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The View from Here: Adapting to Current Educational Challenges

By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director

As I pen this article on an unusually warm day in April, it seems spring may actually be upon us. I say this with a bit of apprehension though, as I recognize how fickle the weather in our region can be and tomorrow could bring measurable snow. Regardless, for me, spring signifies renewal. A time when what lay dormant for the past six months or so begins to grow anew. The changing of the seasons is truly a wonderment and reminds me of how adaptive animals, plants and humans must be to survive and thrive through the many natural, man made and self-inflicted challenges of life. There is one common denominator, we are all faced with professional and personal challenges requiring the ability to adapt.

Think of a challenge you are currently facing in your work as an educator. Can this challenge be addressed sufficiently using current policy and procedure or relying on decisions made by someone in a position of authority? If your answer is yes, then the challenge you are facing is what researchers would call a technical problem. According to Heifetz et al. (2009), “While technical problems may be very complex and critically important, they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how” (p.19). Have you found some of the challenges you faced in recent years are more difficult to resolve, tend to persist and resurface after seeming to be adequately addressed? These challenges are what researchers describe as adaptive in nature. “Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties” (Heifetz et al., 2009, p.19). Do you notice the distinct difference between the characteristics of technical problems and adaptive challenges? What questions does this distinction raise for you?

Most of the challenges schools face are complex technical and adaptive challenges. These challenges, for example, include issues related to students living in poverty, mental health concerns for students and adults, economic, social, political and racial inequities, the social-emotional needs of students and adults, etc. Most problems are a mix of technical and adaptive challenges (Heifetz et al., 2009) and there is a tendency for individuals and organizations to focus on the technical aspects of a challenge. This makes sense, since technical problems are relatively straightforward, their solutions typically apparent and the responsibility often resides with people in roles of authority. Yet, there is a trap we set for ourselves with this type of thinking especially as a problem may abate in the short term and some progress is measurable. We may even experience a sense of accomplishment. However, if we continue our efforts, the challenge is likely to resurface, because adaptive challenges are, “The gap between the values people stand for and the reality that they face (their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment)” (Heifetz et al, 2009, p.303). Short term fixes do not bridge this gap, they mask it and allow it to grow wider.

Let’s examine the issue of poverty. If you conduct an analysis of your student achievement data, do you notice students in your economically disadvantaged subgroup lagging in performance compared to “all students?” This is disproportionality, a common challenge faced by urban, suburban and rural school districts. Poverty is a complex problem and one easily addressed. If we were to try and simplify this daunting issue we could try and tackle one aspect of poverty, for example, food insecurity, which many schools and communities have addressed in recent years as a technical problem. Backpack programs have been implemented in many school communities to ensure all students have adequate nutrition during the weekend when they cannot avail themselves of free breakfast or lunch programs. This is a very positive and often effective technical solution for addressing one aspect of the poverty problem. Though an important technical step, the impact of food insecurity or poverty on our students will not be solved in a sustainable way through this singular technical response. Why? It is clear poverty is a systemic structural problem involving numerous interconnected political, social and economic factors and as an adaptive challenge will require significant changes individually and societally. Though we can apply technical solutions like creating backpack programs for our neediest students and families to have food on the weekends, the root causes of the problem are not being addressed, just the symptoms.

What can we do? First, we must understand that many of the challenges faced in schools are both technical and adaptive. Second, we must acknowledge what the research noted previously asserts about adaptive challenges, they require “changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.” Without the individual commitment to examining each of our roles failing to acknowledge, allow, and contribute to the challenge, solutions have no hope of succeeding. Third, we must collaborate beyond traditional approaches to create technical and adaptive solutions. There are many people in our school communities, especially students and marginalized families, who need to be enlisted to participate in the co-design of solutions. Finally, we must all be leaders, undeterred by the inevitable obstacles we face, exhibiting the courage to communicate and act adaptively.

As you renew your efforts to tackle the challenges in front of you today and into the future, please know CASDA continues to adapt its work and services in support of educators throughout the region.


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