Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
PrintPrint
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Man sitting at desk in an empty classroom

It is an accepted principle of organizational change: Change is hard. We are told that the process of change includes stages of recognition, denial, grief, and eventual progress, much like the steps we undergo to overcome loss or addiction. I disagree. One of the central findings of my work with well over 100 schools in the last several years is that, relative to the really hard obstacles and events in life that we all face, changing most school organizations is not hard -- it is uncomfortable. There is a big difference.

School communities need to build both a comfort and capacity for change, and a large part of this process is to become increasingly comfortable with discomfort. Here are three key ways that school stakeholders can begin to significantly -- perhaps even radically -- become more comfortable with the discomfort of change.

Busting Silos

Traditional schools operate in four types of silo:

  • Physical: classrooms, offices, wings, and campuses
  • Disciplinary: grade level, subject, department
  • Operational or titular: teacher, staff, administrator, support staff, parent, student, district officer
  • Mindset: the rigidity that comes with having done the same thing for many years, often very successfully

Connectivity, the antithesis of silos, is the greatest key to innovation and creativity, which are key drivers of change.

Discuss and redefine the term "collegial."

Teacher professional growth plans can be public and celebrated. We should look forward to, not fear, frequent visitors in our classrooms for feedback on our own goals. I have visited schools where, rather than fearing classroom observations, teachers are upset when colleagues don’t visit and provide feedback daily or weekly.

Expect frequent collaboration across traditional silo boundaries.

Create time and processes that allow for networks to flourish in ways that breach traditional boundaries of schools, regions, and countries. Schools are starting to realize that subject-based departments and strict age-based grade levels often misalign with 21st-century learning goals.

Publicly support and encourage developing professional learning networks.

A wide range of PLNs will lead to imagining new pilot programs or teaching strategies. Thousands of educators, for example, filter and share resources during weekly common-interest Twitter chats.

Offer more interdisciplinary and non-disciplinary courses.

My crowd-sourced collection of "what if" queries from 2,000 stakeholders indicates that many educators' highest priority is to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Taking Risks

In most schools, for everyone from students to trustees, there has always been a vastly greater downside than upside to taking a risk. While we ask our students to take risks in their academic work, the adults in the system stay frozen into comfort zones, only infrequently changing pedagogy, materials, curriculum, or goals. Yet it is impossible to change an organization without taking some risks. We have to engage in a much broader conversation about what risk entails at a school, and how to embed appropriate risk taking, across all stakeholder groups, as an essential expectation of our jobs:

Model risk taking and learning from failure.

Our students look to their teachers as role models, teachers look to site leaders, and so on up the line. Titular leaders must model risk taking in their own growth-focused practices.

Expect the community to take risks that promote innovation.

At schools that are both serious and intentional about innovative change, the mindset that "what I do next year is probably going to be different than what I did this year" becomes a part of the educators' job description.

Develop an all-school "risk profile."

This profile outlines what risks are acceptable and desirable. A "risk portfolio" consists of pilots that span a range on the risk-reward matrix. Schools generally find that they can tolerate higher risk levels than they thought (in terms of a changing pedagogy or program) when stakeholders are part of designing and testing new ideas.

Shifting Resources

All organizations consume resources in order to produce something. Schools use a limited range of resources (time, space, people, money, and knowledge) to produce students, who are (hopefully) well prepared to successfully find opportunities and overcome the challenges they will encounter in life after school. The outdated model of "school" allocates these resources within a quantum packet into which we try to place each student. If we want to disrupt the assembly-line model of learning, we can’t do what we have always done and hope for a different outcome -- that is Einstein's definition of insanity. Shifting resources in a school isn't hard, but it often involves uncomfortable choices.

Create a matrix of your school’s learning goals and basic resources.

Whatever these key goals are, they'll require some combination of time, space, people, and money. Fill in the matrix to see how those resources align in direct support of your highest learning goals -- and where they do not. Shifting resources to align with our highest learning goals may require uncomfortable but essential choices.

Design daily schedules that have fewer time boundaries.

This always leads to more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration among teachers and students. Almost all schools cite time as their most precious resource and the most uncomfortable to redistribute. Schools like Design 39 Campus have as few as three periods during the day, allowing essential questions and broad, interest-based themes to guide curricula.

None of these strategies are new. In education, we freely share and steal from each other. Also, almost all individuals and organizations overestimate the discomfort of change when it is ahead of us. Other schools have already invented these best practices and successfully came through with fewer traumas than they feared. After we tackle our comfort zone and conquer the fears of change, we find that the next time and the next are easier. It is through doing that we build this comfort and capacity for change -- just like we tell our students!

Was this useful?

Comments (7) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (7) Sign in or register to comment

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

These are powerful suggestions, Grant, and they really push back against the mindset of a lone-ranger teacher, isolated in his/her classroom. But I know my biggest frustration has been lack of time -- whether we are asked to collaborate with our academic teams, our departments, or our grade levels, we just don't have enough time to really dig in and be productive. How can we carve out more time for teachers to grapple with and be involved in innovative change?

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

The issue of time is, by far, the most oft-cited obstacle to change. The good news is that some schools have figured out how to create time for this kind of connectivity while actually improving authentic learning for their students. It requires that adults in the community question the foundational packet of "school": classroom, subject, period, adult-student ratio. There are numerous examples of schools doing this in my book, #EdJourney, and more coming online all the time.

janegriffin's picture

I feel privileged to work for a school where change and risk-taking is an integral part of the culture. Where all staff are working on something and trying new things that take us out of our comfort zone. One example of the way risk-taking is embedded in our school culture, is through our school wide theme. Each year we select a new theme - a broad concept which drives our curriculum and influences how subject areas are approached and taught. The teachers work together to create the curriculum each year, and to develop it as the school year progresses. Would it be easier to have the same curriculum each year? Perhaps. But having a new theme and an ever changing curriculum builds in a level of discomfort, and helps prepare everyone for unpredictable changes.
Jane Griffin
Assistant Director of Admission
UCDS, Seattle
www.ucds.org
http://www.ucds.org/spark/index.html

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Thanks, Jane; that is a great example of keeping things mixed up and not settling in to the same annual routine. Are the students involved in selecting the theme? Do the students then select grade level areas of focus or projects within that theme? One good indicator of a developing level of comfort is to give students increasing roles in determining their own work...and then teachers shifting to support those more random directions that are keyed to student interest. Good to hear good things about UCDS!

janegriffin's picture

Hi Grant, UCDS students do have input in selecting the theme for the next school year. They meet at the end of the school year for a brainstorming meeting. Their theme list is brought to the staff meeting and teachers and admin add onto it. We then narrow it down through discussions, voting, theme-webbing, and a couple more series of voting. It takes about 3 meetings. The theme is kept a secret and is revealed at the end of the summer through a welcome back email. Student are so excited to find out the new theme! Some past themes include Vision, Design, Influence, Lift, and Illumination.
Students also have some input on curricular direction.

Jane Griffin
Assistant Director of Admission
UCDS, Seattle
www.ucds.org
http://www.ucds.org/spark/index.html

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Great stuff! Hopefully you and others at UCDS are sharing this best practice approach with other schools. Great example of a new boost to old "progessive" values. Thanks for sharing.

Michael Paul's picture

Wow, I love it; getting comfortable with discomfort! There are so many things here that stick out. I particularly love the "risk portfolio" and pilots that span the range of risk.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.

Join the movement for change