Let’s think for a moment
Consider your personal teaching style and the basic expectations of teaching and learning of your school. Compare them to how you were taught at school. Has there been any significant change in delivery, save say for the introduction, implementation and impact of technology? While thinking about technology, how has it in itself been implemented and utilised?
Learning something new, often in the midst of change, invariably means questioning those things we automatically do well or have done well for long periods. It means questioning our tacit expertise in order to develop an intrinsic willingness to risk some uncertainty as we go about adopting change so that we can, in turn, become more explicit and intentional about what it is that we do.
Why then, do so many people and institutions get it so hopelessly wrong?
The Gonski report into education in Australia reported back that Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects the 20th-century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children. He was probably being generous. The 19th century is probably more apt in many contexts. Walk down a corridor in your school and observe what is going on in the classroom. Desks in rows, teachers desk up front, whiteboard up front. Sound familiar?
The findings suggest we have to move away from traditional structures like this which focus on having students attaining specified outcomes for their grade and age, then moving them in lock-step to the next year. Gonski claimed in his findings that this approach is not designed to stretch all students to achieve maximum learning growth every year, and it doesn’t encourage schools to continuously improve. Nor does it necessarily treat the student as an individual and prepare a learning strategy specific to them. It certainly presents us with a good place to start looking for change if we do aspire to improve academic standards.
Whatever is the issue at hand, what is required is a significant shift in aspirations, approach, or practice, to focus on and accelerate individual learning growth for all students, whether they are lower performers, middle-ranking or academically advanced.
It is easy to think that you can improve education just by getting the right curriculum, right testing system and right management scheme and that somehow these will create great schools.
Education, however, is not an assembly line. The most powerful element in education is the teacher. Children do not learn on an assembly line, they learn through human interaction with their teachers and peers.
What should change look like?
Exactly what change should look like in a school and how much of it should be taken in one hit, are some of the first questions leaders need to answer. Needless to say, there are a number of other questions requiring answers too, but the context and process need clear consideration.
A holistic approach is generally thought to be the best, commencing with and subsequently incorporating a comprehensive review to determine targets. While the review might indeed be comprehensive, say for argument’s sake, evaluating the key pillars of the school - areas such as academic, co-curricular, mission and ethos or teaching and learning, that doesn’t mean that the change process needs to tackle every one of those issues, especially not all at once.
What will be achieved through a comprehensive review of the school is that it may help to identify and determine the targets for improvement in each of those pillars or domain. Most importantly, to kick the process off successfully, reviews must include all perspectives, engaging and involving all members - parents, teachers, support staff, students, past students and if the school is tied to a system or network, systemic liaisons.
Change is difficult but necessary
Today’s national and international context requires us more than ever before to consider different teaching and learning strategies which engage students more than the traditional methods, which have been employed for decades. With the growing number of students that present with learning challenges, along with the growth in tech-based instantaneous, global traffic in information, many schools find themselves in cycles of stagnation, cruising but not improving in their delivery of quality education. While there are many reasons individual contexts are important, often this has to do with employed methods of teaching which do not suit. Needless to say, there are many other reasons. Geographic and demographic are two which may also determine the need for changes in teaching and learning.
Doing change right
It is just as important for school leaders to manage change as it is to lead it. School leaders have to play both sides of the same coin when it comes to change. There needs to be a level of differentiation to allow exploration of new initiatives, countered by slow and methodical planning of change that brings others along. Most importantly, change needs to be managed carefully in order for others to be supportive.
Five strategies that work
Perhaps the best advice to give prospective change managers is to consider these five pointers:
1. Make subtle shifts
Change can often be overwhelming and quite comprehensive, so breaking it down into smaller incremental components that can be introduced slowly along the way, can often be a good way of introducing the major reforms.
For example, if there is a move to introduce flipped style learning, before demanding teachers to create videos and set them to be watched at home, encourage them to source existing material to be watched in class as a group. It could be a twelve-month evolution of a process that will eventually lead to staff effectively using content to flip their classroom.
2. Start small
Again, often with change being so comprehensive, to break it down and introduce it in staged segments may well allow those affected to absorb the impact more easily over time.
For example, a timetable change to longer lessons will require teachers to think about their lesson planning and in-class activities, so encourage faculty discussion on how best to utilise the increased lesson time before the change occurs.
Review and reform do not occur overnight. There will always be setbacks and resistance. Accepting that and building it into a reasonable timeframe will help build confidence.
4. Make time for review
A lack of communication is often what causes change to unravel. More often than not the complaint is that people feel disengaged and that change is happening to them, rather than with them. Making yourself accessible and building in opportunities for staff to ask questions or hear updates is vital for the success of any change process.
For example, set aside one lunchtime a week or one before or after school time slot to allow staff to attend an update session. The best of these allow for two way communication rather than just a one way hose-down. Allow time to provide an update but also ask for feedback and questions.
5. Access to resources
Set up an e-resource on your school’s LMS or portal which allows stakeholders, whether it be staff, students or parents, to access relevant reading material.
For example, if it is a classroom pedagogical shift or a variation in systems or processes, provide readership on the topic so that your stakeholders are well informed.
Communication is vital
There are always two options when it comes to staff engagement with change: either you involve them in the process and lead them gently through it, or you keep them in the dark and drag them along kicking and screaming.
Take your pick.
It doesn't mean you will always have 100% compliance and support, but keeping everyone informed and engaged with the process will ensure a greater willingness to work with you. At the end of the day, everyone has a right to know and a right to be involved. Staff will want answers to 3 key questions:
- Why is the proposed change necessary?
- What are we changing to and what will it look like?
- How will we get there?
Staff will also want to know about the impact on them, their role and the expected timelines, so be sure to have all those details for them too, but above all, leaders need to treat their staff respectfully in order to engage them in the change process. At the end of the day, if it is a pedagogical or systems based change which teachers will need to implement, it goes without saying it won't succeed without their support.
Dealing with discontent
As teachers and leaders, we need to be ready to embrace discomfort and acknowledge that our colleagues interpret data and stories differently. In order to successfully implement change, we need to encourage diversity but do so systematically. Find out whom amongst your staff sees things differently and learn from them. Challenge your biases so you can look fairly and objectively at the intended change.
Many of our colleagues may well have been through similar processes with other schools or employers. Embrace their experience. I have had the pleasure of having past headmasters on my teaching staff and have often sought them out for advice, leaning on their years of experience.
Dealing with challenge(r)s
There will invariably be opposition and disappointment. Any change causes a little churning of the stomach in all of us. A shrewd leader will harness that and turn it into positive energy, engaging dissenters by involving them in the process of implementation. The following list of basic operational suggestions are tips for leaders when implementing change:
- Have clear objectives;
- Be authentic in your presentation;
- Listen and learn from others;
- Don’t make it personal when you address criticism;
- Be OK with silence - people need time to allow things to sink in;
- Build bridges - don’t alienate staff;
- Don’t procrastinate - you need to be confident in your decision making and responses so be clear about how you present them;
- Manage emotions - if conversations get heated, you need to maintain your composure, especially when others lose theirs;
- Remain consistent - keep to a plan and maintain it;
- Right time and place. No surprises - don’t introduce things on the run or without clear timelines. Give people time to absorb new information and time to respond to it.