One of my amazing professors at Antioch University, Dr. Jon Wergin, held a webinar several months ago, and I finally finished watching it. As I listened, I couldn’t stop thinking about how relevant Wergin’s points were to the current situation in education. You can watch the full webinar here.
In this post, I want to summarize the key points from the webinar and identify how the events of the last few months lend themselves to creating constrictive disorientation for educators in order to spark long-term systemic change in our schools and the larger educational system.
What is constructive disorientation?
Wergin defines constructive disorientation as “an experience that unsettles us and sparks our curiosity, both at once; and does so in a way that we perceive an opportunity to change how we see the world, and for the better.”
Where does it come from?
Wergin says constructive disorientation can come from what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma,” an experience that doesn’t fit with a person’s expectations or beliefs. But, Wergin says, “we don’t necessarily have to wait for a disorienting dilemma to hit us over the head and force us to pay attention.” He suggests a practice of mindfulness or critical reflection can surface smaller kinds of disorientation. A third source of disorientation, he says, is an “aesthetic experience” (e.g., a piece of art) is a change for someone to try on the perspective of an artist “at low risk” to one’s self. He gives the example of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue, installed down the road from Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue.
How do recent events promote constructive disorientation?
Wergin says there needs to be a disruption in routine. Nation-wide school closures have definitely disrupted how education is done. Protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have once again reminded us that this country is not a safe place for Black children. This may serve as a disruption for some educators who did not previously realize the extent of violent racism that exists today or had not previously been asked to discuss racism in their classes.
What else can we do to make the disorientation constructive?
Wergin says the challenge needs to be clear, but manageable. In terms of clarity of the challenge, some teachers may already see the need for a long-term shift in pedagogy following school closures and an intentional focus on anti-racist pedagogy. Others may benefit from one of the suggestions above (e.g., opportunities for reflection or mindfulness practice or artwork depicting students’ or family members’ ideas of what school could be). In terms of manageability for distance learning, at first, many educators were in a panic trying to figure out how to get their classes up and running in virtual spaces. After two months of adapting instruction to work in a distance learning setting, it’s likely teachers are closer to that ideal level of anxiety—just enough to want to do something about it, but not so much that it’s debilitating. The same goes for conversations about racism in schools, teachers may initially shut down, but as leaders, we want to present opportunities for conversation in which teachers can experience that anxiety and practice talking about racism with adults to be able to more effectively facilitate conversations with students.
Leverage (or build up) your staff’s social capital. Wergin says there is a direct correlation between the amount of social capital in an organization and the degree to which meaningful conversations can be had. In order to get teachers to reflect on this disorientation and listen to others’ points of view with empathy, thee needs to be: a sense of shared fate (remind everyone we’re all here for all kids); ideological diversity and an openness to hear contributions from all members (norm listening and focus on identifying shared goals and underlying values before debating how to move forward while also acknowledging that white folks are not the authority on what it means to be Black in the U.S.); and a collective responsibility for success (consider posing a question like: What can I personally do to help us move forward as a school?)
Make time for the conversation. Research tells us we learn best in the presence of others, when we can try on others’ perspectives. For some schools, a natural time for this may be during scheduled testing week (which, for most, has been cancelled). For others, this might be summer, when lesson creation and giving feedback to students are no longer daily concerns. Wergin says it’s necessary to have a setting conducive to deep work, so teachers can deeply concentrate and not be distracted by logistical tasks like checking email. Take other tasks off teachers’ plates if needed so they can be fully present in the conversation. Facilitators of this conversation will want to keep an eye on the levels of anxiety to keep folks at the edge, but not let people fall over it. Wergin says to maximize autonomy of participants, so you may provide multiple ways teachers can participate in conversation (small group, whole group, writing activity like Collect and Display).
Finally, give teachers the freedom to try and fail. School building closures have helped many leaders do this better than ever. When we’re all trying to learn how to do something new with little preparation, we tend to be (or we should be) more forgiving when things don’t go perfectly. This is also true for anti-racism work. We cannot allow our fear of failure prevent us from taking action. In conversations with teachers, encourage teachers to share their successes but also to share things they tried that didn’t work. Focus on extracting the learning from those experiences. Celebrate teachers for trying and being committed to growth. Keep this attitude in mind for next year when considering how teachers will be evaluated. Is there a place on your evaluation rubric for informed risk-taking? Is anti-racist pedagogy an aspect of the evaluation rubric? If you want teachers to try something new, will you reward them for trying it even if they fail? Or does the criteria on which they are evaluated as teachers promote rigidity and conservatism? Wergin talks about goal displacement in the education system nationally by using the example of standardized tests—when we say we value student problem solving and creativity, but students are defined by one high-stakes test measuring rote memorization, those things we said we value are replaced by what is measured.
This emergency transition to distance learning, anxiety about COVID-19, and the latest instances of racist violence have certainly disrupted our classes and our school communities. But, as leaders, it’s up to us to find ways to use this disruption to foster post-traumatic growth. We can use these events to create “constructive disorientation,” and from there, spark long-lasting change that better serves all of our students.
Lindsay is a educator and leadership coach who helps teachers develop engaging project-based curricula, fosters student and teacher voice, and works to advance racial and gender equity and culturally responsive practice.