January 21, 2023
Hello, I hope you’re enjoying the weekend. Thank you for subscribing to the Coaching Letter. You are awesome. And clearly many of you forwarded it to others, as there were a bunch of new sign-ups in the last couple of weeks. Thank you for that. Here are your reminders to sign up for the Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics book study, and our annual Coaching In-Depth at Mercy-by-the Sea on May 10th, and Coaching for Leaders in Litchfield in July—registration includes a copy of our new book!
This Coaching Letter is about Construal Level Theory. Please don’t hit delete. Honestly, I think it’s a really important idea or else I wouldn’t write about something that seems on the face of it so abstruse.
To make it worse, I have to start by explaining another technical term: psychological distance. I could summarize what it says in Wikipedia about psychological distance, which is actually really useful, but instead I asked ChatGPT to “explain psychological distance in a way that would be useful to a graduate student in psychology”, and here’s what she came up with (I already think of her as a she; she’s like having my own personal research assistant, and I visualize her as very cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, athletic, with dark curly brown hair and wearing jeans and chunky turtleneck sweaters):
Psychological distance refers to the perceived separation or dissimilarity between an individual and an object or event. This can be thought of as a multidimensional construct, with different types of distance including temporal, social, spatial, hypothetical, and hypothetical-social distance. Each type of distance can affect how an individual thinks and feels about an object or event, and can influence their behavior and decision making. For example, an event that is perceived as being in the distant future may be less psychologically salient than one that is imminent, and as a result, an individual may be less likely to take action to prepare for it. Similarly, an event that is perceived as happening to someone else (social distance) may be less emotionally impactful than one that the individual feels is happening to them personally (spatial distance). Understanding how psychological distance can affect individuals’ perceptions, emotions and behavior can be useful for graduate students in psychology who are researching or developing interventions in areas such as decision-making, risk perception, and social influence. There are important real-world applications of this idea. For example:
We are more likely to feel less psychological distance from an event when one or more aspects of it brings it “closer to home”. I am emotionally impacted by all news of school shootings, but some are more affecting than others; Columbine, for example, was only 30 miles from the school where I was a first-year principal when the shootings occurred, and the fact that it was so physically close and that people in my building had connections to teachers at Columbine made it especially distressing; it was all I could think about for weeks. Likewise, the young men who were shot and killed last November at the University of Virginia were the same age as my college-student sons, so seeing their photos in the news was especially shocking.
Construal Level Theory (and here I am quoting from Wikipedia) “is a theory in social psychology that describes the relation between psychological distance and the extent to which people’s thinking (e.g., about objects and events) is abstract or concrete. The core idea of CLT is that the more distant an object is from the individual, the more abstractly it will be thought of, while the closer the object is, the more concretely it will be thought of.” This means that we think in greater detail when an event is closer in time, or space, or is close to us socially, or feels likely to happen. For example, if you told me you were going to be in London next summer, I would tell you should visit the British Museum; but if you told me you were going to be in London next week, I would tell you that the best way to get to the British Museum from your hotel near Trafalgar Square is to take the 91 bus and get on at the stop outside Pizza Express. Similarly, if the next meeting of a community of practice is three months away, the planning team is likely to be able to decide that the theme of the meeting is going to be Bright Spots, but won’t iron out the details until the week (or maybe day) before.
Interestingly, the connection between psychological distance and concrete/abstract flows both ways. In other words, if I talk about something in more abstract terms, then it seems to be farther away in time and/or space. Events spoken of a long time in the future seem to be less likely to happen—and, indeed, when it comes to future risks such as climate change or pandemics, we may say things like, “it may never happen”. It’s hard for us to think of unlikely things in detail, and lack of detail signals low probability. We address people we do not know well more formally: “polite language signifies and creates interpersonal distance; people address strangers more politely than they address friends, and the use of polite, formal language creates a sense of distance… the use of normative, polite language rather than colloquial, less polite language led participants to believe that the target of the communication was spatially and temporally more distant” (Trope & Liberman, 2010).
This brings me to one of my favorite topics: school improvement planning and district strategic planning. Because it seems to me that, in the way that we create structures and templates for organizational planning, we actually make the plans less likely to come about. The typical planning document is the very definition of vague, hypothetical, socially distant, and distant in time. Yes indeed, this does make our traditional strategic plans and school improvement plans sound a bit useless. The problems are, specifically:
- 5 year plans are very distant in time and therefore psychologically distant and therefore seem less likely to happen, and therefore seem less likely to involve us.
- It’s possible to read a strategic plan that does not contain any specific actions at the classroom level; teachers, who are in fact the people we most need to see themselves in plans, because they are the ones who have the most direct impact on the experience of students, would have to extrapolate how the plan applies to them, what actions they need to take. The column labeled “person responsible” frequently says all or principals, it never actually names anyone.
- The plan is written in formal language, which again makes it seem distant and therefore abstract and less salient.
In my first Kappan article about strategy and planning (the one that changed my life a bit), I wrote that, “given how often school improvement plans falter and fail, we should at least consider the possibility that our plans themselves—and not the millions of educators struggling gamely to implement them—are to blame.” And I summarized “the mistakes that the typical improvement planning process encourages”:
- Confusing the product with the process
- Writing plans too quickly
- Making too many assumptions about what will work
- Trying to do too many things at once
- Neglecting to clarify who will do what
I still think these are true. But I hadn’t heard of construal level theory when I wrote the article, and the concept of psychological distance as it applies to planning did not occur to me. I wish it had, because the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that psychological distance is a significant factor in explaining why plans are so rarely enacted the way they were intended.
The implications for the work of those of us involved in change efforts, such as leaders and coaches, is that we should endeavor to:
- Keep our language informal: use colloquial language, avoid the passive tense, use people’s names rather than honorifics and titles.
- Keep the focus on the very near future. I had stickers made using the phrase we use a lot in improvement work: “What can you get done by next Tuesday?” as a reminder to pay attention to the immediate next step, but it has the corollary effect of making that next step seem more likely to happen.
- Be specific about who is doing what. The strategy map has the great benefit (one of many) of clarifying what is expected from people in different roles, which makes the work more immediate for them and, therefore, less psychologically distant.
- Communicate details. The more concrete, the more real it seems and the more likely to happen. Details about what’s going to happen, how something is going to be done, who’s going to be involved, and so on…
- Tell stories. We feel more psychological distance from people we are socially distant from—sometimes that’s about physical distance, but it’s also about features like race, religion, and class. I think about the charity that I give to regularly, Heifer, and how they tell stories about individual children and families so that I have a better picture of what their lives are actually like and I feel less socially distant from them, even though they may be on the other side of the world.
My big a-ha regarding construal level theory may have been about school/district planning, but you will notice that it’s also relevant to the last Coaching Letter about resolutions. Making a vague statement about exercising more or losing 10lbs not only does not provide any kind of roadmap to follow, it also creates psychological distance; it doesn’t feel real or salient to us. It doesn’t provide any sense that the resolution is actually going to come to fruition; that it is close to us in time or space; it feels theoretical. In other words, we’ve all been told that resolutions need to be framed in very specific, immediate, actionable terms, but construal level theory provides part of the explanation for why that’s the case. Cool, eh?
Finally, I’ve had an intense couple of weeks, with workshops or coaching involving about a dozen districts. The last time Rydell and I talked about how overwhelming it can feel to work with so many people in so many places in a short period of time, he used the word “saturated”, and that’s exactly how I feel. And I am so grateful to be involved with so many great people doing such great work—it’s such a gift. So thank you for all you do—I know you are working hard and that the pressure is relentless and the sense of urgency weighs heavy on you. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming