Education is Perturbation.
Some recent events at school and at home have had me reflecting on a somewhat obscure concept in human development. It is obscure in that, although we all have personal experience of it and we are surrounded by it on a daily basis, to my knowledge, it is a concept that gets little or no attention as a part of the “formal body” of educational knowledge, pedagogy or discussion.
The concept I’m referring to is Perturbation. So what is this thing “Perturbation"?
You can Google 'perturbation' and you will get a bunch of links to some definitions of the word, such as;
Perturbation: A deviation of a system, moving object, or process from its regular or normal state or path, caused by an outside influence.
and you will also get some links to some rather high brow explanations of mathematical concepts as it relates to gravitational forces on planets.
The thing is we have all had experience with perturbation whether we know it or not, because perturbation is a central component of the process of change. We have all, at sometime had an experience that left its mark on us somehow. Lots of learning experiences can involve perturbation and they can range from small to totally life changing. The life changing ones are generally ones that we don't forget, simply because of going through the process of perturbation. At the time it can often feel like the end of the world. However later on we usually find that our anxiety was overrated and we often laugh about how we dealt with the situation, because we have changed and grown as a person.
There is also a whole industry that is based on the concept of perturbation. It’s called Reality TV!
So what is perturbation in relation to change, and how does that relate to education? To get an understanding of what it is we need an easily observable example of the process in action.
For this I’ll look at the process of boiling water.
Water is placed in a kettle. It's current 'normal' state of equilibrium is as a liquid. As the element or flame creates heat it begins to release the gases dissolved in the water, and this can be seen by the forming of small bubbles on the side of the kettle. As the temperature increases the bubbles become larger and larger until finally large enough bubbles of gas are released that the surface tension of the water is broken and the bubbles pop. Which is when we say the water is boiling.
The waters state has now changed as some of the water will now have enough energy to ‘fly off’ from the water in the kettle as steam, and even if we let the water cool down again it is not the ‘same’ water as it was before. It will have a “new" state of equilibrium.
A similar process can can be said to occur with human change. We begin in a calm and relaxed state, our beginning state of equilibrium, but as we proceed through the process, anxiety, stress and emotional pressure causes increases in tension to occur until finally there is a point at which we 'boil over' or "POP". At the point of boiling or popping there is an emotional release and a change occurs and after we have “cooled down” we will have a new state of equilibrium. How we learn from this experience will shape how we're able to grow as an individual and deal with new stresses or challenges.
I guess the easiest way to explain it is to relate a personal example of my own in going through the process of perturbation.
Before moving to Te Karaka, my partner and I lived in Auckland. Even though her mother lived in Ormond just down the road from Te Karaka, my partner was not keen on moving away from Auckland because it would mean leaving most of her friends behind. (not to mention lots of shops, movie theatres, beauty salons, and every type of fast food outlet)
So when I accepted the position it created a fair amount of tension between us.
Moving house is supposedly one of the more stressful activities in human experience so moving from Auckland to Gisborne added some more tension. It is also said that changing occupations is one of the seven most stressful activities in human experience. If you add to that the stress of buying a house and the fact that my partners father had recently passed away and our daughter was only 16 months old, one can see that I was operating under a fair deal of pressure. With a class that had half a dozen very challenging students and not having taught full-time for several years, my first term in a new school, in a place where we knew relatively few people, was one long exercise in perturbation.
This was brought home for all of us when it came to our final reflection meeting of the term. There was a fair amount of relief on my part that I had actually "made it” through the term, had been able to slot back into classroom teaching and get some good learning happening. So when it came time for me to share my reflection of the term I had a rather unexpected and very public, emotional release. I can vividly remember trying to get out what I needed to say with tears streaming down my cheeks, and at the same time thinking to myself “Hey I'm popping, right here, right now I am popping”!
So what have I learnt from that perturbation process?
Lots, heaps, masses of stuff, so much that I could write a list 10 pages long of little and large things that have allowed me to grow as a person. The great thing is, 3 years down the track, I am still learning from that period of perturbation.
In one of Karyn's recent postings she gave an example of an experience she had while on holiday where she got lost, had to find her way to the person she was travelling with and managed herself through the stressful experience but when she got to her travel partner she had an emotional release or pop. Once she had “cooled off” she was able to reflect on the experience, so that when she again got lost later in her trip she was able to use that previous experience in order to navigate around a strange city with much less stress. A clear example of the perturbation process in action.
But perturbation is not limited just to personal experiences. It can also be applied to communities of people. Take the way our school operates as another example.
At the beginning of our journey as a school large numbers of students were not able to fully understand the huge change in the way we approached the learning process from what they were used to. This caused a great deal of stress and quite a bit of perturbation occurred. A great deal of the perturbation occurred around students attitudes towards school and learning. When we started in 2011, the prevailing attitude in the senior school towards learning was that is was stupid and if you actually wanted to get your NCEA your were a “suck up”. As a massive external influence our teaching team, caused a huge shift in student attitude towards learning and achievement, and students now see their learning as central to them becoming who they want to be.
The fact that we had a totally new way of operating a school was also something that many parents found challenging. As in any case with a stressful situation, people often seek to release the pressure. Some parents did this by taking their children to another, more "conventional" school. Other parents who were more accepting actually moved their children to our school from other schools.
Even today three years down the track we are still confronted by parents who do not fully understand why it is, that we are operating in the way we do. Some community members are stuck in an old way of thinking and it is part of our job as a school to create the pressure that causes them to change their thinking.
With the move to our brand-new school has come a set of new challenges which are creating new pressures and new opportunities for perturbation to occur, for students, teachers, parents and the community.
We have had some students join us that have previously been homeschooled. Some of the students are making the adjustment and are enjoying school, and some are finding the transition from home school very challenging and they are going through the perturbation process.
With our new Modern Learning Environment students have also had to adjust and this has brought about more perturbation as students adapt to the “new system” (refer back to that definition at the start of the post)
Teachers working full-time in a team teaching environment has also brought many new challenges, new stresses and new opportunities for perturbation to occur. Some teams are finding that they are able to create good 'positive pressure' for change in the students, but that can be completely undone if one teacher “lets the pressure off”.
Which of course is entirely understandable. As teachers a large amount of our training and pedagogy has centred around creating a peaceful learning environment, and our natural inclination is to want to resolve any “conflicts" or "disruptive behaviours” so that all the students can have a “nice peaceful learning environment”. The trouble with that is, that the team will be caught in a loop, and will not be able to progress or grow until the perturbation is completed.
In their book “The Wonder Weeks” Hetty van der Rijt and Frans Plooij use their research to build on the work done by Jean Paiget to lay out a series of developmental stages that babies go through in their first 20 months, and those changes can be accurately predicted to a certain week, calculated from the expected due date of the baby. As a baby is going through one of the developmental stages or “leaps" it is generally characterised by the baby crying, yelling and screaming for no apparent reason, needing nursing and comforting more than seems normal and generally driving the parents to despair, because they don’t know what’s “wrong”. When in fact there is nothing “wrong”, it’s just how babies deal with changes that are occurring in their brains.
One could argue that the process doesn’t end after the first 2 years and that the crying and yelling and screaming never stops! As much as the crying, yelling and screaming are characteristics of babies making their next developmental leap, they are also a part of people going through perturbation. The process is often not easy or pleasant, how can it be? There is anxiety, stress and high emotion that culminates in an emotional release. It can be tears, or wild celebration. The Rugby World Cup comes to mind, how about a whole nation going through some perturbation together? Sport is another area where we often get to experience quite a lot of perturbation. Ask any good coach and they will know all about how to get the best out of their athletes by cranking up the pressure.
So this post may have rambled a bit and I make no apologies for that.
Hopefully from reading this you can relate to an experience you’ve had where you went through the perturbation process and can look at it with a new perspective and take some new lessons and growth from that time.
Maybe you will also look at those students that are “disruptive" through a new frame of reference, and see that they might be going through a perturbation process and that while your efforts to "keep the peace” are natural, you may need to do the opposite and crank up the pressure to allow them to “pop”. Because until they do, they will be stuck in a loop, and no-one will be able to move on.
If you want to watch some nicely packaged examples of perturbation in action, just watch nearly any Reality TV competition program. Over the series you will see the pressure, stress and anxiety levels go up, and I can guarantee, there will be more than a few “pops”!
If we go back to that original definition at the start,
A deviation of a system, moving object, or process from its regular or normal state or path, caused by an outside influence.
And take a look at it from another perspective, we can see that Education IS perturbation.
We welcome our students into our learning spaces and although they are quite happy to cruise along through life, we as teachers are the outside influence, we create all those activities and learning opportunities that force our students to challenge what they know, or think they know, and often times the learning is fun and exciting, and sometimes it is dramatic and highly pressured.
I would love to say "here’s the best way to manage/use ‘perturbation’", but the reality is that every situation is different and all we can do is our best to help our students through the process. It is also just one facet of the complex body of understanding we call Education and as I said at the start, it’s a concept that gets little or no attention as a part of the “formal body” of educational knowledge, pedagogy or discussion.
We must therefore start with a more comprehensive examination and understanding of how perturbation occurs naturally in Education and how we can use it to enhance learning and development. And that then, must surely start with reasoned discussion about teachers experiences, both as learners and teachers, of the process.
So don’t be shy, let us know your thoughts on this little examined concept and how you see it’s place in Education.