Shrink the Change

Shrink the Change

A necessary part of scaling innovation means talking to the yet-to-be-converted. These are the folks who may not be skeptics, but they weren’t in on the ground floor of your project, they haven’t been with you from conception to execution. They’re not yet on board, and part of what you’re going to have to do is convince them to come along. I spend a lot of time thinking about these conversations because I’ve accumulated plenty of experience in how not to do it.

Since there many types of audiences you’ll need to speak with – parents, superintendents, school boards, school operations folks, curriculum folks – I’m going to concentrate on just one: teachers. I’m no expert on this, but I can share one thing that doesn’t work and one thing that does.

What doesn’t work: stating or implying that your innovation is going to “change everything” and that “nothing will ever be the same”. No one ever speaks that way in real life, but we hear that kind of hype in relation to technology all the time. Commercials emphasize the novelty of the gadget, the extraordinary appearance and behavior of a device, like an encounter with a friendly alien. Often it seems that the more traditional or nondescript the institution (hospital, cube farm, classroom), the more the exaggeration of how it will explode the paradigm. This may work to sell iPads, Droids, Xboxes and the like to consumers, but in my experience it doesn’t work very well when you want to talk with teachers about digital learning.

When I introduce a change to the way I propose we work together with kids, I borrow a phrase from the Heath brothers’ Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard: “shrink the change.” The last thing that teachers, working daily in an institution as complex and dynamic as a school, want to think about is how many things are going to change as a result of whatever you’re about to tell them. The surest way to provoke questions and a negative impression from the start is to begin with what’s going to be different.

Instead, begin by focusing on what’s not changing, the familiar habits of mind and healthy classroom culture on which your proposal rests. Think analogically – this is just like that, with one small difference. We’re not going to change everything. We keeping things the same, with one tweak. When we talk about the flipped classroom, we talk about all of the aspects of it that are already recognizable from our own experience. It’s not about YouTube, Google Apps, and Test Wizard. It’s about making the best-fit pairing of learner, content and mode – just like we do when we attend meetings. It would be silly to sit together and read an essay in silence. That’s why we have pre-work. When we’re together we want to get the most out of being together. Same goes for the flip. We’ve gone so far as to map the changes for our AP Bio and AP Calc flips so that we can accentuate the familiar.

When we talk about blended learning, we introduce the idea of software-as-colleague. We know that software is not human, but we think of it playing the role of a human teacher so that we can shrink the change. When we rotate our kids onto ST Math or MimioSprout, we’re handing them off to a colleague who has a particular strength for serving up leveled at-bats, for listening to twelve students at once and recording their answers, for presenting content in a dynamic, engaging way and offering responsive feedback. Sure, our colleague is not perfect. Students have to re-introduce themselves every morning because it can’t remember their names from one day to the next. It never asks how they’re doing or gives an impromptu compliment on their hair or clothing; it sits there impassionately, serving up the learning. But our colleague is trying to help. And when we think about setting our software-colleague up for success the way we set up our co-teachers, the metaphor does a lot of work to help us make sense of the relationship. It shrinks the change.

Of course we have to be honest when we represent the changes in practice, but we don’t have to emphasize them and we certainly don’t have to lead with them. Yes, reading a text on the screen is different from reading it on paper, but let’s talk about what stays the same. You’re still thinking about the author’s perspective, how they substantiate their argument with evidence, how they structure their writing so as to create suspense or tension. If we hold in mind the sameness of the novelty, the threat of change is lessened and we can focus on the continuity in our instructional practices rather than the disruptions. We help the foreign become familiar, the alien becomes a little friendlier. And down the road when our colleague says to us, “something about you looks different. I can’t quite place it,” we might answer: “Could be. I changed.”

Written by Dan Cogan-Drew

Dan Cogan-Drew

Founding Director of Digital Learning at Achievement First Public Charter Schools

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