Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Small Change (Part 1)


I am currently about half way through John Holt's (1982) revised edition of How Children Learn and have been reflecting on why he seemed to have given up on traditional education and focused on homeschool families later in his career. Evidently he grew frustrated with trying to get through to schools and educators regarding issues like questions vs quizzes, drawing upon a student's interests, trust, etc. and decided that he would focus his efforts with a group that was willing to listen. He became a champion of the unschooling movement (a movement whose name I now think is misleading as it seems most unschoolers are really just creating Montessori learning environments for their children at home) and with the exception of a now growing number of progressive educators has not left a substantial mark on "the system."

I began to think about this as well as some contemporary voices in education who seem to be up against the same wall (people like Alfie Kohn, Joe Bower, and Doug Thomas just to name a few). Kohn has largely focused his energies on alternative schools and parenting issues much in the same way Holt did, Thomas has focused his energies the past twenty years mostly on creating small teacher-run charter schools, and Bower seems to run up against massive resistance every time he writes about tests, grades, or anything else that challenges conventional wisdom. Why is it that whenever someone tries to push the envelope in public education their efforts always seem to land within a more narrow focus and rarely have the broad systemic effect they deserve? I think there are possibly five major forces at play here: Cognitive Dissonance, Zone of Proximal Development, Connectivism, Curricular Efficiency, and Disruptive Innovation.

George Seimens & Stephen Downes, in their theory of Connectivism, re-envision the learner not so much as an individual learner but rather a group or organization as the learner. Essentially, the theory of Connectivism describes the learning of a group and not of the individual. Once we start applying some of the other more established and accepted learning theories to this new idea of group as learner instead of individual some of this selective effectiveness of progressive ideas in education start to make sense.


Lev Vygotsky's theory of the zone of proximal development tells us that of what is possible to do and understand: 1. a small portion a person has mastered; 2. a small portion beyond that is within the learner's reach with help (zone of proximal development); and 3. a much more vast area is beyond the reach of the learner until they have mastered more of their zone of proximal development (see illustration above). But this applied to a group or organization of people probably looks more like this:

Now if we strip this down to common areas that fall either within group shared knowledge or zone of proximal development you are left with:

So, you can see that there is very little that falls within a group's zone of proximal development that someone in the group doesn't already have mastered. In fact, in this example that area of growth can be illustrated like this:

And, of course this is a broad generalization. Some groups will have a larger area of shared knowledge than others and for each topic this illustration would look different for each organization. The larger the organization, the smaller the area of shared zone of proximal development, the smaller the organization the greater the area of the shared zone of proximal development. There is in organizations a very thin area in which sustained innovation and change can really occur. Anything which pushes us too far outside of that zone will quickly cause mass cognitive dissonance. And as L. Festinger, who first introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance, tells us, when we are pushed to the point of cognitive dissonance, the dissonant beliefs tend to be the stronger force.

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).
[from http://tip.psychology.org/festinge.html]

Once a belief like "we need grades" or "school must be comprised of classes" is in conflict with a new idea (a technology) the old belief, no matter how unfounded it is, usually wins. Therefore, if you want to make change quickly it is easier to do with a small organization than a large one. This is probably one reason why charter schools have proliferated in recent years, and one reason why we see such a growing trend in homeschooling, online education, and unschooling.

This brings me to the idea of curricular efficiency. I was first introduced to this idea by Bernie Dodge when I was working on my master's capstone on Virtual World WebQuests. The topic came up that while virtual worlds potentially possess great potential as a learning tool, they pose a problem of curricular efficiency. In other words, the leap from what one knows to what one needs to know to be able to make use of the tool was too high to fall within that zone of proximal development for most educators. And, when you apply that concept to a group of educators that zone is even more narrow.

If we see schooling as a technology deployed for the purpose of educating people, and ideas are the innovations within that technology, only those ideas which fall within the group zone of proximal development will affect any movement on the plane of sustaining innovation. Anything that pushes that envelope too far can only stand ground as a disruptive innovation, and as we know from Clayton Christensen's theory of Disruptive Innovation, usually a mainstream organization will not see any value or advantage in adopting or accepting a disruptive innovation. But, as time goes on, and those disruptive technologies get better and better through their own incremental changes they eventually "eat the parent." In other words, ideas that cause systemic cognitive dissonance eventually, though applied outside the system, will take over. Which is why so many progressive educators and others working on the cutting edge of innovation in education seem to end up focusing their attention on smaller groups, many on the fringes, and rarely in the mainstream. It is also the source of great frustration and anxiety. It is also why, "Change we can believe in," seems to many like no change at all.


Go on to Part 2 ---->

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