The Problem with Starting Small and Going Slow

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When it comes to facilitating lasting change, educators are often told to start small and go slow. We adjust better to incremental shifts, after all. Starting small and going slow allows the learning to sink deeper beneath the surface, where we hope it will take up permanent residence.

Here’s the problem with starting small and going slow in my world: we make whole grade levels and even generations of kids wait on changes that are critical to their learning experiences while we do what’s best for their teachers and future students.

The problem with starting small and going slow is that it often begins with a good amount of false confidence about where we should be heading in the first place.
I can’t tell you how often I’m a part of planning conversations where people are more concerned about attending to the needs of the adults involved than ensuring today’s learners are getting their needs met. And even when we plan to start small and go slow and make sure all of the adults are comfortable, our best laid plans often fall apart anyway.

That’s another problem with starting small and going slow: it requires us to commit to sustainability, and the ugly truth is that many systems aren’t ready or able to. Before you start nodding in earnest, know that you are part of the system. So am I. We don’t get to point fingers or absolve ourselves of responsibility.

How many times have you begun a multi-year initiative in earnest only to lose funding, time, leaders, and teachers along the way? Budgets are cut. Administrators change roles. Teachers retire or move to other grade levels. Mandates soak up every remaining resource. A new vendor rolls into town on a wagon that sparkles a whole lot brighter than last year’s model.

Admit it: you’ve been mesmerized at times too. So, before you accuse others of “drinking the Kool-Aid” you may want to check your own cup. It comes in many flavors.

I can only speak to my own experiences and wonder if some of yours have been the same. A few years ago, New York State teachers were introduced to a new set of standards. Then, we were asked to align accordingly (and quickly, of course).

Some began investigating prefabricated curricula in order to establish alignment and immerse learners in new experiences asap. Some began designing their own curriculum, eager to build teacher capacity and sustain learning and growth over time. Others decided they would rail against the standards movement, supporting passion-based teaching and learning instead.

Here we are, a handful of years later, and who is better for the experience, regardless of the approach? This depends on how you define success.

Like many, I don’t use standardized test scores to define success. I don’t care how your district ranks against others, either. I also know that the points you earned through your teacher evaluation process this year probably illuminate very little about your strengths and needs. If you still give grades, they are probably doing more harm than good, so I don’t rely on that data too heavily.

I’d be a fool to think these things don’t matter, though.

When I step inside a school where people are spending less time promoting what they believe or what they think they might know and more time testing theories and approaches, gathering findings, and opening them up to others for feedback, I’m impressed. That’s what success looks like, in my opinion. That’s the kind of thing I’d work hard to sustain.

The problem with starting small and going slow is that it often begins with a good amount of false confidence about where we should be heading in the first place. That confidence inspires us to put new things in place without evaluating fit or studying how the new thing influences learning and yes, even performance.

I much prefer systems and people who start curious rather than certain. And if things are bound to die anyway, I guess I’d rather go fast than slow.

The longer I work in the field of education, the more I realize that success has less to do with the stuff of staff development and more to do with systems; starting small and going slow might be great in theory, but I find it’s no match for unhealthy ones.

What do you think?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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