Schools Don't Change, People Do
“The Core of Change is Learning.
Which is ironic.
Our institutions of learning are slow, some might even say, immune to change.”
– ‘The Human Side of Changing Education’, Julie (Wilson) Jungalwala
When I wrote the first draft of The Human Side of Change of Education, I devoted the first half of the book to making the case that we need to rethink the outcomes of education and to focus on the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that will enable students thrive in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (‘VUCA’) world. My editor, the wonderful Arnis Burvikovs, read the draft and shared the feedback, “Everyone is already aware of that, Julie. The big question we are all wrestling with is how do we change the system in service of these new outcomes?” I got to work on the re-write, condensing the first half into a few paragraphs, and devoting the rest of the book to the ‘how’.
The TL;DR version of the book is: schools don’t change, people do. When we ask schools to change, we are asking adults to change behavior. This is the core of change leadership.
Let’s pick up where most strategic plans stop.
Where Do Some Schools Fall Short with Their Strategic Plans?
Preparing our children for an unknowable future is a tall order, and school leaders, teachers, and administrators need significant support to realize this vision. Take a close look at your strategic plan. Does it include a component specifically designed to address how the school will help the adults develop the skills necessary to implement the plan?
A school that has been run on industrial-era methods of compliance, control and consumption has deeply entrenched behavioral expectations and rewards a certain set of skills. If we are saying that we need schools to be much more autonomous, to embrace risk, and to be more creative, then the behavioral expectations need to shift accordingly so that the new skills and habits of mind can be sufficiently nurtured. Professional development isn’t a “nice to have” when it comes to your strategic plan. It is the “must have” backbone—the very means through which the vision will be realized.
What are the Biggest Behavioral Shifts?
In my work helping school leaders lead change, one of the biggest challenges a leader and their team faces is the behavioral shift required to build and nurture the human ability to change. If a bold strategic plan stands a chance of being implemented, it is vital that the adult behavioral shifts are discussed, understood, and nurtured—all in service of the transformational vision laid out in the plan.
These are the most common behavioral shifts I have noticed in my work with leaders and teams implementing change in schools:
I often think of the above as a continuum. Some situations might require us to lean more towards the left-hand column, and some to the right; but for the most part, the cultural norms of the industrial model of education lean heavily towards the left. We need to build our collective capacity to design, build and live more in the right-hand column.
At the core of education transformation is adult transformation. The majority of us were raised in the old industrial system of education, and we find ourselves in the dual role of “hospice worker to the old way and midwife to the new” (Leicester 2013). It involves a shift away from the mental model of “How do I manage change resistance” to “How do I build change resilience?” This shift is critical.
It is highly unlikely in today’s world that any five-year school strategic plan will be implemented with 100% fidelity and then enjoy a period of status quo once the plan’s goals have been achieved. Ongoing iterative changing—change that is meaningful and sustainable—is required.
One of the biggest obstacles of transforming the industrial model of education is the industrial model of management that underpins it—a model of command and control. Authority and autonomy are consolidated at the top with limited decision-making ability at the point of delivery (i.e. the relationship between teachers and students).
From Top-Level Questions to Human-Centered Work
As you think about your own change leadership and the changes underway in your school, reflect on these questions:
•What are the top three shifts underway in my school or district?
•What skills need to be developed in order to see the change take hold and be sustainable?
•How might the school’s individual goal setting and review process align with, and actively support, the strategic
direction of the school?
•How am I supporting teachers, leaders, and administrators in taking risks and developing those skills?
These are the ‘top level’ questions. There is a deeper level to this work, of course—a juicier level. Supporting development through change is not a “check the box” exercise, but rather an opportunity to truly mobilize and empower every single adult in the school to realize the vision. Think of this work, not as widgets on the factory line, but as a garden you want to grow. Dig a little deeper with these questions:
•What are the conditions under which these new skills and habits of mind will grow and thrive?
•How can I, as a leader, establish an environment for development and growth via the change I seek?
•Where is my growth edge in this work? What do I need to learn, and perhaps unlearn, as I lead this work?
It is messy work. It is emotional work. The predictability of industrial-era management methods will not help you here. But embracing the human-centered power of it will.
About the Author
Julie Jungalwala is a coach and advisor to school leaders, educational institutions, and foundations whose mission is to shape the future of K–12 education. She has over twenty years’ experience building effective learning environments that unlock human potential and enable organizational culture to adapt and grow during times of change.
She is the founder and executive director of Institute for the Future of Learning, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping transform the 'one size does not fit all' model of education. The Institute works with a diverse range of clients including public schools, independent schools, public charter schools, and educational philanthropic organizations.
Julie is also an instructor at Harvard Extension School where she teaches authentic leadership, change management and strengths-based development.
She graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a master’s degree in Education, specializing in adult development, learning technology and behavioral change. Her book, The Human Side of Changing Education, was published by Corwin Press in 2018.