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Friday, December 14, 2012

Change when change is hard

Schools are hard places to change.  I was a principal for twenty years so I know from first hand experience how hard it is to change things in school.  There are many reasons for why it is hard.  Not the least of them is the fact that the adults who work in schools are usually the people who succeeded in them, and haven’t experienced education in any other way.  It is hard to think out of the box if all you have ever experienced is the box.

Most of the change initiatives for schools including bullying prevention assume that change can occur within the existing culture and structure of school.  I compare this to home repairs-the house is okay it just needs fixing.  What if the house is not okay and has structural problems like a shaky foundation.  Any repair on top of a unsound foundation is likely to ultimately fail.  What if the thing we want to repair is direct consequence of the faulty foundation.

This is a hard message to get across to people.  It is threatening for people to think that their foundation is not sound.  Telling people that fact is criticizing them and leaving them with no alternatives, which is an intolerable situation for them.  This is the paradox education finds itself in-it needs to change the culture of schools yet telling people that the culture needs changing is message that doesn’t motivate them to change.

We cannot however start our education system from scratch.  We must start where are and try to improve it.  The main question should be: what strategy/approach has the greatest potential for revealing the real source of the problem and beginning the change process in the right direction?  Any strategy that fails to do will just be another case of trying something that sounds good but really is just more of the same that leaves the foundation untouched.

What will not work is creating a program designed to address a problem and then make people follow it.  This doesn’t work because the program is usually designed for changing the students not the people who work in schools.  For change initiative to work effectively, it must not be a blueprint that people just follow, it must be something that changes how people feel and think-changes their hearts and minds.  It must help them to begin see and understand things differently.  (People sometimes need to act differently before they see things differently,  but ultimately they just can’t blindly follow or feel that their main role is to follow a program.)
They need to be empowered to be the planners, creators, implementers and evaluators-they need to move from being passive recipients of plans from above to engaged and active agents of change.  They will ultimately have to understand and articulate why they are doing what they are doing, not just do it.  Michael Fullan says that people need to WALK the TALK and TALK the WALK.  The typical mindset that too many educators have of “just give me something practical” or “tell me what to do” only perpetuates the status quo.  Teaching and learning are not step-by-step, color by numbers types of activities.  The agents of change must be thinkers and doers-learners.  When teachers assume these roles they are more likely to view their students as such.

For this meaningful change to happen in schools, the people in schools especially the leaders in the school, have to know about the change process-what works and what doesn’t work.  This is why a book like Teaming by Amy Edmondson is so valuable. 

I will give just one example from her book of how change is facilitated that seems to be ignored by current practice.  The research is clear that people are more likely to change when the change that is presented to them is “aspirational” rather than “defensive.”  She explains that the “frame” of the change has a very significant influence on whether of not the change will be successful. 

Nowhere is this so clear as in bullying prevention.  The frame of bullying prevention as it is presented to most educators is the following:

Bullying is a problem that needs to be solved so school can continue to operate the way it normally does, therefore:

  • ·      We haven’t been doing a good enough job in stopping bullying
  • ·      We now have to stop bullying because it is now against the law (we are mandated to do it)
  • ·      We have a program or protocol for meeting the mandate
  • ·      Everyone needs to follow this or we will be out of compliance
This defensive frame focuses on the negative, criticizes past performance, emphasizes compliance down the line, and removes those involved from being necessary agents of change.  It is not just research but common sense that tells us that people don’t respond well to this “frame” for change.  Ironically, then people’s (teachers and students) resistance to this “frame” is then interpreted as stubbornness, lack of openness, and self-interest by those in power who want the change to happen.

Here is an alternative frame:
Bullying prevention is not just stopping something bad or fixing a problem, it is an opportunity to reconnect to the basic moral purpose of education, and therefore, we must act on these basic assumptions/beliefs:

  • ·      We are educators because we want to improve the lives of the students we serve
  • ·      We want our students to learn in a safe environment where they are respected and valued
  • ·      We believe our students are capable of great things
  • ·      We believe that students want to learn and want to work as a community
  • ·      This is a challenge for that is essential for everyone and one that requires everyone’s commitment and participation
  • ·      Finding the best way to do this will require everyone to learn more about the problem and the type of changes that will be required
  • ·      We need to learn together and plan and lead together
  • ·      If we do so, change is not just possible it is inevitable
I know that this second “frame” is the one that would motivate me the most.  This is an approach that is designed to change hearts and minds.  When people’s hearts and minds change, then real change happens-it is the only way that real change has ever happened.

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