Vol 3 . . . No 5 . . . January, 1993
Editor: Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.

The Comfort Zone, Risks and Change

Introduction: The Comfort Zone Defined

We are all, to some extent, creatures of habit. We rely upon and trust routines to guide many of our actions and decisions. We often seek manuals or guides to "show us the way." Much like deer returning to a favorite water hole, we have our cherished pathways and traditions. These habits, routines, guides, pathways and traditions combine with beliefs to create a culture, a way of living which serves the very desirable purpose of pulling us together.

Much of our adult life is devoted to the development of reliable routines and habits which will operate smoothly and predictably to produce the outcomes we seek. We seek to figure out the system. We are careful about rocking the boat lest we spill wind from the sails and lose headway. We become expert. We dwell in the comfort zone. We know what we are doing. We know we will do it well. The rules are clear. The expectations can remain unspoken. We can rely upon what has worked in the past. The secrets of success are public knowledge. We need no high priestess or medicine men. We need no magic or sacrifice. We can ignore omens and signs. The future has been decided. We have its picture in hand.

In times of rapid change and turbulence, what worked yesterday may not work today. In such times, the comfort zone is much like the sand into which the ostrich sticks its head. The comfort zone is the leading cause of what Joel Barker would call "paradigm paralysis" and what Argyris calls "skilled incompetence" as quoted in Senge's Fifth Discipline. As Rome burned, Nero fiddled comfortably. As the monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette played house comfortably. As mainframes gave way to pcs and work stations, IBM planned strategically and comfortably for an opulent future.

Not every colonist wished to travel across the Appalachians to see what kind of land lay on the other side. Many - in, fact, the majority - preferred the safety and predictability of the settled coastline. Most, it turns out, preferred the comfort zone. A few hardy women and men, probably considered "fool-hardy" by their peers, were curious and hungry enough to brave the hardships, the angry native populations and the uncharted wilderness in exchange for freedom, opportunity and adventure. During these years, "adventurer" was not a term of endearment. It implied a degree of recklessness and a disregard for rules and boundary lines.

Even today, the word "adventure" connotes irresponsibility, as the following thesaurus-generated list illustrates: antic, caper, escapade, joke, lark, mischief, prank, and trick.

In Moby Dick, Melville, speaking nearly a hundred years after the colonists through his character, Ishmael, divided the world into those who would remain ashore and those who would brave the ocean, suggesting that the later group was somehow more noble, but the ending of the story provides little encouragement for those who would venture far from a comfortable harbor. Ishmael barely survived. The crew drowned. The hunt for Moby Dick led to death and ruin.

The message of Moby Dick is filled with paradox and ambiguity. If one stays safely inland or anchored behind the breakwater, one is condemned to lead an ignoble life. If, on the other hand, one sails out into the ocean in search of a bolder, grander destiny, one faces the likelihood of extinction. We are damned, it seems, if we do, and we are damned if we don't. The comfort zone, then, is both trap and refuge, and each organization, whether it be a hospital, a school, a computer company or the U.S. Marines must make astute judgments about when to head for the open seas and when to rest at anchor.

I. The Comfort Zone and School Restructuring

Unfortunately, life in the comfort zone is addictive for many. Once we have tasted the security and predictability of life in the comfort zone, our desire for comfort often seems to grow and we require ever larger doses to maintain equilibrium. We begin to confuse the comfort zone and the feelings it generates with normality - the "way it's spozed to be." Comfort is normal, we feel. Discomfort is abnormal. Risk is an enemy because it threatens disruption. Adventure is a high stakes gamble. Leadership is the ability to provide and maintain comfort, raising high the walls which keep outside pressures from penetrating and upsetting the normal way. It is not the kind of influence once provided by whaling captains or wagon masters.

Schools are especially vulnerable to the phenomenon of the comfort zone because so many people have done their best to make life uncomfortable for us in recent decades. The constant babble of outside attacks and reform initiatives has inspired many school people to "circle round the wagons" in order to protect the system. Our need for comfort is probably exaggerated because we have suffered frequent, intense criticism during a time period when our jobs became especially challenging as the society and the nature of families dumped huge new responsibilities upon us. Knock someone off balance on a subway car and watch them reach desperately for something - almost anything - to hold on to!

The society has done little to provide schools with encouragement for innovative solutions. To the contrary, in many places, inventive educators have tasted the fate of Ahab's crew. Often a BOE faction which calls for change is soon replaced by one elected to block their efforts. The inventive period of the late `60s and `70s included so many misguided ventures and mistakes that its memory still looms over this generation of teachers like the Great Depression loomed over our parent's heads. We remember those wildly exciting days when we pulled down walls and set children free. We also remember the executions and the walls going back up again. We saw many pioneers and sailors leave the life of adventure behind, laying down their chalk to pick up new careers. These institutional memories act as heavy anchors whenever wild-eyed reformers call upon us to sail out of our harbors.

And so, we all too often speak of school restructuring as if it were a temporary move from one comfort zone to a new comfort zone. It is something like remodeling a restaurant, we hope. We change the paint, bring in some new furniture, add a sound system, but we still cook and serve food when we re-open. After a week or two in the new surroundings, we fully expect to be "up to speed" and comfortable with the new routines. A popular metaphor accuses us of "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

The very choice of the word "restructuring" to label what we are about is flawed because it implies that we will trade in an old structure for a new one which will restore the comfort zone we lost because changing conditions required a new structure. It echoes models of change from the 1960s which spoke of "unfreezing" an organization prior to the development of new operating procedures which could then, once fully tested and successful, be "frozen" in place.

In a recent article on flexadigms in the September issue of From Now On I argued that organizations will need to remain flexible and responsive during the next decade, selecting operating procedures and responses to problems from a "quiver of paradigms." One danger lurking behind the "restructuring" movement is the implicit (probably false) promise that things will return to normal after several years of meetings, training and change. The return to normal and a high level of comfort can actually emerge as a major goal of a team. Premature freezing back into almost any single new set of operating procedures will leave the system insufficiently responsive and adaptable to adjust to what will continue to be changing conditions.

A second danger hiding within the restructuring movement is the possibility that adult comfort needs will inhibit the innovative planning function. An example would be the request by a planning team that computer specialists be hired to show students in elementary schools how to use new technologies in a lab setting. While this suggestion is usually defended by emphasizing the advantages of expertise, the strategy may absolve regular teachers from responsibility and protect them from venturing out of the comfort zone. If those teachers join the students in learning from the specialist, on the other hand, it may be an excellent way for them to explore unfamiliar territory with a trusted and reliable guide along to keep them from panic and reduce risk.

Even though the gap between what most schools are doing for students today and what the society needs them to be doing is growing severe, tinkering and first order change is still the rule in most places. As is true with many addictions, we are afflicted with denial, sure we are on the right track, sure of our expertise and angry that the outsiders show little understanding of the burdens which arrive each day on our doorsteps. Even though studies of how most schools have failed to integrate the use of new technologies into math. social studies, English and science classes show that we remain on the "trailing edge" of the society with regard to technology, we keep repeating the same technology planning procedures which place hardware above philosophy, reward the isolated pioneer and protect the reluctant. Cuban's November 11 Education Week article, "Computers Meet Classroom; Classroom Wins," offers a somewhat pessimistic forecast, suggesting that technology uses which fit the old operating procedures are those most likely to catch on.

II. The Comfort Zone and Student-Centered Learning

One of the most intriguing efforts to explore the potential of new technologies to alter the ways that students learn and think is the The Systems Thinking and Curriculum Innovation Network Project (STACIN) developed by Ellen Mandinach and her team at ETS, a project which has been exploring the use of a software program called STELLA(TM), a simulation-modeling package, for six years with six high schools and two middle schools.

STELLA(TM) can lead student progressively through four levels of systems-thinking; beginning, for instance, with the testing of the consequences of changing parameters of variables in a computer simulation of a wolf eco-system. Mandinach identifies four levels of systems thinking proceeding from the parameter manipulation described above to the construction of simplified models, called constrained modeling, and then the development of more complex models, called epitome modeling, and finally, the creation of learning environments. The higher up this ladder the student proceeds, the greater the understanding.

Systems thinking is a high priority in both the new NCTM standards and Project 2061, pioneering efforts to change the teaching of math and science to meet our needs for the next century, but it is a hybrid in most schools. Despite careful planning, a well designed training program and a very thoughtful implementation strategy, the researchers candidly report that the introduction of systems thinking with STACIN has taken a long time, has required patience and has worked best with teachers who are able to tolerate a high degree of student control and surprise.

In a paper presented at AERA in 1992, well worth reading in its entirety, "The Impact of Technological Innovation on Teaching and Learning Activities," (available from ETS), Mandinach goes into considerable detail relating the various stages of teacher adaptation to new technologies developed initially for the ACOT project to her experience with STACIN. Movement in stage from survival, to mastery and then to impact (which means substantial infusion into the classroom activities) is much harder for some types of teachers than others:

"We have observed that some teachers need to be completely knowledgeable about and feel confident of their mastery of the systems thinking approach in order to use it effectively. However, basic knowledge and confidence are not sufficient conditions to insure success in implementing the systems approach. The teachers must be willing and able to share control of the classroom and learning process with the students. With traditional methods, teachers most often know what sorts of questions and responses students are likely to pose. Teachers therefore can impart knowledge and exercise control through their disciplinary expertise.

"However with the systems thinking approach, these interactions change substantially. because there are generally many solution paths with the systems approach, there is no way that a teacher can anticipate the range of questions and possible solutions might suggest. As the innovative technology (both theory and equipment) become a more prominent part of the classroom, the teacher no longer serves as the sole expert with absolute mastery and control of content knowledge and instructional procedures. Instead, learning becomes more interactive with responsibility shared among teachers and students. The teachers no longer function soley as transmitters of content knowledge. Instead, they become facilitators of learning. Students play a more active role in their own learning. The shift often requires teachers to take risks and develop new instructional strategies to facilitate the learning process. They must relinquish deeply entrenched pedagogical behaviors. This creates some fundamental shifts in the way classrooms, teachers and students function. Not all teachers are capable of or willing to explore or accept this evolving role (pp. 10-11)."

Mandinach goes beyond the ACOT stages to add a fourth one . . . the innovation stage in which a teacher goes well beyond "the mandated scope of the curriculum toward a complete restructuring of teaching and learning activities."

Regrettably the STACIN experience bolsters Cuban's pessimistic forecast for the chances of a fundamental shift in the use of technologies for schools. The paragraphs quoted above echo the theme of this article which suggests that adult comfort (or control) needs often stand in the way of learning, pioneering and innovation. We are left with a real quandary . . .

If we determine that this generation of students needs to be educated by "a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage," what do we do with all the sages who refuse to be guides? We have excellent models at hand from researchers like Mandinach to guide willing teachers comfortably from one stage to another if they are willing, but we have not confronted the challenge of those who cannot spare any change.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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