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The Fine Line Between Drifting and Making Progress

I was entertained last month when I met with a first-year faculty member and a seasoned veteran, who had taught for forty-two years at the university. It was like watching the History channel and the Future channel simultaneously (you might say I had tuned into The Jetsons and The Flintstones at the same time!)

During our meeting, the veteran kept reminding us of how schools once operated, while the rookie described what she saw coming and how she was preparing students for the future. Both made valuable points about needed changes.

We all agreed on two fundamental facts:

  1. Education must make changes to meet the needs of 21st century students.
  2. Some changes we’ve experienced in education do not represent progress.

So how do we distinguish between changes that represent mere drifting and change that leads to genuine progress?

Principles We Must Embrace

The following paragraphs remind us how we can see the difference between drifting and advancement. I believe these paragraphs are relevant for every leader.

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  1. We live in day of rapid change. Most educators I know expect adjustments every year. Many believe there are too many. Just when faculty master new curriculum or standards, it’s out with the old and in with the new. It can leave heads spinning and attitudes spiraling. Much of the change is good, coming in the name of making advancements in pedagogy, academic standards, technology, etc. Those of us who love the familiar and the comfortable must find a way to embrace this new normal.
  1. All progress requires change, but not all change means progress. Educators must never assume that change for change sake is always good. We must discern between what’s “different” and what “makes a difference.” For example, while we’ve all adjusted to societal changes over time, some may actually be regress, not progress:

1. Our friendships, partnerships and families disintegrate faster.
2. Our consumer debt and national debt is higher than ever.
3. Obesity, mental illness and ADHD diagnoses are increasing.

  1. Without intentionality, change often is the result of drifting, where our human nature predisposes us to be lazy and seek comfort. We migrate toward destinations that are easier and faster. For example, Frederick Kelly created the first “multiple choice test” in 1914 to enable America to swiftly handle young immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. As World War I ended, he suggested we stop using it with students as it did not measure true learning. But alas, it was a fast and convenient way to grade papers, so we kept it. Drifting happens when we have no rudder on the ship. This means improvement is left to chance. We must fight the tendency to drift.
  1. Leaders must establish standards that are timeless and goals that push us forward. When living in San Diego, we’d visit the beach during summers. We would position our towels and shoes on the beach, then head into the ocean. We were unaware we were drifting until we looked up at our spot on the beach. It was then we could tell we’d moved because we had a “constant” to evaluate our position. Our towels became a marker to measure the extent of our drifting. Similarly, leaders identify markers that are constant, while at the same time set relevant goals that move toward improvement.
  1. Lasting leaders find ways to discern between change that is drifting and change that leads to genuine progress. In order to do this, they are neither all conservative nor all progressive, philosophically speaking. For instance, my personal stance is…

* I am both conservative and progressive depending on the topic.
* When it comes to forward movement and improvement—I am all in.
* When it comes to leaving timeless virtues or skills behind—I speak up.

  1. We must hold fast to what is timeless, and prevent drifting, while being timely. When leaders act in a timely fashion, it communicates they are observant, relevant and discerning as to what students and educators need. You could say they possess an internal magnifying glass and telescope to enable them to see details and distance. Simultaneously, these leaders also possess an internal compass reminding them of the importance of morals, ethics and timeless skills (even virtues) graduates need.

Question: How are you doing at balancing these two paradoxical perspectives?


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The Fine Line Between Drifting and Making Progress