Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Change and the Giving up the Ego

Someone recently mentioned to me that "change requires giving something up." At the time, I wasn't sure how much I believed it, but after thinking about it for a week, I do now. Depending on what kind of change is being proposed, there's a variety of answers to the question of what should be given up; but in more cases than not in education, based on what the conversations I've had, it's the ego that's at the center of this discussion.

Early in graduate school, I was giving a paper at a conference, with Joshua Katz, a brilliant Classicist and Indo-Europeanist from Princeton, in attendance. Afterward, we chatted about it, and he told me that he liked the paper right before he asked me, "Do you believe it?" I was shocked at first, but I quickly realized that he wasn't being critical. Instead, Katz was telling me indirectly that research wasn't always about being right; rather, it's about the exploration of ideas and the fact that it's not necessary to believe in an idea 100%, before sharing it.

Later, I had the great fortune to work with Calvert Watkins, who also reinforced this way of doing research. Despite being one of the most prolific and greatly respected Indo-European linguists in the field, he openly encouraged colleagues to criticize his work, with the hope that our understanding would only grow. He never put his ego before the ideas.

Team Geek and and the Ego

"If you spend all your time working alone, you're increasing the risk of failure and cheating your potential for growth" (Team Geek 5).

Thanks to Brian Fitzpatrick's great presentation at GTACHI about the principles that govern how software teams work well together, I've picked up his book Team Geek (co-authored with Ben Collins-Sussman). It's about good leadership practices, including the role that the ego plays in being a leader, namely, its destructive power (Team Geek 66-67). Reading through Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman's experience with ego, I'm more certain than ever that the changes that need to happen to build stronger learning environments in our schools requires us to give up our egos, as Katz and Watkins taught me.

During some recent professional development work, in which we were talking about the power of a backchannel, some complaints were offered about the students' ability to focus on the teacher and the lecture, if their attention was directed to the backchannel. Basically, I heard several questions of the sort "If students are not listening to me, then how can they be learning?", which sheds much light on the lecture-centered culture that continues to pervade education.

I can't help but interpret this attitude as driven by ego that stands in the way of change toward a more student-centered structure. As Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman argue, ego gets in the way of the kind of trust that gives a team (or students, in this case) a sense of accountability and ownership of their work. I fully agree and will add two other points that I blame on ego:

  • A lack of trust within a team engenders a fear of failure, when then creates a closed community, rather than an open environment, where team members feel welcome to share ideas.
  • Egos also create defensive cultures, where change and new ideas are too frequently met with judgment and second-guessing, instead of curiosity and enthusiasm. Cf. Daniel Pink's concept of "buoyancy" (discussed here) and responding to ideas with "Yes and...", rather than "No" or "But..." (To Sell 193).

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, discusses the "cognitive ease" (59) that dulls our otherwise rational logic. When our minds are strained, we are prone to suspicion and are less intuitive and creative (59), so, based on this fact, systematically being on the defensive during conversations and meetings prevents us from being innovative by finding new and creative ways to solve our problems.


I learned from Katz, Watkins, and several others, including, above all, my advisor, Brent Vine, that it's ok to be wrong, and, moreover, that it's important to take ownership of failure. It's the attempt and the process that's more important for learning than the results. In many way, then, my experience in graduate school can be seen as a sort of extended #20time project (however tortuous!), since it teaches that exploration and failure go together. Of course, that kind of positive experience depends critically on the quality of the mentoring. I was fortunate to have mentors who relished in the role, and they have set bar for my own expectations in dealing with colleagues and students.

With that, I'm looking forward to giving up any ego and any expectation of control this year. I hope to participate in creating the type of environment where we work together, feeling comfortable and even excited to try new things, and one one that believes "if you're not failing now and then, you're not being innovative enough or taking enough risks" (Team Geek 18).

What are you giving up and why?