The Birth of a New Paradigm

For me, Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie is another book that has influenced me both professionally and personally.  Brodie, who incidentally was one of the original authors of Microsoft Word, explores the somewhat controversial science of memetics.  Memetics is the study of the workings of memes (pronounced “meems”), the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation.  As the gene is to genetics, so is the meme to memetics.  According to Brodie, ideas (memes) act in a way similar to “real” viruses.

Viruses – say a flu virus or a computer virus – essentially do three things: the first is to duplicate itself, the second is to infiltrate any openings or weaknesses, and the third is to spread.  With either flu or a computer viruses one can easily recognize the process as each has physical properties.  It all sounds very daunting, however, Brodie’s intent is not to suggest that all viruses of the mind only have a negative impact; we can have memes that are positive. He suggests that ideas can move through society in a way similar to other viruses, only a meme has no physical properties; this is how we develop cultural norms he suggests.

One meme that is very common amongst most people is that it takes a long time to change. . When we say that, we are essentially making a prediction about the future and, according to Brodie, if we keep telling ourselves that it takes a long time to change then it will (A positive meme would be that change is easy). Most memes are programmed into people without any conscious intent and can develop from your upbringing, your relationships, from television, and from advertising, just to name a few sources.  It is a very interesting read and certainly challenges us to think and reflect on why we believe what we believe, and whether or not what we believe is actually true.

Here’s the point. In the introduction of the book Brodie outlines the Birth of a New Paradigm and the four stages a new paradigm must go through in order to gain widespread acceptance.  Given where we are in education with 21 Century learning, the rapid evolution of technology, and everything we’ve learned about learning, these four stages brought me comfort in knowing that in order to get to acceptance, all other stages had to be experienced.  As a leader, I have been able to stay the course with any new initiatives and now have a level of awareness about what’s happening within the organization I work.

So, given all that we are trying to accomplish in education, know that all new ideas have to run this course:

1. Complacency/Marginalization: At first, new ideas are seen as off-the-wall ideas that are quaint but don’t threaten the dominant view.  As a result, most people will not pay too much attention the idea when it first comes out.

2. Ridicule: Complacency fades as the new ideas refuse to die which results in people ridiculing the new idea as it is inconsistent with what they hold to be true.

3. Criticism: As the new idea gains acceptance, people who have held conflicting views take off their gloves.  Those whose reputations are invested in the ‘old’ paradigm begin to sharpen their criticism through accusatory language and emotional feedback.

4. Acceptance: The new paradigm gains both intellectual and psychological acceptance as enough people make the leap; those who understand the new ideas are no longer alone.

My take: When we hit the stage of serious criticism, leaders can take solace in the fact that the new idea is on the verge of gaining widespread acceptance.  If it wasn’t, sharp criticism wouldn’t be necessary as the idea would just fade away on its own.

Whether we are looking to implement “new” assessment practices, grading routines, instructional processes, integrate technology, or any number of “new” initiatives, knowing these four stages has help me step back from being emotionally competitive about any implementation plan.  Knowing that new paradigms have to run through these four stages has brought a level of awareness to my leadership that allows me to support people as they work it out for themselves.

“Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”

This is something I’ve wondered about for a long time.  Why is it that when students are unable to meet academic expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student can’t do, but when a student is unable to meet behavioral expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student won’t do?

Now, I know that is an overgeneralization, but I do think our collective outlook toward behavioral challenges is very different from academic challenges; should it be?

When a student can’t add fractions, write an essay, or shoot a basket we typically react in a supportive way; we identify something the student can’t do and intervene with a variety of secondary or tertiary instructional strategies.  If they can’t do it we teach them.

However, when a student misbehaves we often assume that it’s an issue of compliance; that it is a matter of choice or won’t do.  Is it possible that some behavioral issues kids present are can’t do issues; that they actually don’t have the social skills, support, or circumstances necessary to act in a way that is expected in class or within the school?  If we mirrored the instructional strategies we use for academic deficiencies with behavioral deficiencies would students learn more appropriate, pro-social behavior?  This year, all around the world, Kindergarten students are learning that raising your hand is a pro-social way to access adult attention.  They are not born with that skill so teaching it must be possible.

As a school administrator I learned to ask a very simply question whenever a teacher referred a student to me as a result of their behavior: From your perspective, is this a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do’ issue? While it’s not always obvious, most teachers are able to make a best-guess (based on their experience with the student) as to which one they suspect it is.  Won’t do means the student is fully capable of behaving appropriately but they are choosing not to; can’t do means the student, for a variety of reasons, may not be capable of behaving in the way that might be expected.  For some students, for example, sitting quietly through a 60 min. assembly might be asking too much of them.  That doesn’t mean they will never be able to sit through an assembly.  It just means we have to have reasonable expectations given the existing limitations the student might be currently dealing with.

I don’t think can’t do issues should be dealt with as discipline issues, even if the behavior is disruptive.  If we believe there is a skill missing, I think we would be much better served teaching the student what the appropriate pro-social behavior within the given context would look like.

I think won’t do issues are issues of student discipline that should be dealt with through the school’s discipline policy, practice, and/or routines. That doesn’t mean punishment; the most effective discipline policies are instruments of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation.

By asking ourselves the simple question – is it a won’t do or a can’t do we will immediately be focused on the proper kinds of interventions necessary to help the student improve.  When neither the teacher nor I were sure, we always deferred to can’t do; there is no rush in applying any kind of discipline practice to a situation.  The absolute worst case scenario is to discipline a student for something you find out later to be a can’t do. I think this one simple question will help guide you to make more effective and efficient decisions when it comes to supporting our students who demonstrate challenging behaviors.  Once you make the distinction you will be much more able to drill down to the root of the problem.

That’s what I think…you?