Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Process of Change

There is always a great deal of discussion about change in education in order to better prepare students for success. The stakes have become higher as changes in a globally connected world are far outpacing those in our schools.  The proliferation of technology in the world is making it much more difficult to engage our students. This is not to say that meaningful, impactful changes are not evident in schools across the globe. Through my work, I have seen in person, and through social media, some amazing examples of what education can and should be. However, these cases tend to be isolated pockets of excellence as opposed to systemic transformation evident across an entire system, district, or school. 

It’s not just advancements in technology that have to be addressed in our schools. Other elements embedded in school culture cloud our vision as to what is both needed and possible. Issues such as the status quo, traditions, mindset, fear, apathy, funding, infrastructure, and time seem to consistently rear their ugly heads. These real challenges morph into excuses that ultimately inhibit the change process. Every single school on this planet deals with these challenges and many others on a daily basis. The good news in all of this is that they are not insurmountable. If you feel it is important, you will find a way. If not, then human nature will take over and you will make an excuse. The process of change is driven by a desire to focus on solutions rather than excuses.

Image credit:

Now here’s the thing with change. It is not easy. Nor will it happen quickly. Sometimes the best examples of sustainable change have resulted from a more organic approach. The ability to initiate, manage, and sustain change relies on a leader’s ability to think of it as a process as opposed to an event. This takes vision, planning, patience, and perseverance. If sustainable change is the goal, it is important to clarify the what, why, and how followed by a determination of success.


Once you have some data to identify what needs to change the next step is to build broad support.  Aligning supporting research is a sound approach to build a compelling reason as to why the change is needed. This, combined with what the data is telling you, will build a foundation to move the process in a positive direction. To streamline the process consider using Google Scholar to quickly and easily find research that supports the need for change. When we tackled our grading culture at my school I first looked at the data (we were failing way too many kids) and then used Google Scholar to find research to guide the direction for a better way. When tackling the why it is also important to consider the following questions to mitigate potential issues while providing a greater focus:

  • Why does change not work?
  • Why has it failed in your school?
  • What are surrounding schools doing?
  • Are we meeting the needs of our students and preparing them for their future?

This is where you need to roll up your sleeves and be prepared to get dirty. Change rarely succeeds through mandates, directives, buy-ins, or unilateral decisions. Creating a process that involves honest feedback and consensus are imperative. The best way to approach this is to form a comprehensive committee that includes key naysayers, antagonists, and resisters. You cannot allow them to continue to be a part of the problem. They must be active contributors to a solution. Present the data, supporting research, and together build a shared vision and strategic plan for the identified change. Be prepared though to make some tough decisions. Going back to the grading example, we openly discussed and agreed on a failure floor, no zeros, and a process of retakes/redos. However, I then established seven criteria that had to be supported with evidence before any student could receive a failing quarter grade. You can see the resulting document HERE.  Accountability was ensured as I reviewed all quarter failures and asked for the evidence that everything was done to help students succeed.


This seems like a simple step, but more often than not change never begins because we identify way too many issues that need to be addressed.  To simplify the process take a look at data, which can come in many forms.  A data review will give you a clear focus that can later be used to articulate the why. Below are some forms of data:
  • Achievement (standardized scores, local measures)
  • Attendance rates
  • Graduation/promotion rates
  • Discipline referrals
  • Facilities inventory
  • Tech audit
  • Perception (find out what kids think needs to change)

Ask better questions to determine what needs to change. Don't ask educators in your school or community how well you are meeting the needs of today's learner. Instead, ask your learners how well you school is meeting their needs.


In the end, a strategic plan for change should bear positive results. If the results are not what you expect then re-evaluate to improve as opposed to scrapping the idea and giving up.  Referring to the grading example one last time, over the course of three years we reduced our student failures by 75% while also increasing graduation and attendance rates as well as standardized test scores. 

Image credit:

This change process recipe can be applied to virtually any initiative from homework to mobile learning (BYOD, 1:1), to changes to the school schedule, and anything else. It all comes down to leadership and the will to improve in order to create a better learning culture for all students.


  1. This is really important - especially the part about using feedback to get consensus and make the process of change long-lasting and effective.

    1. Yes and thanks Todd, well I am currently working on change management plan and for that I have looked a resource and it is Action Plan Template.

  2. Excellent post as usual, Eric, but I think we need to move away from the concept of "strategic planning" and towards design thinking. There's nothing in the traditional strategic plan that includes empathy for the user --- students, parents and even teachers. It's as much about top-down goal-setting and planning as anything, but we're finding that design thinking is moving us further ahead.

    1. Great thought indeed David. Is there anything that you can share here that provides some more insight on how you (or others) have incorporated design thinking in K-12 as part of the change process?

  3. I absolutly agree with David Britten. There is a second issue with the concept of strategic planning": the mindset behind it is to rigid and inflexible. What if strategy work becomes agile based on Mintzberg's idea of emergent strategies? At geschaeftswarenladen, a Berlin based consultant agency, we developped such a concept.