Most schools are characterized by lighthouses of innovation. One teacher emerges with a new and innovative approach to teaching and learning and her or his ideas ripple out from their classroom slowly dissipating and losing energy the farther down the hall they travel. These lighthouse programmes are great for marketing, but they don't represent disciplined change. Typically, this level of change is not transferable or sustainable and only lasts as long as the teacher driving it is at the school. In actual fact, in this way schools are quite different from business and industry. You see, we don't expect change to come from the bottom, no matter how we admire individually innovative teachers, change in schools is not a "grassroots" movement. We need to have it "imposed" from the top. Over the years, I have led reviews of most of the major independent schools in Canada. The ones that really sparkled, not from a few shiny baubles of programmes and facilities, but from the existence of a dynamic culture of teaching and learning, were a reflection of a driving vision from the leadership of the school. While reflecting on this process, I happened to read an exchange between authors Bill Eggers and Chip Heath about the topic of organizational change as part of a discussion moderated by Deloitte Research. Now they were talking primarily about government, but I think that we can see the implications for schools. They described the change process as a contest between the rational and the emotional. The rational mind sees the need for change but the emotional side is fearful and wants to keep things as they are. They compared this contest as the equivalent of a human (rational) riding on the back of the emotional (elephant). It wasn't impossible to change the pachyderm's direction, but it wasn't easy either. School culture is a bit like an elephant. Teachers, parents, and often even students are generally resistant to change. School leaders have a choice, they can let the elephant wander where it wants or they can try to change its course.
Andy Hargreaves made a great case for innovating in a disciplined way but before he did, he said something that brought me back full circle to Simon Whitfield. He said that the leadership in high performing organizations did not improve or innovate in a vacuum. The first step was to inspire the members of the school community to something beyond what they currently think is possible. The key was having a dream that everyone could embrace and aspire to. After that, change was inevitable. This dream, or vision, or whatever you want to call it, is the critical first step to getting the elephant on the same path as you. No matter how much you plan, or cleverly present, or articulate the changes you want to make, unless your school shares the dream with you, the road ahead will be difficult and often lonely.
Exciting change starts with an inspirational dream. As Hargreaves quipped: "Martin Luther King didn't stand up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and say to the crowd - 'I have a Strategic Plan'!"
Share the dream, plan together, innovate. Don't get too far ahead of your school - that is the discipline of change.