Transformation across education has accelerated in the last twenty years, driven by one unavoidable and objectively true condition: the increase in the rate of change in the world around us. That quickening is captured within the increasingly common use of the acronym “VUCA” to describe our world that has become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than at any point in human history. The inescapable conundrum is that our traditional school system was designed to prepare students to live in a relatively predictable future, the opposite of VUCA world. “Better-late-than-never” recognition of this misalignment has driven school communities across a broad range of geography and demographics to at least start to transform the learning experience. For most, that transformation includes learning that is driven less by content regurgitation, and is more collaborative, inquiry-based, and student-centric, helping students build skills to find and solve real world problems.
In other words, as we get close to the start of the second quartile of the 21st Century, there is finally general recognition that the question is not “why” schools should change, or even “what” those changes need to encompass, but rather “how” to do it.
The great news is that we know how organizations change well; we have been studying effective organizational change for more than half a century. And, while the last eighteen months of pandemic-influenced life have been incredibly stressful for all of those involved in education, one of the silver lining lessons has been that school communities can change, despite decades of inertia-driven resistance.
Our challenge, then, going forward, is how to apply the time-tested lessons of change management in a K–12 school setting, because schools are definitely not the same as General Motors, Microsoft, or Southwest Airlines.
As I outline in more detail in my most recent book, Thrive, effective change starts with a community-wide recognition that change is both good and necessary, and then by establishing a clear, unambiguous “North Star” vision for the future. School community stakeholders are much more likely to embrace the inevitable discomforts of change when they have had a stake in setting this vision, not when it is thrust upon them by a board or senior leader. In fact, in my experience, this collaborative vision-setting is both the most challenging step of change for schools and also the most energizing. It allows all of our stakeholders, including our students, to dream about a future that is both possible and desirable, much as we try to create the conditions for an optimal future for the students we teach every day.
With a powerful North Star to guide us, the rest of school change involves building both a comfort and capacity with shifting how our schools work. Most schools that start on this path find that their basic “operating system” of subjects, curriculum, pedagogy, assessments, schedules, and physical spaces do not support or align with their new North Star. They can’t just make small tweaks to the current systems; they have to make some fundamental changes in what they have been doing, some for many years. Some of these changes are uncomfortable, but since the stakeholders themselves determined the position of the North Star, the vast majority are willing to get on board.
It is then the role of school leaders to ensure that resources are in place to help educators make the systemic changes necessary to achieve a more forward-leaning vision. This means creating a change roadmap that does not overwhelm teachers. It means giving teachers a concrete, personal view of what a different style of learning actually looks like, and then the time and resources to re-tool their own personal practice. It involves a well-designed alignment between vision, strategies, day-to-day activities, and open, frequent communications with all school stakeholders.
While changing a school system and culture is challenging, none of us have to invent this wheel alone. There are many schools and districts around the country and around the world, of all types and across a wide range of demographics, that have already forged the way. Less than a decade ago, many schools were caught up in frustrating and wasteful cycles of over-testing and never-ending battles about standards. Today, we have greater flexibility to find the Venn overlap of standards, effective pedagogy, and what our families want for their children.
The pursuit of this sweet spot will not be the same for every school; schools and their communities are different. And it will not be a straight line; as a sailing ship makes its course towards the North Star, it tacks to port and starboard as the winds and current require. But given the right tools, we find that most educators want to move toward a system of learning that is rooted more in relevance to the world around us, inquiry, our interests, and our passions. Change becomes an enjoyable challenge, not a feared unknown.