Is change always fun?

My thoughts today center on the correlation between the feelings we have about something and our growth in relation to that same thing. Yesterday, I participated in the regular administrative council for our school division and we were talking about change and growth inside schools. We seemed to float between discussion and clarification about desired approaches to teaching and learning (inquiry and engagement in digital literacies to be specific) and how teachers feel about these approaches. We really puzzled over how to encourage experimentation with new approaches when feelings complicate the readiness to try something new. This began to remind me of an experience I had five years ago inside a school in which I was a Differentiated Instruction Facilitator.

At that time, I was working on my thesis and I spent months exploring the connection between motivation and achievement. I was really interested in the results of a survey I had done at the time with 150 middle and high school students. I asked each of them to rate their feelings about school, their classes and learning in general. I then tried to correlate their responses over time, to the work our school was doing in the areas of differentiated instruction, authentic assessment and learning preferences. I was hoping to see an increase in enjoyment and engagement in school once we began to shift our approaches to teaching and learning. It turns out my study was too broad and the variables were too vast to come up with strong enough conclusions. However, this initial study led me to continue to ask students for their feedback in relation to specific teaching strategies we had tried and overall classroom experiences in rooms in which I was working.

I learned a great deal from student feedback in those years as a facilitator and co-teacher. First of all, I learned that students felt very comfortable being honest. At times, it felt like they had been waiting for someone to ask them what they thought. Their responses were often much longer and more detailed than I expected. Most of the time, their feedback positively reinforced the things we had been trying but there was enough negative feedback to take notice at times. I specifically remember the feedback we received in a senior math class when we asked for reflections just prior to the final assessment. They liked having two teachers in the room and really saw the benefit of having several formative assessments throughout the unit. However, they expressed concerns over having to work with their peers so much (complaints centered on others “holding them back”), on spending so much time on misconceptions (we dwelled on things for too long) and on allowing so many questions by students (again, things did not move quickly enough). I remember feeling a little defensive and defeated at the time. I began to question some of the approaches we had adopted. Then we marked their final assessments and the results really surprised us.

We had been working with a combination of students taking the regular programming and five who were initially working on modified programming. Throughout the unit, we began to feel that our differentiated approaches might just allow the modified students to try the regular practice and eventually the regular final assessment. On this final assessment, all students but one wrote the regular assessment and every single student achieved 80% or higher. We were thrilled, of course. However, I was most intrigued by the juxtaposition between these very favourable outcomes and their feelings about the unit. Why, when they had clearly done so much better than on past assessments, did they have negative perceptions of some of our obviously successful approaches? I am sure this relationship can be explained in any number of ways – maybe their feelings would have shifted if we had asked them for reflections after the final assessment. Maybe some of our approaches did not actually contribute to success and these were the approaches they had disliked. Or maybe, because we were relentless in our pursuit of high quality learning, students who had traditionally either “opted out” or achieved by solely “jumping through hoops” perceived our approach as inconvenient to their understanding of “how school works.” Regardless of the reasons, what I learned from that co-teaching experience was that people do not always feel good about the journey through new and challenging learning. Happiness is not always directly correlated to growth and change. When I think about my own personal experiences, I know that I am often very uncomfortable during times of rapid growth. In fact, it is this press against challenging “surfaces” that makes growth happen.

So, this leads me back to yesterday’s discussion at administrative council. I wonder how much we should fret about people feeling ready to try something new? I wonder what the balance is between asking people to dive in and patiently waiting for them to feel good about doing so? I wonder how growth and change happen in systems and in schools? I continue to observe and experiment with these ideas. I am quite sure there is no straightforward answer but I suspect we can learn something about ourselves from watching students learn.

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