Teaching for Change

By Jennifer Fletcher

Teaching for transfer prepares students to be flexible thinkers who notice what’s going on around them, assess the current situation, and adjust and respond as needed. In 2020, the ground shifted under us. Economies were shuttered, schools closed, tests were suspended, jobs were lost or transformed, and the world turned upside down while millions of people lost their lives to a disease that was new in human history.

While nothing could have prepared us for this catastrophic loss of life, it was clear that the coping skills we most needed were those that help us navigate radical change. Rhetorical thinking and a spirit of transfer help us to be alert to changing conditions and contexts. After years of teaching about the importance of situational awareness and responsiveness, I repeatedly asked myself in 2020, “OK, just how good am I at handling change?” I didn’t always cope as well as I wanted to. But I found that what I had learned about transfer and rhetoric helped me to coach myself through the more difficult transitions.

As the news cycles rolled out in a relentless series of unthinkable headlines, we had to jump from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C. Even the old reliables of K12 education–standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exams–fell away or were transformed as colleges and testing companies scrambled to adjust to new realities. What remained the same, and indeed was more important than ever, was the need for people to figure out what had changed in their world and adapt accordingly.

We need to prepare students for an unknown future, not teach them rules and formulas that perpetuate the status quo…or even that just assume that the literacy tasks of tomorrow will look the same as the literacy tasks of today. 

But teaching for change isn’t always something we’ve done well as a profession. We tend to prefer fixed targets. And assessment and accountability systems rarely consider the extent to which students can adapt and apply their learning in new situations. Yet this measure of learning is exactly the one that matters most right now. Because we’re all having to adapt like never before.

The things we used to know and do fit a reality that continues to shift away from us even as we struggle to map its contours. Never has a list of fixed rules or stock formulas been less relevant to our students’ lives or to their preparedness for the future.

How many times in the past year have you heard someone say, “there’s no playbook for this”? There is no playbook for the world we’re living in now. We do our students a grave disservice if we act as if everything is business as usual when it’s not.

What endures, what still matters today, is the learning that helps students figure out how to read, write, and solve problems in unfamiliar situations, including like the one we’re all living through now. 

Teaching for that level of destabilizing, disorienting change involves teaching the concepts, processes and ways of thinking that enable students to adapt, respond, and even thrive when the ground shifts under them. Teaching students rules and formulas sets students up to be frustrated with change.

We can’t get things back to the way they were. The most effective vaccines and treatments won’t undo what has already happened. This, of all times, is not the moment to double down on protecting the status quo. Instead, it’s the moment to embrace our human capacities for adaptation, responsiveness, and resilience–and to cultivate these qualities in our students as our best path forward. 

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

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