Disturbing the Equilibrium

Change is still hard … because even when it’s a good change, it does disturb the equilibrium that a complex system has found.  And even if you don’t exactly like that equilibrium, you get used to it.  It’s familiar and, eventually, even comfortable in its discomfort.  “It’s so annoying,” teachers complain, “when That Copier breaks down” … but what if it never broke down?  What if everyone knew that it would never break down?  And what if you got busy, and forgot to make Those Copies, and the broken copier excuse was no longer available?

Change is still hard because equilibrium is familiar, easy, and comfortable.

For quite a few years, our Local Powers asked teachers to turn in printed copies of their lesson plans for each week – and Ms. X and Mr. Y complained about “wasting paper” and “couldn’t I just email them?”  More recently, the policy has been that the plans would be emailed … and Ms. X and Mr. Y (a different set) complained about “it’s hard” and “couldn’t I just give you a copy?”  With the battle continuing against That Computer Virus on the one network drive at school, printed plans were the rule this week – but much to Ms. X and Mr. Y’s surprise, the Relevant Powers actually read them.  And returned the copies.  Sometimes with questions or even suggestions.

Ms. X’s feelings were clearly hurt.  “What does Essential Standards mean?” she asked.  “They wrote that on the top of my plans.”  Essential Standards, as you might suspect, is the title of Our State’s curriculum documents for areas not covered by the Common Core Standards.  “Does that mean all those I can statements? The ones you put where you used to put The Learner Will?” she asked.  “Because I have those … right there on the top.”  No, several people tried to explain.  “Do you mean They want us to put all those numbers, like 1.2 or 2.6, on our plans?  I don’t have time for that – I spent six hours on these, and now they’ aren’t good enough!”

Poor Ms. X!  She clearly needed to pout and fret, and it “just happened” that I’d finished my lunch by then.

I wonder what she would say to a student who “spent six hours” doing a project for her class, but left out an essential element?  Would the time spent somehow make up for the missing essentials?  No; I’ve known That Ms. X long enough to know that she’d tell the studentlower the grade, and complain at lunch about “not following directions” and “Can you believe what That Child said?”  And she’d probably tell the student that it would have taken less time to do it correctly.

I have a feeling that, if Ms. X had looked at “all those numbers,” her planning would have taken less than six hours.  How were her students doing, and what did they most need to work on?  What could they already do well, and how might she build on that?  With questions like those – and with the broad framework of what her students should be able to do by the end of the year – Ms. X’s time could have been spent more productively.  And if Ms. X had used any of the many planning forms and templates available, there would have been a space for “all those numbers.”

But Ms. X was most upset, I think, by the change that shattered her comfortable equilibrium.  And I do understand that pain, that frustration, that upset feeling.

An old friend, teaching a Really Advanced Latin Course for the first time in a while, had an amazing suggestion for me last week.  “I have my students write the text out, a word or a phrase at a time, on index cards, and then they move the cards around until it makes sense to them,” she said.  And in a flash of insight, I realized that my visual-kinesthetic learners in the upper-level class would benefit – tremendously – from that strategy.  So I put it into my plans for the week (which, I have to say, started with “all those numbers” and took rather less than six hours to prepare), and we tried it out on Monday.

And in the end, it worked really well.  But it did upset the equilibrium for some of “the thirteen,” and they weren’t very happy about that.  At first B, B, and U wanted to pretend to believe they were being labeled as deficient in some way, or made to do “extra” work.  “No,” I explained, “that’s really not it at all.  You haven’t been reading the stories, and I think it might be because the length of text is overwhelming for you.  So let’s see what happens when you can focus on phrases rather than giant paragraphs.  And I know you’re very kinesthetic learners … because you always have to be doing something with your hands.  So try this and we’ll see what happens.  If it works, we can keep doing it; if not, we can try something else.”  And not-so-remarkably, it worked really well for them.

D, C, and B were “too tired” to try it out, but C and B both apologized because “it was a Monday.”  And I have a suspicion that they’ll try it out today.  Change is still hard … and disturbing the equilibrium can be painful for everyone … but Monday wasn’t a painful, frustrating day as it had been for Ms. X, Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Y.  And before too long, the disturbed equilibrium will lead to a different balance, which will work for a while and need to be changed in its turn.

Perfection – the goal that probably led Ms. X to spend those endless hours on her lesson plans – is a static thing, and that’s why teaching and learning can’t be perfect.  Because people – teachers and learners – aren’t static; we change all the time, and what “worked” yesterday won’t necessarily “work” today or tomorrow.  When you build a joyful learning community, it’s important to remember that!

I wonder what changes await us all today.

Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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