Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Embracing Uncertainty, part 1

In The Future of Management, author Gary Hamel argues that one of the reasons leading companies and corporations fall to the back of the pack is not so much the incompetence of its leaders but the "frantically accelerating pace of change" (p42) that is to blame.  They will eventually adapt, but only after it is too late and they have fallen behind.  This idea triggered an "A-HA!" for me regarding our current educational system.  Now I realize this is not a new insight - others have called attention to it before ("Shift Happens" among others).  My a-ha was more in the form of "most of my colleagues are ill equipped to handle the rate of change, regardless of any other philosophical beliefs they may have."  I began to feel a burden that perhaps is now part of my responsibility to assist them in this area.

Since graduating from college twenty years ago, I have worked in what I believe are the two industries that rank first and second on the "resistant to change" scale - the church and education.  I won't deal with church issues here - I have another seriously neglected blog for those matters.  Just because our environments are averse to change does not mean change won't come a knockin'.  In fact, the rapid rate of change hits every year with a new set of directions and I keep hearing, "So much has changed.  Can't we just keep something the same for more than a year?"

I asked for help identifying resources that might help teachers deal with this rapid pace of change.
anyone out there blogged or read anything re: helping tchrs adapt to rapid speed of change in society? looking for thoughts besides my ownWed Aug 04 03:37:46 via TweetDeck
(I'm still looking for input by the way!)  I was eventually directed here, an interview with Alexandra Michel and Stanton Wortham.  The first two clips are the best, though I would recommend them all.  Be sure to check them out.

It's ironic how, according to Michel and Wortham, all the methods we employ to minimize change actually work to minimize our ability to deal with even minor change.  Curriculum is standardardized.  Assessments are standardized.  Lesson plans and PLC's are becoming standardized to the point that you can actually purchase scripted lessons.  This trend weakens our skills as educators.  It causes us to create students who are no longer learners (processors of information) but regurgitators of facts.

So, back to my initial question - how do we help our colleagues deal with this rapid rate of change?  If Michel and Wortham are correct, we need to embrace uncertainty.  We need to remove the routines from our classrooms and our schools.  Am I advocating chaos?  Maybe, but only to a small degree. You should see my sock drawer.  

I think an easy way to begin is really implementing the idea of PLC's and data analysis to their ultimate theoretical ends.  Instead of me teaching EVERY math objective to all my classes and my colleagues doing likewise, let's split up the topics.  I'll teach linear functions to ALL the classes and Mrs. Jones will teach factoring polynomials, etc.  This will require us to alter the sequencing of topics.  In fact, we may need a different sequence every year if we let the data decide.  It becomes "planned" uncertainty, which is a small step.

Can teachers handle this lack of consistency?  Of course they can.  They are professionals who are knowledgeable of the content right?  Does order matter that much?

I have another way to help teachers embrace uncertainty though it would be quite unpopular with many and unenforceable anyway - forbid the recycling of lesson plans.  A better solution would be to report X number of new things you have done during your annual review.  Hamel details how Whirlpool Corporation began a five year quest to create a culture of innovation.  Part of that process was requiring divisions to report the number of innovations and percentage of income derived from them.  Teachers could do this very easily.  Instead of making it a burdensome requirement, it could be touted as, "Share with me the awesome new things you tried that you are proud of.  How did they turn out?"

I have some ideas about how to change the type of student we are creating.  That can be for part 2.  For now, I would like to hear your thoughts on this issue and how you are helping your colleagues embrace uncertainty.


  1. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on the church as well. I am in Christian Ed. and secular ed changes at the speed of light compared to some Christian Schools. I am hoping to change that...look me up sometime =)

  2. I second your suggestion of forbidding the recycling of lesson plans. I know of teachers that flip the pages of the same well-ordered notebook year after year. This almost guarantees the inevitable slow death of a teacher's enthusiasm, flexibility, and innovation. We must refine our practices every year and if we have notebooks filled with past lesson plans (not necessarily a bad thing), we must be ready, willing, and quick to toss every one of them for the sake of something better.