Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: How Schools Can Manage Sustainable Change

Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: How Schools Can Manage Sustainable Change

Preparing Graden1“Behold, a sower went forth to sow…” (Matthew 13:3)

We all know the parable: a man sows seeds; some of them grow, some of them don’t. The seeds that fall on stone have no topsoil to accept the roots. The seeds that fall in the weeds are choked before they can reach the sun. The seeds that fall on fertile ground grow tall and strong. We learn that words of wisdom and enlightenment are not heard equally by all who are within earshot. Some people are ready for the hearing and some are not. Some are mired in environments or circumstances that simply will not allow the “seed” of wisdom to sprout and change their lives. The question I find interesting is: Whose responsibility is it to make sure the ground is ready to receive the seeds? Is it the ground’s fault for not being hospitable, or is it the sower’s fault for not tending his garden?

When we school people use the idea of “garden” metaphorically, we’re usually talking about our students. Perhaps I’ll get to that in a separate blog post. Today, though, I want to talk about us—the adults in the building.

Most of us recognize that real and sustainable change is gradual, organic, and evolutionary, but we’re often too impatient to act on what we know. We want our change instant. We want the silver bullet. We want something that promises, “Just plug it in and it works.” We don’t want to have to deal with some pesky seeds that need careful tending over a long period of time; we want magic beans—you know, the kind that create beanstalks and lead to gold. To some extent, we are the ground on which the seed is sown, and we are often very rocky.

Let’s face it; we’re not great at long-term thinking. We’re wired to be on the lookout for the lion hiding in the grass, not the slow but steady uptick in the overall lion population in our region. And the charlatans among us, whether political or commercial, are happy to profit from our impatience and short-sightedness. Thus do we educators find ourselves in endless cycles of change—latching on to something new, plunging into the chaos and disruption of adoption, withdrawing our commitment when we don’t see instant results, and then investing our time and money in the Next New Thing. On and on it goes—more and more seeds being tossed onto sterile stone. And when we get angry at the waste, we blame each new crop of seeds for being ineffective.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the adults in an organization are prepared for a change—that they understand and accept the need for it, that they understand the steps of the process and the expected length of the process, and that they understand their role in making the change happen? That’s obviously the job of leadership—and yet, I’ve seen so many change initiatives embarked upon with no real attempt to “prepare the ground” for the new thing being planted. There are leaders out there who feel that their authority is all anyone needs: “If I say it, it will be so.” But in practice, it is not so, is it? In many schools across the country, teachers outlast their principals and superintendents—sometimes by decades. They know how to wait until the Next New Thing passes by.

How can we make sure the seeds fall where they will sprout? Well, tending a garden is a complex occupation. It requires healthy soil and healthy seeds, enriching food and fertilizer, growing conditions that meet the needs of the different plants in the garden, and also constant vigilance to keep the weeds at bay and keep the pathway towards growth unobstructed. Let’s take them one at a time.

Healthy soil. When we’re talking about organizational change, healthy soil means a healthy school culture—a culture where people have some level of autonomy, where dialogue is open and respectful, and where people work toward a common purpose.

Healthy seeds. Obviously, the content of the proposed change, whatever it is, should be intelligent, backed by research, well constructed, and so on. We shouldn’t be bringing garbage into our schools. I’m not talking about programs that have a political slant that we do or don’t agree with, or that our parents do or don’t have a problem with—that’s a whole other issue. I’m simply talking about Bad Stuff—trendy new approaches that haven’t been tested or proven, with materials that are filled with factual errors. Products that talk down to students (and sometimes teachers). Curriculum that lets teachers aim for the low middle instead of giving them the tools to aim higher. That kind of thing. Now, I happen to believe that actual “bad seeds” show up pretty rarely in our world. They’re out there, but they’re rare. I think the Great Library of Dead Curriculum, up in heaven, has shelves filled with perfectly decent programs, and ideas, most of which were just implemented poorly and left to die on the vine. Our parable assumes that the seeds being sown are good, and I think that holds, in most cases, in our little school metaphor, as well.

Enriching food and fertilizer. These are two interesting items. Once the seed has been planted, what do you have to do to keep the plant growing? A young plant is tender and vulnerable. It needs careful tending to grow strong. Any new program in its infancy is similarly tender and vulnerable. Any hiccup can be devastating. Anything that looks too difficult or too challenging can threaten the viability of the whole enterprise. This is exactly the stage at which so many change initiatives or new programs are abandoned. Why bother? It’s too hard. It doesn’t work. So how can leadership nurture the program and give it a shot of vitamins along the way? Well, one way is to acknowledge—publically—that this stage is always challenging, and to help and support the team as they slog their way through the process. Another way is to celebrate—publically—whatever little successes occur along the way.

Growing conditions. Some plants need direct sunlight. Some need shade. Some need a little of both. And yet, when dealing with people, who are so much more complex, we often forget that not everyone responds in the same way to the same treatment. Some people need very little encouragement, and in fact resent it if they’re over-nurtured. Some people need a lot of ego-stroking. Some people need just a little hint or push, now and then. Do we know what the different people in our organization need? And do we respect their differences enough to honor them?

Constant vigilance. Weeds will grow to choke the growing plants. Some of them are external: the day to day administrivia that consume people’s attention; the various mandates coming down from higher authorities; the new materials or processes that may be confusing; even snow days can wreck an implementation. Some of the weeds are internal: anger at having to learn something new; fear of failing and being humiliated; anxiety that the change requires something of people that they may not have. Tending this garden requires more than saying, “Don’t worry about that stuff.” These weeds need to get caught while they’re still small and yanked out by the roots.

Of course, this whole metaphor is very old fashioned and out of date in educational circles. We don’t believe that leadership is solely defined as the principal as the Great Gardener of the school—our second mother or father, taking care of us and telling us what to do. We believe in distributed leadership. We believe that the actions that make up school leadership should be shared among staff, at least to some degree.

But this actually makes our parable really interesting. Because now, if the actions are not defined by set roles—if “leadership” is owned beyond the job description of “leader”—then everyone gets to participate in everything. We all have to be responsible for both “sowing” and “growing.” We all have to be the nurturing gardeners of our schools . . . and we are all, at the same time, the vulnerable young seedlings, requiring care and nurturing from each other.

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