Are Teachers (Like Other Humans) Immune To Change?

Yesterday I briefly mentioned the book Switch, which is about barriers to adult change. Today's dish is called Immunity To Change. It's written by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey.

Kegan works a couple miles away from our charter school, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He's an eminent psychologist. From his faculty bio page:

"I have been told," he says, "it may help to know that I am also a husband and a father; influenced by Hasidism; an airplane pilot; a poker player; and the unheralded inventor of the 'Base Average,' a more comprehensive way of gauging a baseball player's offensive contributions."

So we love him already.

The following description is from one of the Amazon reader reviews of the book. Why am I citing it instead of, say, a newspaper review? It's because "37 of 37 people found the following review helpful"! :)

At the risk of being overly reductive, I will try to summarize the theory.

People deal with fear and anxiety as a normal part of life. They don't feel this fear most of the time because they have created effective internal anxiety management systems. Those frameworks for evaluating experience are beneficial and necessary but can also form a hidden barrier to the desire to achieve adaptive change.

The development of a more complex mental framework (the "self-transforming mind") help the individual recognize the filtering effect and limitations of his/her own frame of reference. This recognition will allow the individual to begin to negate the effects of an internally imposed change immunity.

Looked at this way, any change which is adaptive rather than technical will, as a matter of course, put at risk "a way of knowing the world that also serves as a way of managing a persistent, fundemental anxiety." The authors argue that we can only succeed with adaptive changes by recognizing the seriousness of the internal challenge we face. The desired change can put at risk "what has been a very well-functioning way of taking care of ourselves."

Another reader chimed in:

I and my clients find their methodology very user friendly, specific and actionable. There are distinct actions one can take, experiments to design and run. It is an active process; the act of designing and running learning experiments while engaging others in the process puts the developer in the driver's seat encouraging agency and ownership for learning.

Many of my clients have expressed excitement at their self generated discoveries. Other contributions: the positive frame and non-judgmental stance of their methodology bring people to their big assumptions gently, maximizing receptivity to learning and change. "Defenses" potentially can relax, respecting individual needs relative to the pace of change.

So what does Kegan actually say? Well, read this excellent 12-page non-traditional review by Jonathan Reams.

My key takeaway, if I'm understanding correctly: Kegan argues that a formal approach to testing assumptions is what helps us overcome our natural resistance to change.

The work of testing big assumptions is set out in clear stages. First is designing a test.

Here they make an important distinction between an event focused approach and a process or learning focused one. Our tendency to take immediate action to solve the problems identified in column two leads to thinking that if we can simply do something that goes against our competing commitments or big assumptions, we will have overcome them.

Kegan and Lahey point out that the point of the test is to learn something about our big assumption -– to see if and to what degree it might be true, false, or more nuanced than we imagined. They again provide helpful criteria for guiding the design of the test, and examples of how it might look.

The second step is running the test you have designed. Here it is important to make detailed notes on what actually happened, both about how you felt during the test and how others responded or acted. They emphasize directly observable data, and warn against allowing interpretation to sneak in.

The third stage is the actual interpreting of your test, and here again examples illustrate the points made and a guide sheet keeps us on track.

Once these steps are completed, they show how to consolidate the learning by identifying how you get hooked into activating the big assumption and entire immunity system. In addition, you learn how to identify new practices you develop that help release you from the grip of the immunity system. All of these are shown to be repeatable, and how they can help evolve and even develop new immunity maps over time.

Hmm. I'm trying to digest the implications of this.

Our instinct with a very limited amount of coaching time is to fix stuff in others. Kegan's approach has its appeal, but is it too slow? Moreover, don't we introduce lots of risk associated with seeing what we want to see?