Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Of comfort zones, compliance, and the student "why"

I'm weary of the oft-made connection between comfort zone and fear, though I get it. I know that people are often afraid to step out of a comfort zone and for common reasons: "Tried that before and it didn't work." "My colleague tried that and it didn't work and she's smarter than I am." I think there's more to it than that.

Sometimes I think I hear behind that reluctance is: "If I try this and I'm successful, they'll ask me to do more and I'm just tired."

Sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "If I'm no longer sure why I do what I do, or if I no longer believe in why I do what I do, why should I change?"

And sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "My students don't seem to want to learn and I can't figure out how to motivate them to learn, how to make them care about learning. I'm not sure why I should try anything else new when so much of what I've already tried doesn't seem to work or help them."

Eric Sheninger recently wrote about the comfort zone and fear. Now he's better known than I am: he's actually published the books he's written and has way more followers in all forms of social media, speaks around the world, so you'll likely believe him before you believe me. However, I ask you to think through this and your own experiences with change and your comfort zone.


The image Sheninger uses is a good one and he points out there are nuances in each of these. It occurs to me that some of this comfort zone/fear discussion has something to do with one's prior experiences, one's general need to be in control, and one's stage of life.

There have been very clear times in my life I have not been willing to step out to make a change, and all of those fear zone factors came into play. But part of what held me back was a gut sense that the decision to make that change would not be a good decision ultimately.

In the instances I have stepped into change, it's mostly been so that I've been able to use my skills and expertise in a different way; to extend my skills and expertise and, therefore, learn more; and/or because I was ready for a change. That underscores that not all elements of each of the zones is applicable to all people in all change situations.

Because we're talking about change, I have to bring up one of my favorite change management models first introduced in 1991 by Dr. Tim Knoster. Typically  we hear about this model being applied to organizations, which makes sense. I've used this model when I've talked with district and building administrators, but I've also referenced this when I've talked with teachers. What has crept into my conversation over the past few years is the question "Why?"

That's always been my favorite question; I can be very toddler-like in wanting to know "why" though I hope slightly less exhausting. And many of us have been influenced by Simon Sinek and his golden circle as people think about their "why." There have been plenty of articles and blog posts and keynotes and other such addressing how we can know our why and why that matters. Let me pursue that for a bit.

In Knoster's model, he points out the need for vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. Teachers have a vision for what they want to accomplish each day, the standards they hope students may be able to achieve or begin to achieve. They think about the skills and resources they need to teach and facilitate, and the skills and resources their students need to learn. And they have a lesson plan that documents all of this.

It is likely the skills and resources teachers think about for themselves and their students are fairly concrete: textbook, digital resources, laptop, calculator, grasp of math facts, recollection of particular information, etc.

I haven't talked yet about incentives because that is most definitely at play, but perhaps for reasons that aren't the usual. For teachers, the incentive for what they do and try to do every day is tied to their "why." And, I believe, their incentive, interwoven with their understanding of their "why," informs how they view their comfort zone and their willingness to step beyond it, even a little.

We all know that fist-pumping moment of sheer joy that a student "gets it," or when that reluctant reader has his own revelation about himself as a reader, or when that student who has often been difficult behaviorally turns some sort of a corner. The thrill of that moment can be a teacher's "why."

I work with a high school teacher who teaches one of the sciences and has that typical challenge of students who don't see the point. She works hard to engage them and find ways to entice them to learn. She has a group of students in which she is so proud because the strides they have made even though so much seems to be against them and the ways they have embraced learning in that class.

I work with many other teachers, mostly elementary teachers, who consistently battle different kinds of mostly minor behavior and attitude issues and who work just as hard as that science teacher. What I hear from them is this: "Kids don't want to learn."

All right, so I'm going to wander down a rabbit hole for just a smidge because I'm going to follow it further in another blog post because I don't think the issue is that kids don't want to learn. I think kids really have little incentive to learn because we've been telling them, directly and indirectly, that all they'll ever need to know is at their fingertips thanks to their friends Alexa, Siri, and Google. We further their confused understanding of school and learning because of the way we assess and what we value in assessment.

Kids seem to think that learning is the completion of a task, the production of some product of Google Slides or Google Sites or Powerpoint or a Google Doc. I have frequently shared the story of a frustrated second grader who threw down her pencil because she couldn't do a two-digit subtraction problem. She wailed that she didn't know how to do it and looked genuinely perplexed and surprised when I told her that's why she was in school--to learn how to do it, that we didn't expect her to come to second grade with that knowledge and skill.

And that's what prompted me to start thinking about the student's "why."

Do students understand, really understand, why they are going to school? Is it for compliance or for what could be the more compelling reason of needing to know how to learn? of needing to know how to frame questions for Alexa, Siri, or Google? of needing to know how to filter the information provided by any research source to know what could be valid and what is not? of needing to know basic math and literacy skills so they can start to become whatever is the best version of themselves?

I think this is a significant barrier to a teacher's willingness to step out of a comfort zone. It's not for want of learning and growth. It's because of an intrinsic yet unspoken recognition that many students have little or no incentive for being in school other than parental or legal ones.

Sure, there are many students who want to learn and like to learn. They have their own internal incentives, which is why those kids are in AP or honors classes and why they are the ones who do well in whatever they approach. They understand why they are in school, they have a vision for what they want to accomplish even if they can't articulate it until they're older, and they are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones. Those students check all of the Knoster and Sinek boxes.

Stepping out of a comfort zone may have something to do with fear--fear of failure, fear of looking incapable or incompetent. Absolutely. But it's not just that and it's not that easy. In the exploration of why teachers won't or don't try something new, we have to give them space and grace to contemplate their perception of change and their "why" for teaching, their reason for trying or not trying something new, and how what they do and how they do it helps students grasp their "why" for learning, if our emphasis really is on learning rather than compliance.