes alone. They have used their insights into learning to invent new lessons and approaches, but their classrooms have been isolated from the larger system — storm cellars in a tornado. Their innovations exist in spite of the system rather than because of it. We need to create real time and space for meaningful school-wide examinations of the assumptions about learning on which our schools are built. Educators need to hush the busy world in order to truly distinguish between what we already do and what we don't do. There is really only one source of more time free of the needs of students: the summer. It's past time to make teaching like other professions — with 12-month contracts for everyone, commensurate salaries, and the expectation that teachers will devote that time to working to improve schools, practices, and student learning.
We do not already do that.
Alden S. Blodget

Alden S. Blodget is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.