John Jensen: How Automaticity Kills Education Reform

by John Jensen, PhD

Why is education reform so hard?

The problem may lie in our plans, of course. Poor plans don't work well.

But we have been at this a long time. Why don't we learn from our mistakes? I'd like to attempt an answer that suggests an initial step for reform efforts.

Rational people occasionally look at themselves and ask, "How am I doing?" About a recent experience we may say, "I could have done that better," and "Next time I'll remember to …" We take it for granted that we have our own unique system of approaching life, and we improve it in bits and pieces seemingly freely.

Examining our experiences as a set, however, our pattern appears far less free. Any given event might depend on chance conditions, but our overall responses to life constantly issue from our standard behavior. We may make the same mistake over and over, do poorly what others no smarter than us do well, dismiss the same kind of information repeatedly, and react predictably to events. Using our habits of self-limitation, we sort our way through life with the habits completely accounting for our level of progress.

Occasional dissatisfaction can prompt us finally to ask why. Why are we so stuck in the way we are?

Think of it like this. Today's pattern is the leftovers of everything we have experienced, felt, decided upon, and chosen. More than the impact of events from outside us, what we have claimed about them matters most. Our personal interpretations drive feelings that in turn drive habits that become ourselves. As we forget the events that brought them on, the patterns of response become us and serve up our actions automatically.

For better or worse, the effect of this is that 99% of what we think, feel, and do arises automatically. Automaticity is our critical limiting condition. We automatically discount certain people and believe others. We automatically bring a certain thought into our heads and don't notice others. We automatically judge information, events, and plans according to our standard priorities.

Automaticity has the effect of limiting our capacity even to imagine an alternate way of doing things, an alternate plan, an alternate behavior we might engage in, and even less so anything that challenges our worth or rationality. If change means we must admit we were wrong before, we spontaneously object from deep within our protective cover.

The same limits hold for group activity. Our personal automaticity becomes group automaticity as we cluster with people who already agree with us, and together convince laggards to adhere to group norms. "Our" people tend automatically to believe others like us, assume viewpoints standard in our group, and interpret events with prescribed prejudices. We spontaneously categorize some people as "other," and give their viewpoint short shrift. We label and pigeon-hole them before we even consider their ideas.

Such social patterning cannot fail to affect education reform. Even with the best intentions, we find it hard to open ourselves to change and carry it out. Just for fun, try this exercise to check yourself. Look in the mirror, and with congruence and conviction say to the person in the mirror, "You are very limited in your thinking. You have dismissed countless ideas that might help you." The two sentences are categorically true of each one of us but you may notice a protesting voice inside. If so, the point is not that readers of this website are narrow thinkers, but that all of us human beings have the same problem!

The implication for education reform is, "Because I automatically dismiss ideas that could help my school, I may have to check my own reactions if I am to avoid sabotaging change." The more firmly you insist that your own view is right already, the more you need the warning.

It is said that you can divide the employees of schools or any organization into three categories: speedboats, barges, and reefs. Speedboats dash about making waves and trying to move things. They bring change. Once a direction is clear, barges carry the load but without much flexibility to change course. Reefs try to sink the whole thing by presenting obstacles to others' efforts.

For reform to succeed, all three of these need changes in their thinking, but those who need it the most—the reefs—find the greatest difficulty. Even a few reefs in a group can make a big difference. Present conditions usually are what multiple interests will put up with so that any given stakeholder may possess the power to sink a change process. And those rewarded most under present conditions tend to become a conserving force keeping things as they are.

For initiating mutual change, we first need to recognize what softens the resistive patterning. What loosens it up enough that change can begin?

Group dynamics give us a clue. People change best and easiest when they enter a group and involve themselves in its actions and values. Membership is the doorway, but beyond the door is active involvement; developing common values and a means of carrying them out. Education reform may need to start in a group process of support, self-examination, and group action.

People do not re-examine their personal pattern under force or pressure. Mutual care and support instead enable even large numbers to work together to achieve a purpose all perceive as worthy. If your district weighs a change process, point out that people advance best when they are cared about, their thinking becomes the template for what occurs, they can envision constructive change, and they can support each other as they act together.

When you ask them to give up what they are in order to become what they can be, they need reassurance that this is possible.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: [email protected]

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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