01 June 2008

The Edge of Your Rut Is Not the Horizon

I was reading an article asking "Can you become a creature of new habits?" from the New York Times. My answer to the title was "I'm trying...at least in some areas of life."
All of us work through problems in ways of which we’re unawares. Researchers in the late 1960s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. At puberty, however, the brain shuts down half of that capacity, preserving only those modes of thought that have seemed most valuable during the first decade or so of life...

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.
While I can't claim to be adventurous in all areas of my life, I do find that I am willing to "stretch" professionally. The William Wordsworth quote which kicks off the article seems to highlight the frustrations I have with most of my peers (and groupthink at large within the district): "Not choice, but habit, rules the unreflecting herd."

So, what do we do about that? How do we help our peers move from a comfort zone to a stretch zone...without stressing them? What are the most important areas for this? Technology? Grading? Instruction?

And for kids? If their brains are going to "pick two by puberty," which ones do we want most deeply ingrained? The article suggests that the current standards-based climate emphasizes the first two...but I'm thinking that one from the first pair and one from the second pair might be more valuable. In truth, I like the second pair (collaboration, innovation) best; but having worked with a few people who fit that description, I can say that it's frustrating. You never actually get to a point where you can make actual plans and figure out the details. Mind you, all of the ways of forming habits are available throughout a lifetime---but they are not equally relied upon. As teachers, which do we value most in our students?

You cannot have innovation, unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder. How do you help yourself make that move?


Unknown said...

I actually copied this article, along with Jeff Utecht's post about it and passed it out to a few of my teachers. When I was reading this article I kept reflecting on how reticent not only teachers are to change, but also students. Over the last two years, I have been in more than a few classrooms where the students opted out of using various technological applications in favor of more traditional means to express understanding. Our students have created habits based on our teaching also.

As an aside, I read this quote this morning on Carolyn Foote's blog regarding habits and change: "The systematic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” Clay Shirky

Roger Sweeny said...

Of course, a systematic bias for innovation also creates tolerance for the substandard. "Look at the cool use of technology. I'm not going to take off many points for the thin content."

The point isn't to do things differently. It's to do things well.

The Science Goddess said...

I agree that doing things well is more important than doing them differently. New isn't automatically equivalent with better.

And yet I can't help but think that unless we continue to look at "new," we'll never know if there's something better out there.

I hope that there's a mediating pathway out there.