Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Turning schools into 'learning organizations'.
An unfolding ever changing universe
Schools are facing increasing demands for change to ensure all students succeed. We really need to develop the talents of all students if they are to thrive in an unpredictable future. The problem is school weren't 'designed' for all to succeed!
I work in the area of school and teacher change and have to admit to a notable lack of success. Ironically schools are not as good at learning as you would expect of organizations that have the prime role of preparing young people to be life long learners.
Why do schools and teachers find change so difficult? There has been too much badly thought change asked by those divorced from the reality of schools. Trying to implement imposed, badly resourced and often contradictory changes of recent years has been draining for schools and teachers. And as well the community seems to prefer retreating to some past traditional myth of a 'golden age' when all students learnt! The ‘status quo’ it seems has a powerful hold from within and without! It is a lot easier for schools not to change, particularly at the secondary level.
Even schools with the best of intentions, after trying to implement imposed changes, find that it’s easier to revert to past practices.
Why is it that school transformation is so difficult? Why do schools find it so hard to become ‘learning organizations’ able to continually adapt and evolve?
There seems to be a set of unwritten rules that govern the way teachers work in schools:
1. Don’t tread on other teacher’s territory.
2. Find efficient routines and stick with them and avoid change.
3. Be wary of changes in curriculum and teaching practice: ‘This too will pass.’
4. Put down any one who shows interest in new ideas.
Too often schools exist in an environment of isolation and privatisation sometimes disguised by ‘professionalism’. As well the competitive ethos of the past decade hasn't helped. Departments, that in big schools often act as independent ‘Balkan States’, do not help develop a shared sense of vision. Imposed accountabilty demands and an 'top down' audit culture has led to the development of a 'low trust' environment. All these factors contribute to making school change problematic.
The questions leaders have to ask are: ‘What conditions are required to encourage an innovative attitude towards new ideas?’; ‘How can teachers be encouraged to collaborate?’; ‘How can good ideas be shared?’; ‘What support and assistance do they need?’; ‘How can everyone be involved to develop ownership?’;'How do will we know we are succeeding?'
First of all there needs to be a sense of urgency about the need to change. When there is a realization the old ways are not working then change can begin. Facing up to current reality is vital, often painful, and is rarely done. With a third of students leaving school with little to show for their time it would seem obvious but it is not.
The journey of change begins with the development of a new sense of direction. The process begins by discussing the attributes future learners will need, by clarifying the values or behaviors required by all, and by defining the teaching beliefs needed to realize the vision.
Once these have been clarified the real work begins.
Commitments need to be made. Actions need to be planned. Feedback built in to ensure progress is being made, and necessary support and coaching provided where needed.
Teachers will have to work together in teams and put aside personal agendas and doubts to give the change a ‘fair go’. The change process, it needs to be understood, is ‘messy’, and will have its low points. And it will take time: change it is said is ‘journey of a 1000 days.
Nothing can be achieved in isolation. Teachers can only grow collegially if the purpose is worth the effort. Schools need to work with each other and their communities. All these require courageous leadership.
In the few schools that I have worked with that have succeeded these are the messages we have learnt. We have all had our minds changed in the process; education is synonymous with change. And although difficult at the time pressure to deliver has proved to be valuable.
Change is never easy but it is worth remembering it is the ‘transitions that kill people’ not the changes themselves. The feeling of pride and sense of achievement is well worth the pain.
Anyway it would seem we have no choice if we want to solve the issue of school failure that the current 'system' creates.
For practical ideas and examples visit the vision page on our site