Implementing scalable change in learning requires visionary work, courageous conversations, and the ability to be intentional about deciding where to start, how to phase future work, and how to reflect along the way. Creation human-centered buildings cannot be achieved through an imperative prescription; it does not include a canned curriculum with a pace of delivery. It takes bold leadership to move away from our system’s age-old paradigms, but it doesn’t simple management.
Traditionally, our schools have not been designed to support all students to achieve as much as possible. Although designed to provide families with access to viable economic pathways, the school has historically been designed primarily to be effective. The transformation of a learning organization born and raised in this context takes time and the route matters. As with any journey, choosing the wrong route can prevent you from reaching your desired destination.
This blog is based on Framing and Design How, by digging in a strategy to determine the ideal pace for innovation by seeking insight into the system you serve (including students, community, staff, and families). By assessing your organization or team’s capacity for change and commitment, you can identify the phases that can be used and determine where to start.
Change the scale
The level of readiness, urgency and commitment are the drivers of the pace of transformation and the leadership required. As the system grows in the direction of the vision, understanding and commitment will make way for greater levels of implementation.
Starting small could mean a team of teachers collaborating and delivering themed projects or changing the leadership structure on a site. This level of change could lead to all high schools providing system-wide humanities instruction, or focused leadership teams tailored to the needs of sites rather than seniority or personal preference.
Another route to change, given capacity and commitment issues, may be to initiate innovation through a micro-school or learning pathway. It would fall into the small scale change to district or large-scale for school. Providing an incubator for educators in the system to innovate or see and participate can lead to a demonstration learning environment and eventually phase in options for other groups in the system. Just like meeting students where they are in their learning journey, these innovative options can meet teachers where they are in the process of change.
Very small scale:
Thematic units between teachers
Micro-school design or HS pathway
Early Reconstruction of Literacy
District-wide learning model
Large-scale changes (except for whole-school transformation) may involve revamping early literacy development or assessment practices.
Full-scale implementation, like district-wide adoption of personalized learning, entails changing instructional practices at all levels, and this requires a high level of skill and belief in transformation. This incremental level of change requires different approaches to leadership structures and intentional language around communication. Different levels of scale have different needs and factors.
Identification of drivers, assessment of readiness
The collaborative team can support the management side of the project, but must do so in the service of leading transformational change, which will not be simple or clean. It’s a job that leaders tends to do. This is also the work we were attracted to the profession; to affect life, not just life that is compliant, receptive, or compliant. Educators want to achieve everything the young people we serve.
When communities find a need for change around the only learning system they know, it can be alarming, as it often is. The pandemic exposed our learning systems that were ready to change in this context, those that weathered the storm, and those that barely made it because the system was completely unprepared for change in another context.
The diagram below examines the factors necessary to move an organization through transformational change. Addressing these factors can shape the momentum by building momentum, inclusion, and shared understanding toward realizing the learning vision.
Understanding that you have groups at different levels and learning about the motivations and needs of those groups can shape a more considerate and responsive leadership style. This is also true for how work is communicated and for the roles of stakeholders. Transformational leadership relies on transparency and consistent communication. Leaders must share how they will lead and communicate during the journey to achieve the trust needed to innovate.
Leaders and managers
Leading groups at different points in the journey is similar to differentiated instruction, but not exactly the same. With adults, this is their profession, they were preparing for this career.
The more leaders are aware needs and wants groups or individuals, the better they will communicate and manage. For example, a group of teacher leaders who feel they are valued in the current model and have high potential in providing personalized learning may need to better understand why (why) around systemic change or how context alters their known strategies. While some groups may already see the need for change and even work with marginalized groups that are not being served by the system. This group may need to understand how or learn about a set of strategies and pathways that enable new and innovative approaches.
Leaders must leverage the expertise and insights of diverse stakeholders to support systemic change and sustain life. Instead of isolated departments disconnected from mutual accountability, transformative systems will emerge together lean towards ambiguity. Continued collaboration, improved communication, and stronger identities for roles and contributions will lead to a new way of understanding leadership and capabilities.
Leadership in scale and sustainability
At the same time, the success of the system is never solely the result of the efforts of one manager, but rather joint management effort. In this setting, leaders do not shy away from leaning into the hard stuff, but they also empower others to participate in the design of the solution, using their shared strengths. A leader acting alone is unlikely to make lasting change; a leadership team or collective leadership effort is vital.
Transformational leaders allocate decision-making authority and responsibility to teams closest to the targeted impact of stakeholders, such as students. They identify and use leaders throughout the organization to staff and lead short-term projects, lead or sponsor conversations, and facilitate agreements on improvement and innovation projects. They also give space to leaders who are responsible for future thinking, as well as leaders who are responsible for current strategy. Being open to critical conversations and embracing vulnerability in times of uncertainty are critical steps in moving an organization forward.
To assess the readiness of a training system, an internal training audit or an external needs assessment can be a great place to start. The Carnegie Endowment, a leader in enhancement science, offers tools and resources about how to manage change. A toolkit for collaborative design of schools provides resources for equitable changes at the school level. With a strong understanding of leadership, shared commitment and values, the work ahead is doable and scalable. The time it takes to do this depends on the readiness of the systems, their size and scale, and the health of the communities they serve.