Monday, February 1, 2010

Real Transformation = Storms, Pits, and Context

Real change means becoming something radically different tomorrow than you are today. We can make the case that this kind of transformation is rare, especially in schools where the status quo has prevailed. I believe the reason for this is that the work of real change is very confronting, individually and collectively. The angst, confusion and frustration of real change is not easily embraced in any organization and in schools stifled by the status quo massive resistance and fear exist.

That is why being a member of the International Network of Community Designed Education (Teacher Designed Schools in Australia and New Zealand) co-founded by Dr. John Edwards and I in 2003 is both exhilirating and confronting at the same time. Our processes embed all of the attributes of real, contextual change that exist in "Best Practice" research today. What follows is a description of that research and how we include those attributes into our professional work.

Michael Fullan has two new books out: All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform, (Corwin Press, 2010) and Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, (Corwin Press, 2010). These books spell out that fundamental change must include total engagement, that everyone is engaged – whole school reform. Professional learning has to include everybody; otherwise, you only get piecemeal change.

The Network processes meet this need for total engagement. From building the shared vision and engaging in the research of the Preparation for Action year to the mental model work of implementation, everybody is influenced to be engaged.

Fullan mirrors Peter Senge’s concepts of “less is more” and “slower is faster.” As the school leader, according to Fullan, your role is to mobilize the whole group around a small number of powerful initiatives/tasks and then making sure the school is in a network of schools where the schools are learning from each other. His “skinny on change” is identifying the smallest number of key factors that you need to focus on, factors that are high-powered, in the sense that if you do them together, you’ll see lots of results for the efforts. The leader mobilizes the group to work together and excites people who are there to collaborate to do something different that they find satisfying and energizing.

Long before Fullan came to this conclusion we had built these concepts into the Network processes. This is especially observed at the beginning of Phase 2 where every school is encouraged to design a sensible long-term improvement plan where “speed” must always be based on the mental models you are trying to embed into the culture of the school. The Network provides opportunities for learning with like-minded colleagues around the world who speak a common language. This is powerfully obvious at our annual Network Leaders’ Days.

The “pit” must be seen as an absolute necessity for change and learning. As Edward’s and Butler’s research shows us, feeling frustrated, uncomfortable and anxious is a vital ingredient for learning. All contextual change flows through a shift in mental models; the values, beliefs and assumptions that drive our performance. These mental models are resistant to change. Choosing to live out a new mental model means we will “get worse before we get better” according to the Model of Transformational Learning. This is the storming stage in the life of healthy learning, either individually or collectively. School leaders must create the conditions for a collective storm in order for contextual change to be a reality. They must also hold their nerve during the storm.

The TDS/CDE Network processes provide schools a structure that ensures challenge influences the learning process. It is the Preparation for Action Year. A time to storm is validated and the conditions that influence contextual change are strategically designed into the process: answers are drawn out of those who know them best – the people doing the job, staff are provided a safe environment to try things out and fit them to their context, the power of the individual and group is used to bring contextual change to the surface, and school leaders provide the time, space and commitment for the challenge of the storm to be the school’s reality.

In the preface to John Hattie’s new book, Visible Learning, Michael Fullan is referenced describing that the problem schools face is “not resistance to innovation, but the fragmentation, overload, and incoherence resulting from the uncritical and uncoordinated acceptance of too many different innovations.” Whole-school reform, contextual change, can only occur when a school community chooses wisely from the myriad of innovations Fullan speaks about. And that is only the first step. Whatever you choose must be fit to your context. Nothing can be directly implemented from elsewhere. Everything must be designed to fit your uniqueness. This takes time, iterations and trust in you. Then leaders must teach the mental models the community will need to embed the innovation into the culture of the school.

Again, the TDS/CDE Network processes support you to fit contextual change to your context. This begins powerfully with the Core Value work during Phase 1. This becomes more readily apparent in Phase 2 and Phase 3 as you design your long-term school improvement plan and identify the implementation tasks and mental models that must be in place to realize your plan and shared vision. Processes like the Butler Model are used to support school leaders to design the mental model lessons they must teach to the school community.

The four concepts just described form the knowledge base for whole-organization reform and contextual change that has been emerging in the literature over the past decade. As Fullan states, “We can actually describe this system-wide change in a very pinpointed way. The clarity and specificity are very well operationalized and transparently observable. Politicians and policymakers are increasingly interested in this, because the old strategies haven’t worked and these look like they should work. Also, the investment in innovation, development, success, and the research associated with that has also accumulated. And most importantly, we now have scores of practitioners who are practicing this. All of my best ideas come from practitioners.”

While this research is just coalescing internationally, leaders of member TDS/CDE schools, have been practicing the research since 2003. And this is not easy. We have never offered anyone a rose garden. The continuous fight to choose to lead your organization through the shared visioning journey instead of giving in to the management sirens luring you onto the rocks demands courage and sustained passion and commitment. This is often difficult, time consuming and energy depleting. Dramatic contextual change is simply hard work that you must own as a leader and. You must have friends who will always stand strongly with you in this fight! It is a fight you must own and have the courage to win. The result will be transformation. And according to the research it will lead you “to do the right thing rather than always attempting to do things right.”

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