Overwhelmed by the constant pace of change

Teaching is undoubtedly a busy profession and one where the end of the to do list seems to be forever located in a galaxy far far away. There is always more to be done and as each item on the list is ticked off, three, four or more seem to have appeared. If we ever do get close to the end, we find ourselves reflecting on what we have achieved and the many ways in which it might be improved. 

We are a profession that is confronting and confronted by change. The overwhelming trend in education is a discussion of how the new work order, technology and rapidly emerging global trends require a complete change in how we educate our young people. At the levels of strategic and operational thinking, schools are meeting the challenges of a wold of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity head-on. Change is the one consistent element and the pace of change ensures there is no time to relax. We are as a beach awash by wave after wave, where every fresh onslaught shifts the sands upon which we are founded. 

The consequence of such a high workload and a never-ending stream of new ideas can be a a feeling that we are constantly overwhelmed. Indeed, the very length of our to do list alone can be overwhelming, and lead to a sense that we cannot cope. We find ourselves engulfed by a sense of paralysis, unable to complete even the simplest of chores and with no mental energy for those which require our best thinking. As our workload increases we come to a point where we begin to become less productive as the mental load of what we are yet to do exceeds our ability to cope. 

This pattern of behaviour, where we become incapacitated by all the new strategies we are yet to implement, is so significant that that has come to be known as 'change paralysis’. It is an important consideration for organisations implementing change programmes and without an awareness of the accumulative impact of multiple change initiatives long term success is unlikely. 

The typical response to this problem is to slow the pace of change. The aim is to spread the change out over a number of years so that each step is gentle and those most directly affected have time to adjust. This can alleviate some of the problems with rapid and continuous change but it introduces a new set of challenges. As the pace of change slows the perceived benefits of it can diminish. It is easy to reflect back on a change endeavour and proclaim that it has, over a number of years, had little impact. Critics will point out that little has been achieved while ignoring that the full influence of the change was only ever to be seen once it was introduced in its entirety. Initiatives which require a whole school shift in thinking and which rely upon exposure to a new way of learning over a number of years are particularly prone to failure when implemented slowly and only ever partially. 

Other difficulties of a slow pace of change include that it almost ensures conditions where change is constant and seemingly never ending. By the time that one change initiative is producing results and gaining acceptance, the next is just beginning. There are no times where change seems to plateau, and an organisation enters a ‘steady state’. Slow change is also much more easily ignored. Change initiatives require a sense of urgency and this is not present when the change is spread out over an extended period of time. If one set out to cook a lobster the accepted method involves plunging the poor beast into boiling water. if the lobster is placed into a pot of cold water which is gradually heated the resultant meal will be of poor quality, assuming that at some point the lobster is not rescued by a guilt-ridden chef. When we adopt a plan for a slow change we do the same and in most instances the pace of change is continually slowed until it quietly passes into memory as yet another failed initiative. 

Schools must be aware of these two divergent factors if they are to rise to the challenge of the future and avoid overwhelming their staff. Present efforts in most case fail to achieve both goals and doing so will require new thinking. Teaching is a profession unlike others. it is a performative task that carries with it an emotional and cognitive load that is the day to day norm in few other professions. it is also a profession where everyone is a sideline expert and about which many have an opinion but where only those who have actually taught truly understand what is involved. It is also the profession that is most clearly placed at the cutting edge of social, cultural and economic change; we are preparing todays children for a tomorrow that not even the best analysts can confidently describe. If we want to weather the storm that is ahead we need to find ways to support those charged with delivering the necessary change. 

By Nigel Coutts