The Learning Zone / To Change, Start Where You (Really) Are

Much of my life, personally and professionally, has been dedicated to answering one question: What does it take to really change? Over the years, through my research and that of others, I’ve identified several important strategies for bringing about real and lasting change. For example, real change doesn’t happen until we apply new ideas in real life. Real change is usually propelled forward by an emotionally compelling goal (Heath & Heath, 2010), and people are more likely to stay motivated to change if they monitor their progress (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).

But before we can implement any of these change strategies, there’s one prerequisite: If we want to make changes that make a difference and last, we must start by getting a clear picture of reality.

Seeing the present reality clearly helps us identify the highest-leverage changes we should make, the actions we should take to achieve our goals. Perhaps more important, having a clear picture —including of our strengths and shortcomings in teaching practice—is essential to even want to bring about change. People usually aren’t motivated to change unless they see a gap between where they are and where they want to be.

That Ubiquitous Avoidance

But while a clear picture of reality helps us clarify what we need to do and why, avoiding reality is a near-universal human tendency. Most of us avoid reality at least some of the time because we want to believe that we are competent, good people. Seeing life in its naked brutality can just be too difficult. This is especially true with actions regarding equity because buried within our defense mechanisms is the fear that we might not be as good of a person as we think; we may treat one group of kids less fairly or tune out injustices. So, we often use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves, justifying our behaviors by rationalizing, avoiding unpleasant data by denial and minimization, and shirking accepting responsibility by blaming others.

Often such defense mechanisms are actually helpful and healthy. Change experts Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross explain that “without the protection of these ‘mental shields’ we would be bombarded constantly by undesirable feelings and external threats, both real and imagined. Defensive reactions allow us to avoid, temporarily at least, what we cannot confront, and let us get on with our lives” (Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 1994, p. 82). So, defense mechanisms protect our emotional state. Unfortunately, if we never address them, they can make it hard for us to change.

Most of us also struggle to see reality clearly because our view of reality is obscured by perceptual errors like confirmation bias and habituation. Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out data that confirm our preconceived notions. Habituation involves getting so used to whatever we’re experiencing that we stop noticing or wondering about key aspects of that experience, like why kids from certain groups are so often in certain classes. The combined impact of defensiveness and perceptual errors is that most of us don’t really know what it looks like when we do what we do as educators. This is a huge barrier to change! Fortunately, we can take actions to determine what’s really unfolding.

Getting to Reality

Record Yourself

There’s a reason why almost every middle and high school football team in the United States watches game film: it shows them what they’re really doing on the field. Likewise, a video recording of yourself delivering a lesson, talking with a child, etc. cuts through defense mechanisms and perceptual errors. It shows your tone, how much time you spend with various kids, and so on—and consequently helps identify what you need to change. I highly recommend educators take and watch video of themselves in all kinds of contexts, including in the classroom, presenting, coaching, or during meetings to see how you lead and collaborate.

In schools, video can be an especially important tool for creating equitable classrooms. Video reveals how you interact with each student and may clue you in to subtle biases in your actions or how your classroom is set up.

Ask Those You Interact With

Asking those you interact with as an educator to describe their experiences in class/at school helps you get a clearer picture of your own behavior and its effects. Teachers and coaches learn a lot when they ask students to describe their learning, how engaged they feel in class, or the connection or lack thereof they feel with their school. Administrators and coaches benefit from meeting one-to-one with others in the school to seek feedback.

Our tendency to avoid reality is especially true with regard to equity because buried within our defense mechanisms is the fear that we might not be as good of a person as we think.

Instructional coaches can help with feedback seeking. For example, Bill Sommers—a former principal and now a coach for administrators who I’ve worked with—has adapted Marshall Goldsmith’s Stakeholder Coaching method. Sommers begins his coaching by interviewing people who are affected by an administrator’s actions (often those a leader notes that he or she has the most contact with), then synthesizes this interview data and shares the results with the administrator. A focus for coaching often surfaces.

Listen to Understand

It’s easy to listen to people when they share positive information about us—(“Please, tell me more!”). It’s a lot harder to listen when they share negative information. Our defensiveness can keep us from hearing important information that could help us see what’s truly happening and move closer to our goals. I know I’ve damaged relationships that would have remained sounder if I’d done a better job of putting my defensiveness aside and just listened. We don’t have to agree with what others say, but we should at least hear them out before we start to disagree.

When we really listen, we communicate to others that we value their opinions and expertise. For leaders, this is crucial. The teams where the most learning occurs are those where everyone feels free to share their ideas—whether positive or critical. This atmosphere won’t exist when leaders silence people before they have a chance to share their ideas.

The Story of Our Lives

Getting a clear picture of reality, then, is an essential strategy for us professionally, and I think also personally. A life well-lived is a changing, growing life. I will never be the perfect version of myself. But I can be a little bit better—a better husband, parent, grandparent, and a better coach, leader, professional developer, or teacher. Learning, adapting, and setting goals is a big part of writing the story of my life. To write that story, I need a clear picture of reality.