Disruption, Disorientation, Disequilibrium… Now What?

Dr. Lynn Swaner, Dan Beerens, Erik EllefsenThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

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At a time when many of us thought we’d be coming back from or headed into a much-needed spring break, we’ve instead found ourselves in one of the most trying and challenging of times in modern history—let alone modern education. Right now, nearly all our professional focus is on ensuring continuity of student learning and school operations. All our personal focus may be on caring for our own children at home, protecting vulnerable family members, and trying to serve neighbors in need. And that is exactly where our attention should be. But the present crisis also presents an opportunity for us, as educators, to learn as well. If we’re not careful—meaning if we’re not intentional­­—we may sacrifice this rare opportunity to the very real tyranny of the new urgent.

And there’s a lot we need to learn—maybe even more than our students. Consider what Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and David Blanchard say in their recent piece in Praxis Journal, entitled “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Start Up.”

  • “We are all operating with profound uncertainty not only about the future, but even about the present.”
  • “We’re not going back to normal.”
  • “This is a time to urgently redesign our work…many assumptions and approaches must change for good.”
  • “We urge every leader to realize that their organization’s survival in weeks and months, let alone years, depends far more on radical innovation than on tactical cutbacks.”

Regarding this last point, as our friend Bill Latham of Meteor Education says, “Innovation comes from pain.” No one wants to experience pain, but we rarely have a choice in the matter. Forced school closures are painful. Cancelled concerts, proms, and graduations are painful. Transitioning instruction to online platforms in a matter of hours is painful. Having our colleagues and students wrestle with fear or illness is painful. Losing the comforting rhythms and routines of our school communities is painful. As Crouch and colleagues state, all of this current pain will have a profound and lasting impact on society, including education. The question is, how do we learn from the pain—and in doing so, prepare ourselves for the future? 

Just like most organisms in the animal kingdom, our tendency is to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of danger. But as believers, God has “not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). And as Crouch and colleagues assert, “Christians of all people are equipped to face the current reality with both clear-eyed realism and unparalleled hope.” Activating that hope, and engaging our minds in sound ways, will take what experts (Jack Mezirow, others) point to as critical in learning from disruptive events in our lives: reflection. 

Without setting aside time and space to reflect, we get stuck in survival mode. We miss the opportunity to think about what we can learn from our experiences. And we forgo the chance to apply that learning in whatever comes our way next. For example, right now we are learning a lot (maybe more than they bargained for) about the limits of online platforms, along with the perils of porting our regular practices onto them (i.e. student engagement, classroom management, and the like). There’s sure to be a lot of “well, that didn’t work… let’s try something different” going around. It would be easy to stay in “educational triage,” but some good reflective questions can turn this into a key learning moment. For example, along with asking what tips and tricks you’ve learned for online instruction, consider how you and your staff would answer the following:

  • What new mindsets and skills are we developing as a school community (like flexibility, adaptiveness, and resilience, per the above), and how will we ensure we use—and not lose!—these mindsets and skills in the future?
  • What did we learn about student learning itself, and how we better understand and meet the diverse and unique needs of students?
  • What lessons about building and nurturing community did we learn from this experience? And if we can do those things while we’re physically isolated, what’s stopping us from doing them all the time?
  • What unique value proposition(s) of Christian education manifested during this time of challenge, and how can we articulate that to current and prospective families?
  • How did we develop new efficiencies in school management during this time of crisis, and how can we maintain and even improve upon these efficiencies in the future?

Our answers to these questions will enable us to not only become more resilient in the face of change, but also visualize new ways to fulfill our missions into the future. Good questions that lead to reflection are key if we are, as Peter Block suggests, to “put aside our wish for safety and instead view our life as a purpose-filled experiment whose intention is more for learning than for achieving and more for relationship than for power, speed, or efficiency” (The Answer to How is Yes, p.3).

Delving into reflective questions will be dependent on creating time and space for our own learning, which will require setting aside staff time and resources to this effort. It’s also not a solo act. Note the use of the first person plural in the above questions—”we,” “us,” “our.” We can only really learn from challenges in what Etienne Wenger calls a “community of practice,” where we are committed to our shared purpose, to each other, and to asking good questions, listening to multiple perspectives, and thinking well together. 

To help with this process, we’d like to offer two things, below. First, we share a reflective exercise that you can use with your staff. It can work both synchronously and asynchronously. Either way, it may be both a welcome “break” from your ongoing logistics conversations, as well as a way to help your team reflect on their learning in the midst of challenging times. And second, we share an invitation to join what we will be doing, along with many colleagues involved in the MindShift in Christian Education, over the coming weeks—which promise to be transformational in education and in our world. 

A Reflective Exercise: Processing Change

We all process change differently and at different rates. We are familiar with the stages of grief. Some experts describe seven stages:

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression, reflection, and loneliness
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope

In a helpful diagram on qz.com, we can see the overlapping and recurrent nature of each of the stages. As anyone who has experienced a grief process will tell you it is not linear.

Change involves both grief and hope. In the diagram just referenced, there is a strand of hope that underlies even the anger stage. No doubt you are grieving many things during this time—the loss of a physically proximal community, face to face interaction, events, performances, culminating activities, traditions, rituals, times to bless and encourage, and times of celebration. Out of these ashes can come new seeds of contemplation and hope. The questions below are an attempt to help you process the change you have experienced and move you toward hope. 

Anticipating disruption (shock, denial, anger)

  • How much time did you have to prepare?
  • What did you worry most about?
  • Did your worries come to pass?

Dealing with disruption (anger, bargaining, depression, hope)

  • The most trying part of the disruption was…
  • I was pleasantly surprised that…
  • To prepare better next time, I would…

The “new normal” (depression, acceptance, hope)

  • What have you learned? 
  • What concerns you?
  • What excites you?
  • How has this disruption changed what is possible? 

Anticipating what the future looks like (acceptance, hope)

  • What hurdles has this disruption helped you to clear? 
  • What changes will you keep? 
  • Where would you like to head? 
  • What questions remain?

As you work through these questions, think about ways to do so in community (even virtually). We need one another for mutual encouragement, meaning making, and growth in the face of challenge and change. 

MindShift: An Invitation

For the past two years, a diverse group of educators and leaders has been asking deeply reflective questions together as part of a MindShift movement in Christian education. We’ve asked questions like how do we transform our mindsets in Christian education, from machine to human, scarcity to abundance, isolated to networked, White to mosaic, Gutenberg to 5G, siloed to engaged, and from fear to hope. In a way, MindShift itself has been a call to reflection—on the challenges our schools are facing, and ways we can reframe them as missional opportunities. 

During the present disruption and disequilibrium, we’d like to invite you to join the ongoing MindShift collaboration. Over the coming weeks, we’ll share opportunities to connect informally for conversation as well as helpful content to keep that conversation going (and that you can use to spark dialogue in your own setting). Follow our work and jump in conversation on Twitter @MindShiftSchool or visit mindshift.school for updates on what’s next! 

[Editor’s Note: This post is co-published by the CACE blog and the ACSI blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]

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