Stretching the comfort zone

At our inservice last month, we learned several strategies for writing in science classes.  But when I tried one in my classroom, it went over like a lead balloon. What was I doing wrong?
—Rosalind, Denver, Colorado

How many times have we heard “Well, I tried <fill-in-the-blank>, but it didn’t work”? And then the classroom instruction reverts to the tried and (not necessarily) true methods. This certainly happened to me when I tried a different instructional strategy, an alternative form of assessment, or a new classroom management routine. Students would roll their eyes or complain before we even started.

I’ve come to the conclusion that any type of change is difficult for some people (not an original thought on my part). We are such creatures of habit! By the time students are in the upper elementary grades, they have a definite idea of what school is “supposed to be.” Whenever teachers or administrators deviate from this comfort zone, the defenses go up.

Students are not the only ones who have comfort zones. Just try a different format for a faculty meeting, a new schedule for inservice days, or a strategy to get teachers out of their seats at a workshop. I had a graduate student in one of my classes who was incredulous that I expected them to work cooperatively and to participate in class discussions. “I didn’t know we were going to have to, like, DO anything!” she remarked with an angry look. I had obviously encroached on her comfort zone.

I’m not sure who invented the three-time rule, but it seems true: once is an event, twice is a coincidence, but after the third time a trend or pattern is established. If we try a new strategy once and it doesn’t fit the modus operandi, the students may assume that if they fuss or refuse, we’ll say “Well, that didn’t work” and classroom life will return to the-way-things-are-supposed-to-be.

But if we know that something is the right thing to do, that a research base is behind it, or that it will ultimately pay off in better learning or a better classroom environment, we should stick with it and explain why we are doing something new or different. We may need to model the activity or strategy, too.

This actually turned into several action research projects for me. As I was implementing something new, I noted what the responses were and by whom. I reflected on whether I was implementing the new strategy appropriately and how I had introduced it. After all, my students weren’t any different from others. Why would something work in many other classrooms across the country, but not in mine?

Being aware of the three-time rule (event, coincidence, pattern) and understanding that it often takes several attempts before a new practice is accepted – whether by students or teachers – worked for me. Just give yourself some time and keep at it. If it’s the right thing to do, the students will internalize it, and soon what was once a new idea becomes part of the-way-things-are-supposed-to-be.

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