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Professional Opinion

Looking to Create 21st-Century Classrooms?

The secret to success lies in the "Yeah, buts."

"Yeah, but I don't have enough time."

"Yeah, but I can't do that and cover my content."

"Yeah, but what if it doesn't work?"

"Yeah, but that's not how it was when I went to school."

What do you hear when people say, "Yeah, but?" Resistance? If you listen differently, you can hear opportunity.

To most leaders, "Yeah, but" sounds like the end of change, but it's actually the beginning. Although it's tempting to hear the phrase as laziness or lack of motivation, it's a window into the speaker's worldview. For example, the "Yeah, buts" above are commonly heard when introducing new technologies for student learning. Think about them. They include some rational objections, but more importantly, they're a spotlight on some strong emotions that are keeping the speaker stuck in place. That's critical, because those emotions hold the key to meaningful school change.

The Heart of the Problem

If you think change is just rational, read Alan Deutschman's Change or Die. It features heart surgery patients whose arteries are so clogged their doctors tell them, "If you don't change your lifestyle immediately, you'll die." Most have rational tools in abundance, including motivation and information, but study after study reveals that the typical patient becomes overwhelmed and gives up. Two years later, only 10 percent change.

Compare that to Dr. Dean Ornish's heart patients who in one study had a success rate of 77 percent. Most also recited a litany of reasons why they couldn't change, but their doctor heard in their excuses a belief that they were "unhealthy people." So when they met with a personal trainer, a chef and a support group in a one-year program, these professionals worked on their outlook as well as their skills. Most patients failed, practiced and then failed again. They got angry and discouraged, but they got reinforcement and support. After some victories, they started to believe that they could live differently. The results? More than three-quarters of them developed a new life. By tapping into their emotions, Ornish removed the biggest roadblock: the patients' negative views of themselves.

Changing Classrooms by Changing Worldviews

That means educational innovation is less about teaching new skills and more about embracing new roles. The "Yeah, buts" above reveal the worldview of busy people who have been rewarded for focusing on content, safety and traditional practices. It's part of who they are, and all the tech classes in the world won't change that.

I have found success in making "the changing role of the teacher" a centerpiece of technology professional development. Sure, teachers still learn new skills, but they spend more time talking about new classrooms. They discuss specific ways that various technologies improve student learning, and they identify the resulting implications for their teaching.

I recommend personal learning networks (PLNs) as another powerful catalyst for this mental evolution. When your teachers connect with educators in other schools who are discussing similar ideas, it lets them know they are not alone. PLNs spark their creativity, deliver feedback, and help them develop confidence. These networks also provide invaluable materials and support.

Leadership in a "Yeah, But" World

School leaders who understand the "Yeah, buts" know they must speak openly and concretely about this transition in worldviews. For example, I watched Lisa Brady, superintendent of the Dobbs Ferry (N.Y.) School District, eloquently drive home this shift by saying, "If you're not making mistakes, you're playing it too safe."

You can provide time and space for growth without compromising standards. When your teachers worry about missteps, tell them the only failure lies in not trying at all. For teachers anxious about time, target measurable long-term progress instead of short-term results. When teachers succeed, celebrate the wins, but keep focusing on the big picture.

Most importantly, tell teachers you believe in them. Every time you hear a "Yeah, but," ask them what they need to succeed. Show confidence. Help them change their worldview, and you will hear the "Yeah, buts" fading away.

Rob Mancabelli is a speaker, writer and education consultant. He is the co-author of Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree Press, 2011)