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Posts Tagged ‘thinking tools’

Thinking Tool 1: Transitions: Neutral Zone

October 28th, 2009

Last week I wrote about the ShiftingThinking tool of understanding transitions, and about how mourning what we’re leaving behind is so important (you can read about Endings, and about the tools in general in past posts). Today I’d like to write about the second stage of William Bridges’ Transitions: the Neutral Zone. I think that maybe this is the most helpful part of the theory, a part that has supported and sustained me though the major changes in my life, and has helped me support and sustain clients through the major transitions for them. For me, the idea of the Neutral Zone is a thing to hold on to when so much else that you might hold on to has dropped away.

A view to the Neutral Zone?

A view to the Neutral Zone?

The Neutral Zone is a place where we can’t see where we’ve come from and we can’t see where we’re headed. I think about crossing the Rimutaka Range from Wellington into the Wairarapa. There is a long and windy and car-sickness-inducing time where you can’t see the Hutt valley and you can’t see the Wairarapa. You’re just winding around, hoping it won’t snow or rain and that the children don’t throw up! There is beauty in the Neutral Zone but it is a wild, untamed beauty, an uncomfortable place where you can’t find a clear idea of what’s next for you.

The Neutral Zone is like the liminal spaces at the edges of landscapes, where one thing turns into another. There’s the marsh that separates the meadow from the river, the rocky shore where the sea hits the land. Some life is designed specifically for these liminal places, and my children and I take great delight in searching for this life as we wander around the edges of New Zealand. There is new possibility in these spaces which are neither here nor there, neither the sea nor the land.

Loving the liminal zone

Loving the liminal zone

But for us humans, the Neutral Zone is a place of discomfort, a place where the water splashes up over us enough to keep us damp but not enough for us to warm in the sea. It is the place where you know that you do not want to be a lawyer anymore, but you have no idea what you want to be. You do not want to be married to her anymore, but you also don’t want to be not married. You have mourned the loss of the lovely sense of power and control you’ll have to give up for these new forms of teaching, but you have no idea, practically, what you’re moving to in the end or what schools will look like.

The comfort of knowing about the discomfort of the Neutral Zone is the reassurance that every transition has this uncomfortable time, and that the time is generative, is like the spring weather which we’re grateful for when the hills turn neon green and our broad beans grow faster than we can tie them up. You might not enjoy days of rain, followed by showers, turning to the south on Thursday. But you know that the rain will end and the sky will be washed clear and turn cobalt blue, that the wet spring will give way to a drier summer and that the seasons will move with some consistency into the future (or so we hope).

Our changes into a new way of having school will have this uncomfortable feel as well. When we begin to give up–really give up—old ways of teaching and learning, we’ll have a time of trying things out and feeling unsure about them, feeling a qualified success or a horrible failure. From my perspective as a researcher and a teacher, I understand that this time must come. From my perspective as a mother of school-age children, I would love it if the time had come 15 years ago and we could have worked out the bugs already.

So we’ll have to help other people understand about the Neutral Zone too, understand about the richness of the transition, about the great benefits in terms of creativity and growth as well as the concerns over not really knowing what’s next. The danger of this period is not, actually, that we’ll get stuck in it forever (which is what it feels like when you’re inside it). The danger is that we won’t spend enough time in it, that we’ll leap out of it toward any new beginning at all (in relationships we call this “on the rebound”) or that we’ll fall back into the past because the Neutral Zone is too uncomfortable. And it all feels too hard anyway. We need to support ourselves and one another in the exciting and unsettling Neutral Zone, to hold fast to our dreams for the future, and learn like mad. It’s only then that we’ll make it through to the other side transformed and stronger and better than we were before. In New Zealand, you should know this better than any other country. Here you’re on the edge of the world, with a country that has landscapes that move from desert to mountain to sea in the blink of an eye, with a culture that blends and changes and shifts and attempts to find the creative and beautiful space that exists as Maori and Pasifika and Pakeha and other cultures bump up against one another. So here in New Zealand, we should be more prepared to step off into the wilderness, to get off the road and walk in the bush. We know about uncertain weather and seasons and heat in a valley which turns to snow on the mountain. Bring supplies for you and a friend and plenty of layers because the weather is uncertain, but let’s not let that stop us. Let’s take the plunge.

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Thinking tool 1: Understanding Transitions: Endings

October 23rd, 2009

As we talk about school change, and as we sometimes write about the changes to structures and societies that will unfold over the next years, we can’t forget that each piece of school change is about shifting the thinking and practice of all the people inside the schools, that societal or educational change is the result of millions of individual choices by thousands of people around the world. And that making those millions of little changes is super hard.

Ultimately, we have a guess that the very hardest part of shifting our thinking towards new ways of teaching and learning for the 21st Century is not the changing of practice but the necessary changing of minds. It seems to me that teachers and principals don’t simply need to change what they do, but who they believe they are. In order for a focus on key competencies to really blossom, teachers and principals may need to think in knowledge in new ways. If teachers and others think about knowledge in new ways, they have to think about their very role in new ways. And often teachers and principals—like many others in helping professions—are so strongly invested in their roles that they actually are their roles. As one teacher I interviewed told me, “My job is like my identity; if I don’t do this well, who am I, anyway?”

A beautiful ending. What loss are we mourning?

A beautiful ending. What loss are we mourning?

So the question isn’t just about how do we change our practices but how do we change our minds about ourselves?

If we’re really going to shift our schooling, I think we need to spend as much of our time on the meaning of the change as we do on the content of the change.  One way is to recognise some of the stages of change. William Bridges, in his groundbreaking book, Transitions (the 25th anniversary edition was published in 2004), points out that we often don’t pay attention well to the different stages of making a change. The first stage Bridges points to is the idea that we need to focus on Endings before we can even begin to deal with what’s next. After Endings, Bridges names an often-neglected phase: the Neutral Zone. Finally, only after we’ve spent time inside the Neutral Zone will we be able to come to a place of New Beginnings.

I thought today I’d just talk a little about the Endings phase, because we need to think about what we’re giving up before we can move on more fully to where we want to be next. Bridges says—and many others who have come afterwards support this—that people tend not to focus enough on the endings, for fear of getting stuck there or giving into sad emotions. But Bridges tells us that without at least some space mourning what we’ve lost, we will not be able to move to a better and new place. The mourning is about fully recognising what we have given up, which is the first critical step. I wonder if we could give some of our time over to missing what’s lost before ploughing ahead to what’s next.

This raises a question in my mind about whether we should try and spend some time in this blog thinking about what we’ll be mourning about the loss of 20C education if we move toward ending of the way things are now. I wonder whether we need to mourn the loss of teacher-as-expert and content-knowledge-as-knowable and the kinds of certainty that we had in the past. Because even if we know that the old ways aren’t working anymore (and even if some wonder if they ever really worked to teach all the students), there will still be parts of who we used to be as teachers and principals and educators that we may be sorry to give up.

I wonder what those parts are for readers here. What parts of your job or your role do you think are at risk in this move toward more 21C ways of teaching and learning? Which of those changes feel like a loss to you? What are you most afraid you’ll have to give up in order to progress along this path?

[This piece is updated and revised version of one which was located for a few weeks on the NZCER Curriculum Conference blog space.]

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What makes it difficult for us to shift our thinking?

October 21st, 2009

Jennifer Garvey Berger explains why the way our brains work actually makes it difficult for us to shift our thinking.

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ShiftingThinking tools

October 20th, 2009

Ok, see I’ve promised that the thinking tools that we offer at the ShiftingThinking conference will be the best that I can find, which has me pouring over books and past presentations, and working with most of the conference organisers and the Act I cast to figure out what it is that would be most helpful—in the smallest space—for you to hold on to and be able to use, not only at the conference but into the future.

So there’s lots of evidence, from a whole lot of different places, that change is super hard, that shifting your thinking is, for a whole lot of reasons, NOT what your brain and body and our society are wanting you to do. In fact, we know a couple of cool things from brain studies about this.

Our brains pass right over novel data, or refigure it to be less novel and more familiar.  We ignore things in personal ways (like the you your friend ignores all the ways her partner treats her badly and focuses only on the three ways her partner treats her well) and in big systemic ways (like the way scientists ignored the hole in the ozone layer and figured the data that showed the hole was just wrong).  This means that while there are some things that humans are great at learning, unexpected change is not something we’re wired to go toward.

Thinking about learning as something our brains push against is sort of a bummer for those of us in education, and thinking about change as something our brains resist is a bummer for those of us who work on organisational change. Ah well.

In education, we’re really used to the swinging of the pendulum, which is like a kind of change, and it can seem (and certainly did seem to me as a teacher),  like the fad of the day would swing us one way until there would be some backlash, and then we’d swing the other way until there’d be backlash in that direction. And we could carry on like that for, well, forever it seemed to me.

But with all this swinging, nothing is really shifting—we’re just getting kind of car sick.  Teachers tell me all the time that the fads come and go but nothing really changes. But there’s lots of agreement with lot of people that in fact, we really need things to change. What tools could we use so that we could stop swinging and start shifting, start tipping over into a new space?

Imagine this basin, and that you have a marble that you’re dropping inside it:

one basin

one basin

You can imagine where the marble would go, right? You drop it in at the top and it swings back and forth and back and forth, and eventually rests on the bottom. This is NOT an unusual experience for us, eh? Swing one way, swing the other way, finally settle near the middle. The story of most great change initiatives I’ve seen in education and in organisations.

So the question is, how do we get the marble up and over the edge of the basin and into a whole new basin?

over the edge?

over the edge?

How can we stop just flipping back and forth up the sides of the one we have, and begin to move in a whole new direction?

If you pictured the marble, you’d imagine that you couldn’t just DROP the marble in, because if you did that, it wouldn’t have enough energy to make it up and over the hill to the next place. You’d have to THROW the marble in, hurl it, and see what happened next. The thinking tools are supposed to help us all do a little throwing of ideas into the basin with such newness and force that they might slip over the edge and into the next place.

So really, it’s the crest of the hill we need to talk about, and it’s the power to get us over the crest that we need to find. Let’s see if these thinking tools can help.  I have a handful of tools in mind and I’ll try to blog about them in the next week or two before the conference (have you registered yet??). But I’m wondering now what changes you’ve seen in your life and how they’ve actually worked with the energy to tip the change over into the next place. Any advice for the rest of us rolling marbles?

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