Those of you ShiftingThinkers who have been paying attention to the conference page will see that we’ve recently put up the descriptions for the first day of the conference (that’s Act II to those of you participating right now in Act I). This description includes a hint about “thinking tools” which are a collection of theories that we’ll talk about and then use to talk through the content in the four main talks of the day. We’ll use these theories as tools to talk about gaining traction on actually creating and sustaining new ways of teaching and learning and schooling on the second day as well.
The thinking tools are the ones I find the most helpful as I work to support folks to gain real traction on changing their practices—which turns out to be just about the hardest thing in the world to do, even if you really really want to change. People have been writing about the difficulty of change for as long as people have been trying to change, and while we’re getting a lot closer to understanding the psychology and sociology—and even the physiology of change—it’s still a pretty hard thing to do.
One key reason about this is that with big changes, we’re often managing core dilemmas that reach into the very heart of our identity. Take the issue of diversity, which organisations and schools have been wrestling about for as long as there have been organisations and schools. The first step towards change tends to be for people to agree that it’s important for those who are different to have the same opportunities and advantages of those who are currently in power. As probably all of us are aware, that move can take some years to achieve. Once we’ve achieved it, though, it would seem that now all we need to do is figure out the mechanics; we know what we want and now just have to go about getting it. Alas, it’s not so easy as that, as we can tell from the struggles we’ve had to make sense of these differences through history (and why New Zealand, which was the first country to give women the vote, still has unequal pay for equal work). Is it just the mechanics of the thing keeping us back? If we understood how to make it happen, would that be easier?
Well, er, no. Look at people who want to stop drinking or smoking. They know how not to drink and smoke. And they may even be convinced, seriously in their heart-of-hearts, that their habit is killing them. So why don’t they make the break, get the patch, check into a detox centre? One key reason may well be because they would have to give up a piece of who they are if they were to give up this thing which is killing them. Giving up their way to relax, to unwind, to be with their friends, to find comfort and peace or happiness. Giving up comfort/ peace/ happiness—this is a big ask.
And often, to get gains even that we all agree might be the best outcome for the most people, some of us have to pay this kind of comfort/ peace/ happiness price—to get good things for us all. To get pay equity, for example, many many people would have to give up some piece of their salaries (because it is likely true that for women’s salaries to rise some, men’s salaries would have to decline some). This is not only monetary loss, but a loss of what money can symbolise: security, pride in our work, proof that we are appreciated or valued.
Similarly, for us to act as though we really believed in diversity, not just make space for the occasional ceremonies and assemblies, but to actually transform schools to be spaces where every type of child would thrive, we would necessarily have losses. We’d have to give up some measure of comfort and understanding, we’d have to have an in-between time where things were different, we’d have to give up our traditional and comfortable ways of thinking about achievement and school success and probably even school curriculum and content. Teachers and parents and students would all be unsettled by this transformation and there would be some times when it felt like it was all a terrible terrible mistake. So while (nearly) everyone would sign up to the value of diversity, for many of us, the actual cost of it turns out to be more than we can take. This is generally true of every difficult change. We need new ways of thinking about how to make sense of the potential for loss and risk.
It isn’t all loss and risk, though. Often what we seek in trying to find a new way of understanding these core dilemmas is a third way, where neither side wins out over the other but a synthesis of the two come together to create a whole new option. Todd Pittinsky at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is one of the many people looking for some alternative to the dilemmas of living with difference. He urges a move away from the “tolerance of diversity” (which brings with it a variety of costs and gains) to something he calls “allophillia”. Allophillia is a love of the other, a love of that which is different from us (check out an article about this here).
This love stuff sounds pretty good at first, but even third way spaces are fraught with difficulty. Love, as we all know, is itself risky, involves giving up a sense of who we are and what our future holds. These losses, like the others in this blog, are big ones. And at the same time, love can also be pretty fantastic—the payoff, like so many others in this blog, is also significant. If allophillia is the promise land, though, it may well take some years of wandering through the desert for us to find it. The journey from where we are now to where we want to be next is a journey of uncertainty and confusion, of discomfort and fear, of loss and anxiety. It is our hope, though, that if we stay together and think and work hard together, the promised land will be sweet. What do we need to pack for the trip?
Conference: November 2009, Shifting schooling