The Physics of Change

Insights   26 March 2019
By Ben Owens


In·er·tia (iˈnərSHə), noun: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.


Inertia is one of the most fundamental concepts necessary to being able to understand the motion of objects. It also tends to be one that is relatively confusing for students—something I can attest to with 11 years of experience as a physics teacher.

It’s not that the above definition is terribly difficult to understand. In fact, most of my students came into my class with the ability to essentially repeat the definition verbatim. The difficulty for them came as they applied this relatively simple concept to increasingly complex situations (i.e. why objects continue to move at a constant rate without any force being applied). The same confusion can be said of what I call “institutional inertia.”

Like the physics definition, institutional inertia seems relatively simple: institutions, organizations, and people tend to remain at rest (i.e. satisfied with the status quo) or in uniform motion (i.e. slightly tweaking the status quo over time), unless that state is changed by an external force (i.e. transformation).

Just as my students think they have the definition down pat, education stakeholders fall into the same trap—acknowledging the intuitive nature of this concept, yet missing how it applies to the complex work of education transformation. The proof of our collective misapplication can be seen through our years of well-intended initiatives, reforms, policies, and programs.

No matter what we try, the basic structure of our education system remains at rest—school-centered models persist with desks in rows; rigid bell schedules and pacing guides; age-based cohorts; and standardized, one-size-fits-all instruction. This is a powerful model that has stubbornly resisted change for years, and like my students, unless we develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the fundamental nature of this inertia, it will continue to resist any meaningful change for decades to come.

The Conventional System is Like a Giant Hairball

Gordon MacKenzie’s cult classic, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace,” beautifully illustrates this dynamic. “The giant hairball” that MacKenzie describes with wit and humor is actually the “impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems” that comprise all the things that worked in the past but prevent us from escaping mediocrity today. Their gravitational pull ultimately stifles creativity and invention. In other words, the gravitational pull of the status quo is so incredibly strong, that escaping it can be a monumental task. Sound familiar?

Think for a moment about the latest buzzwords getting thrown around in education circles: project-based learning (PBL), personalized learning, 21st-Century skills, or my personal favorite, innovation.

Do you know teachers who claim to be doing PBL but are really doing the same teacher-centered instruction they always have, only with a project (think trifold) thrown in at the end of the year? How many school or district mission statements make glowing pronouncements about preparing students for the 21st-Century, when in reality their primary mode of operating retains its focus on test prep? And, how many schools would claim they are innovating, when in reality, much of what their students do is simply a digitized version of what we all experienced when we were in school?

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an attack. Many of these educators and administrators are working exceptionally hard to make a difference for their students, but they are working within a powerful paradigm—a school-centered paradigm that is their giant hairball—that tends to take even the most promising idea and morph it into something that can fit nicely into what we have always done. PBL becomes “doing projects,” personalized learning becomes algorithmic learning, and collaboration becomes a dysfunctional Personalized Learning Communities (PLC). We can do better, but it will require a true paradigm shift.

Shifting Paradigms Leaves the Hairball Behind

Unsurprisingly, the term “paradigm shift” was made famous by a physicist. Thomas Kuhn, also a philosopher and historian, describes the term in his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. His assertion was that for the scientific community to effectively operate in a way that advances science and prepares those new to the profession (i.e. students) with the minimum requisite credentials they will need, it has to operate on a set of fundamental beliefs.

But, these same beliefs can hinder the discovery and promotion of new ideas that run counter to this foundational knowledge, as they are vigorously defended by members of the current scientific community. This subversion of ideas forces new discoveries into existing conceptual boxes that are defined by current beliefs and theories. Think about the above examples and see if you can see how their “subversion” from effectiveness is driven, not by malice, but by a failure to recognize the paradigm shift needed for them to work as intended.

Just as a fish can’t see the water it is swimming in, we fail to notice the ways of thinking and norms that structure the world in which we operate. As a result, we then cannot see the cultural and structural shift needed for these innovative ideas to reach their true potential. It’s simply easier to force-fit them into the existing paradigm, where they lose their potency of potentially redefining what educational excellence looks like.

Let me provide another physics example to illustrate this point. Look at a book or some other object around you that’s resting on a table or on your desk. That object is in a state of equilibrium, meaning that its gravitational force downward is equally offset by the force the table or desk is exerting upwards. Because of inertia, the object would potentially sit there forever, never moving.

Inclined Plane Graphic

Image: “Rownia tarcie.svg” by 4C is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Assume you lifted your desk at a steep enough angle where the book began to slide, as shown in the diagram above. This is the classic “object on a ramp” problem you may recall (and still hate!) from a science class you took in high school or college. The trick to this problem, without getting too deep into the vector relationships of force, is understanding why lifting the table causes the book to slide: we overcame the friction force (T in the free-body diagram above) by increasing the force of gravity acting horizontally down the ramp (F1 above). The other forces involved (N and F2), don’t act in the direction of motion, but are still important, although in a less intuitive manner.

Applying Physics to Education Transformation

So what does this have to do with building a culture of change? I recently had the good fortune of being in Washington, DC for the Education Reimagined Symposium. I joined a diverse group of leaders and organizations committed to making learner-centered education available to every child in America, regardless of background or circumstance.

This was an awe-inspiring event, but it left me a bit conflicted. On the one hand, it was amazing to see so many movers and shakers from the education space ready to do the work needed to make this vision a reality—to overcome the institutional inertia that has up until this point prevented the kinds of changes we need in our educational systems. At the same time, the data presented showing that less than 1% of U.S. schools were actually operating in the learner-centered paradigm left me even more convinced that inertia is still winning and the only way to make any realistic change is by being much, much smarter in our approach to positive disruption.

One of the ways Education Reimagined is looking to ensure the term “learner-centered” doesn’t fall victim to inertia, and get hijacked like “personalized learning,” has been to distinguish its meaning and by explicitly listing the five essential elements they say become present in any model operating with a learner-centered mindset: learner agency; socially embedded; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; open-walled; and competency-based. This grounds their work in a way that allows everyone who comes in contact with it to operate from the same context.

Five Elements of Learner-centered education and the three outcomes they lead to.

The primary focus of the Washington, DC symposium was to have structured, thoughtful, and intentional conversations about how we create conditions in schools across the country so that  learner-centered education becomes the new normal. These conversations took place with the shared understanding that such conditions will not materialize unless we clearly understand how to create a positive, sustained movement that doesn’t rely on inactionable sound bites, fruitless programs of the month, or top-down brute force.

Eliminating the Giant Hairball Through Three Levers of Change

We must clearly understand all the forces present, so we can focus our energy on shifting the collective whole rather than a smaller piece that will fail to create viable movement. It’s the difference between lifting your desk high enough to cause the book to slide versus lifting it ever so slightly and seeing nothing change. This is where Education Reimagined’s theory of change—that it will take the movement simultaneously pushing on three change levers 1) increasing public will, 2) refining public policy, and 3) building proofs of concept—can be a powerful tool to help grow the 1% of learner-centered environments to a potential tipping point, where learner-centered environments are the prevailing approach to education in this country.

By increasing public will, we enhance our ability to enroll stakeholders who may be sitting on the fence between the school-centered and learner-centered paradigms or who may never have otherwise encountered an opportunity to explore learner-centered education. This includes parents, business and civic leaders, educators, and others who have a sense of urgency and, therefore, build our enabling force (F1 above) that overcomes the resistance force (T above). These conversations also ensure this coalition has a clarity of purpose, directing their work efficiently on refining public policy that is specifically impending movement, as well as understanding other relevant, but less intuitive forces at play (e.g. how N actually affects T above).

This means everyone has a part to play in looking beyond the obvious policies restricting movement and offering alternative solutions that directly or indirectly reduce our friction force. Aiding this reduction will be powerful proofs of concept that the learner-centered model works. I liken this to my students who were prone to want to give up early in my physics course, only to build empowered confidence through repeated success—both their own success and that of their peers. When more education stakeholders are able to see how learner-centered environments are having positive impacts on children, they are better able to build on this success in their own local context.

Overcoming significant inertia is not easy, whether you are talking about moving a large object or changing the culture at your school. But then again, no one ever told me that high quality teaching and learning would be easy; that doing whatever it takes to ensure the success of every student—without exception—is highly successful would be easy; or that stepping outside the comfort of what I’ve always done would be easy.

I honestly believe we have the potential to create meaningful change in a system that is quite adept at resisting change. But, this will only occur if we are willing to do some hard work up front to clearly understand what we are up against and then to be smarter about the tools and resources we employ to create the positive disruption our students deserve. That is when real and lasting change comes to fruition, when we are finally overcoming the inertia that has resisted this change for far too long. Are you ready to do the physics to make that happen? I am.

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