It was Roland Barth who asked us to think back to an incident in our life which had been our most intense learning experience.
That’s a really interesting question to ask anyone – if you don’t believe me try it for yourself.
What emerged for me was the moment when our first child was stillborn. Gill was two weeks overdue and the baby just stopped moving one Saturday morning. We went up to the hospital and it took nearly an hour for someone to confirm our worst fears. We were sent home and told to come back the next day where gill would be induced. Gill was in labour for 14 hours before giving birth to a beautiful baby boy who we named Stewart.
We went on to have two wonderful sons Douglas and Lewis but that experience was one which has had a major influence on our approach to life.
As I thought more about that experience I realised that the sense of “loss” which we experienced was to do with our future rather than our past. We had plans, expectations and dreams which we hoped to fulfil with our son – when he was stillborn that loss of the future made our grief even more intense.
So what’s this got to do with learning? Well it struck me that what Norman Kunc called the “hurt of change” might just be connected to people’s fear of losing their future. Leaders often complain about people’s unwillingness to change, to embrace new practices, to adopt a new culture. But what if that unwillingness was actually to do with the fact that they can see the future because it looks just like the present. When a leader comes in who paints a picture of something out of sight then is it any wonder that they recoil, resist – or worse stiil – ignore.
Perhaps the leader might do well to recognise people’s fear of “losing their future” – and through such recognition develop approaches to change which took account of these feelings – as opposed to simply writing off anyone who offers resistance?
Anyone who has children could imagine the agony of this experience, though I suppose that only those who lived through it could really know.
It feels strange to me for someone to share such an intense personal experience in a medium where I can’t respond physically with a touch or an empathetic expression. I hope these reach you virtually.
Very brave, Don. I’m not sure I have the courage to follow you down that path – even in private.
I’ve heard it said that the greatest loss that can be endured is that of a child. You may be right, Don, in your reflection on this, that this is because of the loss of all the futures of hope, expectation and fear.
I don’t know if it is trivial in the analogy to observe that it is the loss of futures which frustrates me so much in trying to teach children in a modern state secondary. The frustration comes about because the futures the children choose by poor effort, attitude and behaviour are avoidable. Unable to learn the lessons of their parents’ history, they are doomed to repeat them.
Thanks for sharing these thoughts and experiences. I wish more in education had your courage.
This “hurt of change” can be much more fundamental than loss of an anticipated future; it can be about loss of identity.
For humans, one of the worst things that can happen is for us to find that we’re not the people we thought we were. This can happen, for example, if we make a serious error of judgement. If you don’t think you’re the kind of person who makes mistakes like that, yet you’ve done so, you’re faced with evidence that you’ve been wrong about yourself. And if you’ve been wrong about that aspect of who you thought you were, how do you make sense of that? You must then start to wonder what else you don’t really know about who you are. This threat to your identity is more than a threat to your future, and can cause you to fall apart.
Our identities are formed over long periods as a result of the meanings we give to our experiences. I can’t put this better than psychologist Dorothy Rowe (in – surprisingly – The Real Meaning of Money).
Where this gets really interesting is that, in the same way as people’s bodies are programmed for physical survival, their meaning structures (or, in systems thinking terms, mental models) organise for survival too.
When change happens, it often doesn’t fit neatly with people’s established meaning structures. People are proud of the way they are, and will go to some lengths to stay that way. That’s what causes the symptoms of resistance, recoiling or ignoring of change. It’s themselves that they want to stay the same, not some imagined future. People don’t have a problem with the future being different, as long as they can retain their same sense of identity.
As for introducing change, what has to happen for meaning structures to change is for something to happen which conflicts with the existing mental models or frame of reference. Then the structures have to re-form as the sensemaking process takes place. I feel awkward saying this, but your plans, expectations and dreams were part of those structures which had to re-form. That’s why it was an intense learning experience.
Perhaps to some extent it is embedded meaning structures that have led to less change in schools than might be expected, given the extent of change in society? After all, school has provided every adult in the country with a full set of school-related meanings.
What it means to be a pupil: schoolbags, uniform, homework, keeping quiet, rankings …
What school means: exams, certificates, rules, classrooms, periods, bells …
What it means to be a teacher: marking, delivering, knowing…
This comment has gone on far too long – time to call a halt!
As ever a really helpful comment.
I wasn’t proposing that loss of the future was the only factor in the “hurt of change” but simply suggesting it might be factor worthy of consideration.