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Change: from Chaos to Control

At the end of February, I came back from a brief trip to Australia. Whilst I was there, I first became aware of the chaos that was creeping its way towards us. As I sat in my hotel room, at Melbourne, Tullermarine Airport the night before I flew home, I watched in amazement as the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had to make an appeal on live television for people to stop hoarding loo rolls. 

It turns out that this is where the global panic for toilet paper began. Some citizens had decided that the bulk of this particular bathroom staple, was manufactured in China and with China in lockdown and a state of chaos, stocks would quickly be depleted Down Under. 

As it turned out, over 90% of the soft, quilted, more valuable than gold, sheets of moisturised luxury were actually manufactured domestically, so there was no need for the hysteria. The damage had been done however, the hoarders had stripped the shelves bare and the supply chain was stretched to breaking point. I smirked in that very English way as I climbed aboard the flight home but low and behold, by the time I’d landed in Birmingham, people were doing the same here, why? Because they’d seen social media footage of people doing it on the other side of the world and thought “blimey mate, its time to hunker down inside a bog paper igloo”.

Over the last few months, we have seen some interesting human behaviours, most of them as a direct response to the change and uncertainty we have been living through. Many of them amplified because we are simply not educated to cope with change of any kind, yes, none of us, were prepared for what we are living through, in terms of a global pandemic, but we are just not very good at change and uncertainty, because we are, on the whole, raised, educated and managed to seek out certainty and then, when we’ve found it, to protect it at all costs. Our need to stock pile is a perfect example of that.

In many ways, the crisis has exposed a weakness we have been concerned about for many years and that is the understanding that the world is turning faster and more unpredictably than ever and it is happening exponentially. Global shifts in economies, natural resources, the environment, socio-ethnic demographics, and cohesion, all catalysed by the technological revolution.  

Yet we still prepare people to seek out and then live lives of certainty. As a result, when it ‘hits the fan’, whether we’ve got loo roll or not, we simply don’t know how to cope. 

Many of us have, not for the first time in our lives, experienced some of the six emotional responses to change, that occur when we feel that events are beyond our control.

See how may of these are familiar when you reflect on the last three months. 

At first, when lockdown was announced, many of us went into a trance like state; a paralysis where nothing seemed to go in. We switched from total inaction to almost maniacal activity and then back again; all of the time in a state of complete mental confusion. Then, we moved into a phase of denial; “it will all be over in a few weeks, that’s if it even happens to us, here”.

We persuaded ourselves that it was all an overreaction, when it didn’t go away though; when sticking our heads in the sand, didn’t help, we became angry, looking for people and organisations to blame for our predicament, in the hope that by projecting to others we would feel better. When that didn’t help, some of us just gave up and spent our days in an almost depressed state, living in our pyjamas, staring at endless Netflix box sets. 

When our worlds become so unpredictable and beyond our control, many of us cycle through these four phases waiting, waiting for someone to come along and give us the answer, the strategy, or the way out. 

It isn’t surprising, its how most of us were educated and raised; do what you’re asked, when you are asked; do what is required as efficiently as you can and we will reward you with certainty; there will always be someone there to make it OK.

That is the challenge; the lesson we must all take from this is that the world just isn’t like that anymore, if ever it really was. I’m not saying that we can’t or don’t support or help each other, collaboration is more important now than it has ever been; just look at the brilliant scientists around the world, who are working together to find us ways out of this, with vaccines and prophylactic treatments. But we need to find ways to be less passive and more active, we need to become more proactive than reactive. There are strong arguments that we waited far too long for a global pandemic to come to us, rather than finding ways to prevent it. 

As educators, I think we need to think long and hard about being really committed and focused moving forwards from this point, to ensure that we prepare ourselves and our learners to deal with change and uncertainty better than this. Which brings me to the final two phases of change, the stages which allow us to take back a semblance of control: 

Exploration, which is the point at which we start to ask questions of the situation we are in, to find opportunities for interaction and connection. It is the first time we become proactive and just the act of taking an interest and engaging, can make us feel more constructive and positive. It is also the first step towards acceptance and more importantly, activation. It is in this final phase, that we start to engage and develop ideas and practice which can see us finding some control and purpose in this new environment.

Moving forward, we must ensure that we train and manage people better to skip passed the first four phases of change response, and to engage in these final two stages as quickly as possible.  

More than ever, we need to understand that as educators, we must create far more interactive learning environments where learners are encouraged to self-manage and be less reliant on teachers and trainers to tell them what they need to know; we must be more committed to active learning environments as opposed to passive ones, ensuring that students explore and activate more. 

Stockpiling toilet roll will never save the world but building self-leadership and a more proactive attitude to change may well do.         

Richard Gerver for Promote-Ed

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