Security and comfort are two of the most insidious siren songs drawing us away from important change. Thinking about my own formal educational journey – as a student from first grade through graduate school and as an ancient history teacher at the secondary level – I realize how comfortable I was with the traditional approach to teaching and learning. As a student, I quickly learned the ropes, so – applying myself diligently – I was able to succeed pretty consistently – at least in terms of getting As in the great majority of my classes over those 14 years of formal education. And as a teacher, my meticulously prepared and entertainingly presented lectures certainly satisfied the students who, like me, had mastered the traditional learning process. Listening carefully and taking good notes paid off for my better students, as it did for me.
Only in recent years, as I’ve learned more about experiments in personalized/mastery-based learning in several K-12 systems around the country, have I begun to think seriously about how much more I might have learned – and taught – if I’d been drawn out of my comfort zone. And I’ve also reflected on the many students over the years who might have not have fallen through the cracks and might have more fully realized their potential if they’d been liberated from the traditional learning process that I had found so comforting.
You’ll be interested in the podcast that Superintendent Jeff Dillon and Board Chairperson Patricia Clagg have recorded for this blog, describing the highly successful personalized learning initiative in the Wilder (Idaho) Public Schools. The Wilder experience, which is a classic case of bringing off a significant innovation initiative despite the very natural human desire for comfort and security, illustrates four of the most important keys to accomplishing change in any organization – public, nonprofit, for-profit:
- The chief executive officer – almost always superintendent in the K-12 arena – must play an enthusiastic, hands-on role in the change process, serving as the “Innovator-in-Chief.” This role can’t be delegated. If the top professional isn’t the primary, highly visible driver of a particular change initiative, failure is almost certain.
- As Innovator-in-Chief, the superintendent must first turn to her board, transforming board members into strong advocates – “Change Champions” – for the change initiative. This is normally a matter of taking the time to clearly describe both the benefits and costs associated with the initiative and to answer any questions board members might have. In my experience, board members are typically very concerned about the cost side of the change equation – not just the dollars, but also possible negative impacts of a particular change initiative, such as faculty unrest, disruption in the classroom, and the like.
- With the preeminent stakeholder, the school board, in his corner, the superintendent can then be about the business of building support among other critical stakeholders whose support is essential and who are in a position to impede implementation of the change initiative, most notably parents, students and faculty. As with the board, this is basically a matter of effective communication and education, answering all of the important questions in detail: Why are we launching this change initiative (the desired impacts and benefits for all affected groups)? How will the roles of particular participants (e.g., faculty) be changed by the initiative? What technical steps are involved in implementing the initiative? Experience has taught that demystifying change is one of the best ways to prevent resistance from developing.
- And, fourth, the superintendent must take the lead in creating a change-friendly, forgiving environment, making clear that missteps during implementation can be expected and will not be punished (assuming that intentional sabotage isn’t involved). Important change can cause such intense anxiety over the prospect of failure that creating a nurturing environment is critical.