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emotions edtech

There’s an emotional side of edtech—and it’s affecting school innovation


Change management expert Rob Evans discusses how to understand the human side of integrating change in schools and manage the loss of control.

[Editor’s note: This post by Alan November, written exclusively for eSchool Media, is part of a series of upcoming articles by this notable education thought leader. Check back later this month for the next must-read post!]

At one of my recent workshops, I was approached by a teacher who had never redesigned her lessons to take advantage of edtech’s potential to transform learning. She was still stuck in the $1,000 pencil phase of using new tools to do traditional work. When I showed examples of how teachers around the country were challenging students to design and find solutions to their own problems, she immediately saw the benefit of shifting her thinking.

The good news was that she was reconsidering her beliefs and was now convinced that she had been underestimating her students. The bad news is, she was afraid of appearing vulnerable in front of her students if something went wrong. Because she had never tried shifting control to her students to research their own problem designs using edtech, she was worried that she would not be knowledgeable enough to help them develop their own ideas.  While she could see the value of challenging her students to try something new, she felt anxious about moving ahead.

A Common Dilemma

I believe this is a common dilemma. Any one of us can feel paralyzed by the tension between wanting to change but feeling vulnerable if we try something new.  I am convinced that the difficult work of transforming teaching and learning with the help of edtech is not about teaching teachers how to use new tools; it’s really about the emotional side of letting go of control and managing the anxiety that comes with a sense of loss.

If we are to tap the potential of emerging tools and the web to increase student achievement, we need to better prepare our leaders and teachers to understand the emotional side of change.

Learn from the best innovations in education! Join education thought leader Alan November in Boston July 26-28 for his 2017 Building Learning Communities edtech conference, where hundreds of K-12 and higher-education leaders from around the globe will gather to discuss the world’s most successful innovations in education.

Rob Evans is one of the foremost experts on this issue. He is the author of Understanding the Human Side of School Change, and I’m thrilled to say he will be speaking at the 2017 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston on July 28. In a podcast I recorded with Rob, he briefly touched on some of the keys to successfully managing change in education.

When I told Rob the story of this teacher who had approached me after my workshop and shared her anxiety with me, he said: “It would be surprising if she felt anything else.”

He explained: “I have yet to encounter a school that is able to confidently and publicly say to its students and parents, ‘We’re going to try some new stuff. It might not work as well as we hope at first. We’ll probably learn some valuable lessons in the process. But there might be some disruptions en route.’ The tolerance for error that we know is crucial to the learning in children is something that adults (too often) don’t give each other.”

I asked Rob: How can K-12 leaders build a culture that supports risk-taking among their staff?

(Next page: Supporting change and risk-taking)

“All human beings react to any kind of change not purely to the event itself, but to its meaning to us,” he said. When change is occurring in a school system, “the question isn’t just what does it consist of pedagogically, but what does it mean to the people who are going to have to do it?” Leaders can be very helpful “if they’re able to shape the meaning of the change so that it combines an obvious commitment to something new and important for students with an obvious commitment to the practitioners who are going to have to deliver it.”

Managing Loss

The initial meaning of the change to the practitioner often involves loss, Rob said. Teachers are giving up not just something they know how to do well, but the whole way they learned how to do it. This sense of loss is very real and pervasive, but often it’s disregarded by K-12 leaders. To an advocate for change, he said, these issues “seem very, very small—but they are loaded with meaning for the teacher.”

Leaders need to communicate to their staff that edtech holds the potential not just for promise and excitement, but also for loss and challenge.

“If those things can be combined,” Rob said, “what you’re able to do is give people more encouragement to try something new, because you’re acknowledging the challenge built into (the change) and therefore not expecting them to be perfect at first. At the same time, you’re saying, ‘There is a way forward here. And we’re going to balance the tension of what you’re losing and giving up with a focus on what we’re going to gain.’”

Pressure + Support

None of us changes without some combination of pressure and support, he added. Pressure is anything that makes it harder for us to continue doing what we were doing, and it can be range from simply asking someone to change, to threatening to fire them if they continue their old course of action. Support would be anything that makes it easier for us to try something new. This can include money, incentives, training, or even overt permission to take risks without having to be perfect.

“If you only pressure people, they retreat into a shell and the resistance goes underground,” Rob said. “If you only support people, they typically stay where they are and don’t do much.” It’s the combination of these two strategies, he said, that makes a real difference.

When communicating with their staff about change, leaders must explain why, what, and how, he said. In other words: “Why we can’t stay where we are, what we have to change to, and how we’re going to get there.” Most school districts cover the “what”: “We’ve got a new math series this year.” They address the “how”: “We will hold training on the second Tuesday of every month.” But they typically omit the most important element, he said, which is the why: “Why do we have to do this?”

If more K-12 leaders addressed this one simple word—“why”—when discussing change with their staff, they might see more success with using technology to transform teaching and learning. Of course, knowing this and putting it into practice are two different things.

For more change management advice from Rob Evans, come hear him speak at BLC ’17 this July, where—after his keynote address—he’ll continue the conversation about this critical topic during a more intimate question-and-answer session with conference participants.

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