Monday, February 11, 2013

Dealing with the Disruption of Change

This post was constructed on the eve of eTech 2013 in Columbus, Ohio.  In a rare moment of total solitude, I’m writing while looking out my 7th floor window in the Hyatt looking at North High Street.  A chance to gaze at the place I called home for 5 years.  Like so much else I’ve written recently, this is again about change….but within the framework of a broader reflection on nearing the completion of my 40th trip around the sun….

Driving to Columbus this evening I found that my XM radio had been activated once again for a ‘trial’ period.  Flipping through the stations, I landed at the 50’s on 5 station and decided to linger for a bit.  As I listened, my mind wandered to how music changed radically within 10 short years between the 50’s and 60’s.  The 70’s saw change take on different forms, and by the end of the 70’s music was radically different again.  The 1980’s carried on the split personality of the 70’s, with the early half very different from the back half of the decade.  The early 1990’s saw a major course correction with the direction of rock, an evolution in hip-hop, and the rise and fall of the boy bands.  Having arrived at the 90’s on 9 channel, I thought again about the 50’s and wondered what the course of the music industry would have been if there had been a refusal on the part of the participants to change with the times….

The movie ‘Lincoln’ has once again focused attention on the era of the 1860’s.  Imagine being 5 in the middle of that decade.  Assuming you lived to an age of 65, think about the ways in which the world changed.  Electric lights were invented and began the process of replacing gas-powered fixtures and revolutionized the way America worked and played.  The telegraph and the railroads gave way to the telephone and the automobile.  Warfare was revolutionized through industrial era inventions that made the Civil War style of battle unrecognizable for those who fought in World War I.  Air travel, almost unthinkable in 1865, was old news by the 1920’s.  I wonder what happened to people from this era who were change resistant?

As I near this next phase in my life, I look back and recognize how fortunate I am to be living at a particular time in the history of this planet where I can bear witness to the dramatic changes that have occurred between the close of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century.  I am just old enough to remember Pong, and had an Atari 2600 as my first video game console.  In my lifetime, I have had a reel-to-reel music player (I can still remember the face of Johnny Mathis on the box cover), a record player, an 8-track player, a cassette player, a cd player, and a dedicated mp3 player.  In 1999 my wife and I drove across the country and camped the National Park circuit….using pay phones to communicate with home.  A year later I bought my wife her first cell phone, and signed a two-year contract with Airtouch (after a series of M and A’s the vestiges of this company are now part of Verizon).  The phone was the size of your head and had a one-line screen for numerical input.  I had a T.V. in my room for a bit (hooked up to my Commodore 64).  It was a 13-inch black and white with the VHF and UHF nobs.  In 2004 I bought my first hand held GPS receiver.  It did nothing else but give GPS coordinates. Growing up in New Jersey I was a huge NY Islanders fan.  My best friend at the time had cable, so I would go to his house to watch the games.  We would slide the cable box selector to Sports Channel (no remote).  ESPN had just recently been started, and there was only 1 channel of it (the whole world wide leader thing came much later).

We live in a world where the changes have enriched our lives in many ways.  Change does not stand still, does not take time off, and does not wait for people who are reluctant to get on board.  Change disrupts, causes pain, is disconcerting, while all the while creating new opportunities for those who embrace it.

Think back to your first cell phone.  Would you want to use it today?

Would you want your doctor to practice medicine on you in the same way it was practiced in the 1970s?

Would you like to watch T.V. on a state of the art Sony Trinitron from the mid 1980s?

Do you want your kids taught in the same way that kids have been taught for the past 125 years?

As educators, we are practicing at an amazing moment in the history of our civilization.  Never before has it been possible to personalize the experience for every student in the manner now available through the integration of technology with instruction.  The change this reality is bringing to education is difficult for many.  Every day I hear fellow professionals lament educational change for its difficulty, complexity, or the fact that it is change itself.  Education is going to look radically different in five years.  The educators that have a change adverse attitude run the high risk of marginalization or outright alienation in an era of individualized, self-paced learning.

Our nation needs great teachers; ones who aren’t afraid of change, and who teach with the passion of an entrepreneur and the creativity of an indie tech startup.  Teachers who recognize that the future will be radically different from both our past and our present, and who are willing to re-mix what they do on the fly for the betterment of their students.

Music did not stand still in the 1950s.  Communication technology did not stop evolving with the telegraph.  Medical advances did not halt with the development of the vaccine for polio.  Computer technology did not end with the release of Windows 3.0 or the first Macintosh.

Educational change, though slower to evolve initially, will not stop now that the ball is rolling down the hill and the genie is out of the bottle.

Embrace the change.  Prepare your students for the world they will live in.  They will be engaged in ways we can’t imagine and they will flourish because of it.


  1. Preaching to the choir with me. But the beauty of blogging is you get to push back with your own thoughts. So here are the questions rambling in my head.

    One big question is are we as administrators encouraging and allowing teachers who embrace the change. Even when embracing change sometimes results in failure.

    Implicit behind the argument to embrace change (well, at least this argument) is that change is progress. The way I read history, we've pretty much been moving the ball forward bit by bit (heck, I'd much rather live now than other time in history).

    But progress hasn't been a straight line. Lots of failures along the way (just read a bio of Edison who, while inventing gobs of things, had monetary and staying success with few).

    I sometimes wonder if the current policy trend of "high stakes everything" will push teachers to become more conservative (stick to what they know, circle the wagons) in their teaching. If I find this really cool new app to try with my students - an app that has very little evidence of increasing academic performance because it's so new - will I be willing to try it out if my job might be on the line?

    And we need the experimenters! We need to get a sense of what actually works with all the new technologies hitting the stage.

  2. Also - forgot to mention - but nice post.