On Transitioning – Not Jumping Straight from the Traditional to the New

In my experience, the biggest mistake we make with large scale school change, like with Customized Learning, is thinking that we should, or need to, make the change all at once.  One day we’re living in the old; the next we’re living in the new. Part of that mistake is thinking that the initiative is one monolithic thing (that can just be turned on or off!), rather than something made up of many interconnected parts; also, it is thinking we should do it all at once, rather than phasing in the work.

But another piece is misunderstanding the nature of transitioning from the traditional to the new.

Let me show you what I mean.

Put your hands on the table about 18 inches apart, edge of your hand touching the table and palms facing each other (like you are measuring some fish you caught!).

We're here now, and want to end up here.Your left hand is where we are today. A group of students are taught the content at the same time (regardless of the pace they are learning it). They all learn it the same way. They all take the assessment at the same time. Grades are F to A, based on that assessment. Learning and assessment are based more on activities than they are learning targets; based more on building foundational knowledge (recall) than they are about both foundational knowledge and putting that knowledge to use (both recall and complex reasoning).

Your right hand is where we want to end up.  Learning is the constant and time is the variable (pace is based on how fast the student learns the material – with lots of teacher nudging and coaching, of course). Everyone learns the same content, but they learn it in a way that works well for them. Assessments are taken when the student is ready. Scoring (grades) is 1 to 4 based on the learner’s level of proficiency with the learning target. The student doesn’t move on until they are proficient with the content and there are multiple ways a student might demonstrate that proficiency. Proficiency requires being able to put the knowledge to use, not simply recall the related foundation knowledge.

But notice, your hands aren’t touching.  They’re 18 inches apart. We think it will take us about 5 years to transition from where we are now (left hand) to where we want to be (right hand).

And here is where we misunderstand transitioning. 

We get frustrated with teachers, or think they are doing it wrong if they are still doing parts from the traditional system. 

Instead, we should be expecting a mix of the old and the new that is (more or less) proportionate to how far along with the transition we are.

Now tap your right hand about a third of the way from your left hand. This is where we would be about a third into the transition. The problem is that some will expect that change to look just like where we want to end up. But it’s only a third of the way there. In reality, we should expect it to look mostly like the transitional system and only a little like the new system. If we were two-thirds along the transition, we’d expect it to still look some like the traditional system, but more like the new system.

Student progress trackingFor example, let’s say we are talking about learning progress management, and we are about a third of the way along our transition from what we used to do to the new system we want (keeping in mind that “a third” is metaphorical, simply to make a point). We would expect that a teacher might be keeping track of which unit or chapter each student is in the text (maybe with charts on the wall), students take the chapter test when they are ready, and grades are recorded in the electronic grade book (e.g. PowerSchool). The traditional pieces are that “the curriculum” is the textbook, that the text (and teacher mini lessons, we presume) are the primary approach to learning, and students are earning traditional grades. The new parts include keeping track of where students are in their learning, and students have some flexibility of pace.  

But if we were 2/3rds along, we might expect that the teacher would be using an online learning progress management system (e.g. Educate/Empower) to make sure that both she and her students know the full curriculum and which learning targets they are currently working on, is keeping track of which learning targets each student has demonstrated proficiency on, and the teacher then translates that information into an A through F for the report card each quarter. The traditional pieces include the A to F grades, and report cards each grading period. The new pieces include the transparent curriculum, keeping track of proficiency of learning targets,  and “grades” based on proficiency, rather than performance on assignments and activities.

Notice, more traditional and a little new early in the transition and a little traditional and more new later in the transition.

The big idea here is that we shouldn’t expect what teachers are doing to look entirely like the new system until the new system is fully implemented.

Additionally, if we’re just starting a transition, it needs to be ok that most of what we are doing looks like the traditional system. And even when we’re pretty far along with the change, we need to remember that there will still be elements of the traditional mixed in with the new.

From a leadership perspective, our biggest job is supporting teachers through the initiative toward a high level of implementation. And a major component of that is having realistic expectations of those teachers, based on how far along with the transition they currently are.


4 thoughts on “On Transitioning – Not Jumping Straight from the Traditional to the New

  1. Gary Kidd

    Many years ago, as we were engaged in a systemic evolution in my district, I was trained in Change and Transition Management through William Bridges and Assoc. Their model put your comments into practice. We learned 3 phases, the first being the identification of what is ending from the traditional practice that would no longer be needed in the new practice. We were successful in our evolution in that district, due in large part to the work we invested in change and transition at the beginning of the process. We didn’t focus on the specifics of what would be changing until our staff became confident in the process of change.

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