Perhaps the Answer is Disposition

As we rapidly move through the first quarter of the 21st century, most would agree that “change” seems to be a constant part of conversation when talking about schooling across North America. Beyond the conversation about change, there’s seemingly no end in sight to the constant stream of “initiatives” that demand change from educators. Few of these initiatives are embraced or acted upon for a variety of reasons.

Project-Based Learning, PBL, PBL Consulting

Despite all this focus on change, real, powerful and sustained change is only seen in rare pockets. Why is that?

Change, as a constant, is the only common pattern in dozens of schools-that-work that we at PBLC have seen, studied and supported around the nation and world.

They have achieved a homeostasis of continuous improvement. Thus, their constant is change.

They change purposefully to improve student success and LX (learner-experience) by improving their own educator thinking and practice. However, if change is to be the new constant, and change continues to be horribly unpleasant, then let's face it, no one will want to do it.

Gerald – a guest blogger – wrote a recent blog post (Teaching in a New Reality), in which he writes about the disconnect between what he wants students to learn and what he’s told they need to learn. After writing it, he received a lot of feedback.

Some within his immediate eco-system feel a profound disconnect between what their school system considers real learning [CA1] [GF2] and what research and contemporary society demand of our learning. There is a strong belief within the school system that content, mostly in the form of ‘knowledge’, is what students need to learn. This is a strident, proficiency-oriented, group and they came down firmly on the side of what they perceive to be true – that students are not learning anything if they are not learning the ‘content.’ They might be right.

Others, more removed and part of his echo chamber, were challenged by the thought it was a question at all: ‘yes, just get rid of the minutiae of the content and get on with the real learning!’ Contemporary research and thinkers champion this growth-oriented approach as necessary for success in our increasingly fluid landscape. He received many questions and had many thoughtful discussions stemming from his original post.

However, the question that resonated with Gerald the most and has now inspired this follow-up blog, was from Charity at PBL Consulting, asking: “Which educator dispositions are key to continuous improvement?”

Gerald notes:

“My glib answer was that it was having a relentless restlessness as part of your soul. However, on reflection I think that was a bit simplistic and she called me on it.”

Carol Dweck’s work has had a profound change on the way we see learning, and I have no doubt that having a Growth Mindset is crucial for successful educators. In parallel, there is a growing movement of educators whose M.O. (modus operandi) is ongoing inquiry, as an important methodology for guiding improvement. However, neither Growth Mindset, nor inquiry, get to the core of what Charity was asking because they are not dispositions.

Dispositions go further; they are the ingrained qualities of mind and character that drive a person. A disposition for continuous improvement begins by being a learner - a passionate learner. People disposed to continuous improvement love to learn! Many educators enjoy learning and, consequently, we want to improve. Others enjoy “already knowing” and are, quite frankly uncomfortable when pushed out of their comfort zone into the territory of new learning. While that may sound antithetical to teaching, it isn’t so uncommon.

What are the characteristics of a learner? Learners, by nature, are curious. They are open to different thinking and ideas. They learn from multiple sources and synthesize their learning with existing schemata to create new understandings. Learners want to know and/or improve. They want to try, tinker and test.

But, it is more than this.

Nearly all the educators I know went into education to improve the life-chances of our students. Students’ readiness to face their world is our tantamount goal. Steady self-improvement is vital to this end. As educators, we take great pride in our students’ success, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Being able to fulfill this promise of student success ought to be a driving motivator for our own continuous improvement at our craft, as educators.

But, it is more than this.

In order to seek continuous improvement one also needs to be brave as well as tenacious. We need to ask tough questions – many with deeply elusive answers. We must be willing and prepared to pursue those answers. This leads to a willingness for learning and pursuit of continuous improvement. But, what about effectiveness at continuous improvement?

Is all of that enough?

Looking at the above cocktail of educator ingredients:

(1) actively being a learner,

(2) laser-like focus on student success,

(3) brave questioning,

(4) tenacious inquiry,

(5) risk taking and more.

Are those enough to foster successful educator improvement? And will they successfully improve student learning? How do schools-that-work foster effective continuous improvement?

These are important questions to consider as we work to move forward. There are many, many factors that can enhance and support the change agenda, but real and powerful change may likely need to begin with an individual recognizing a need to change and having the disposition to invite that change. That change can occur at the micro and macro levels - changing the things we can control, or working at systemic change. None of this matters however if we are not courageous learners first and foremost. The puzzle of successful change has many pieces - skill, time, support, networks, opportunity, and many more - but having a powerful disposition is undeniably a key piece to get started.

About the Author: Gerald is a teacher in the Comox Valley. Throughout his career he has consistently sought ways to improve the quality of learning for his students. He has successfully lead initiatives to improve assessment practices, collaboration, critical thinking, gifted education, literacy, numeracy, and resilience. He has many published articles and has presented at numerous conferences at the local, provincial, national and international level. His blog: Why Not? chronicles some of his recent work and learning journeys.

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