The Key to School Change: Getting Comfortable With Discomfort
Improvement requires change, which often means discomfort. Your school can edge out of its comfort zone by breaking down silos, taking risks, and shifting resources.
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.
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.
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.
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!