Why is Change so Hard?

Well, a few reasons...

In a Your Voice column in the Denver Post today, Corey Edwards and Mark Milliron wrote an article entitled “A New Possible in Education.” A well-written and very thoughtful piece, it was relegated to the YourHub section, where news for your part of the city is reported. YourHub also includes notices about farmer’s markets and pictures of puppies for sale.

Corey Edwards is the Northwest Region and Colorado Director of Western Governor’s University (WGU), and Mark Milliron is Senior VP and Executive Dean of WGU’s Teacher’s College. If you don’t know what WGU is, you might want to. It is a widely accredited non-profit private university founded 15 years ago by the governors of Utah and Colorado, and it now has 4,000 faculty, 6,000 employees, and 120,000 students. It uses an online, competency-based learning model.

In this article, Edwards and Milliron argue that the Covid crisis was a transformative event in history, and that as a result of it, we will see lasting changes in how we manage our lives, health, work, and education. They argue that, in education, we must resist “reactionary traditionalism, and instead confront confusion, learn together, and… reimagine a new possible.”

Some of what they say will seem familiar to readers of this newsletter. Here is a particularly resonant quote:

[T]here is a sea of difference between emergency remote learning… and the highly engaging, high-quality digital learning and support found in the best online and blended learning that talented education professionals have been developing and delivering for the last 20 years.

Confusing emergency-remote learning with the best of digital learning is like equating a life raft with a luxury liner. They both float and they both may get you to shore, but the experience for those aboard is going to be vastly different.

So there is much that I agree with here, obviously. I believe we can develop highly engaging digital learning methods, and I know that because I have seen (and perhaps been involved in a little of) the development of such learning environments for the last 15 years. And yet this work continues to be done at the margins, and explanations such as this are published next to the puppy ads.

So why is the system we have now so resistant to change? What would it take to turn the ship around? I have a few tentative answers, but I would like to hear yours as well, so please leave a comment below.

Systems resist change. Building the educational system we have now was a slow and iterative process over more than 100 years. The system is immensely complex, huge, and numerous protective measures were woven deeply into it as it was being built.

Teachers are confident people. We have to believe in what we are doing. If we did not, we could not get up in front of a class of dubious students and lead them to our learning outcomes at the end of the semester. Teachers are deeply embedded in the complex and fortified system we have today.

Being inside can be blinding. Once you are embedded in a system, it is hard to see the merits of something else, particularly if that something else would require retooling, reworking, remaking much of the knowledge and skills one has developed over multiple years of teaching.

It won’t happen all at once. Did you know that it took 40 years for the zipper to be widely adopted?1 It was invented into a world of buttons, with massive industries involved in the manufacture, sale, and distribution of buttons. Yet, it was a better technology for many applications. But the way systems change is never all at once. It takes time. It is agonizingly slow to those who see what could be better. But in the long view - over decades - change inevitably happens.

So maybe it is better that this article appeared in the paper next to the gardening advice. Corey and Mark, and many others will gradually chip away at it. And eventually, we will have the “new possible.”


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Letters of Recommendation

Alex Ross was for many years the music critic for The New Yorker magazine, and his book Listen to This collects many of his finest essays published there between 1994 and 2008. If you would like to know more about the music of John Adams, John Cage, Bob Dylan, Verdi, or Radiohead, this is your source.


Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the same article noted above:

Over-simplified arguments about in-class instruction vs. online need to be tabled so we can thoughtfully explore more practical and less polarized conversations that take advantage of all the tools and techniques available to us at this important time in education’s history.

1

See, Robert Friedel, Zipper, An Exploration in Novelty (Norton, 1996). Perhaps next week’s Letter of Recommendation, this is a highly readable history of a seemingly insignificant item we take for granted now. But it was not always thus.