Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making Change in a Changing World

In November at the PYP Workshop Leader Training I attended it was recommended that we read Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul by H. Lynn Erickson.  Having had several staff meetings devoted to her work on concept based curriculum at my last school, I was keen to read this book, and today I found it in our professional development library in the staff room at school.

Chapter 1 of this book is entitled Making Change in a Changing World.  Erickson writes in this chapter about the difficulties of making change in schools where teachers are working in their own comfort zones without a coordinated, systematic plan for change and she notes the major difficulties to improving the education system:

  • management by measurement - which tends to be short-term in focused and devalues "intangibles" that cannot be measured
  • compliance based cultures - where people get ahead by pleasing the boss/principal and where there is management by fear
  • managing outcomes - where managers/principals set the targets and teachers are accountable for meeting the targets regardless of how possible these are within existing structures
  • "right answers" -v- "wrong answers" - divergent thinking outside the box is discouraged
  • uniformity - diversity is seen as a problem, conflict is suppressed in favour of superficial agreement
  • predictability and controllability - management focused on planning, organizing and controlling
  • excessive competitiveness and distrust
  • loss of the whole - fragmentation so innovations do not spread
My reflection on the above:  I'm lucky to have been outside national systems for so many years that I seem to have totally avoided standardised tests, league tables of schools and so on.  However some of the other points do ring true of places where I've worked.  For example the idea of management by fear - the idea that "I'll be writing your reference/talking to your next prospective employer on the phone" is enough to pull many people into line.  I have spoken with teachers who said they have committed "professional suicide" by being at schools with this sort of style of management and who have said they dare not speak out about problems as all that happens is that they are seen as being the problem.  I have also been in schools where cronyism was rife - the only people who ever seemed to get on or be valued were the personal friends of those in leadership positions or who had ingratiated themselves into the inner circle, and where everyone else was basically ignored.  Needless to say, in those places, morale was extremely low and staff rooms were places to be avoided like the plague (to this day I still find it difficult to spend much time in the staffroom).  I can also identify with the point about uniformity - all too often teachers who are reluctant to "rock the boat" by asking questions end up in a situation of superficial agreement - they are not satisfied by this and then moan about decisions that have been made - even though they have had the opportunity to give input (but have chosen not to as a way of keeping the peace).  

I'm not so sure about the point about loss of a whole, however.  In my teaching career I have worked in three schools that were whole campus schools, and two which were not.  One of these two was only temporarily on two campuses, as a result of having too large an enrollment for the existing buildings.  I was lucky enough to be one of the teachers who moved to the smaller, satellite campus.  I have to say this was one of the highlights of my career and I simply loved being in that smaller building that just housed the Pre School, Grades 5 and 6.  This year I'm also in a situation where I do four days a week on one campus and one day on another smaller campus.  It's that one day that is always the high point of my week - I love it there.  Perhaps, if there is no movement between the different campuses or buildings this might lead to a stagnation or lack of change - however I have not found it to be so.  Last week I was talking to a principal at another school about the differences between large schools and small schools and she said that large schools were like oil tankers - big and solid and able to push through changes but very difficult to stop and turn, small schools, however were more flexible and adaptable and could easily head off in a new direction.  I really liked this analogy and totally agree with it.  A lot of really great innovations and a lot of great personal and professional development comes from teachers in these smaller schools.

The last part of Chapter 1 refers to another book I read earlier this year:  On Common Ground.  It deals with becoming a professional learning community where teachers see themselves as being part of a collaborative team rather than just as individuals and where principals see themselves as leaders of leaders rather than leaders of followers.  Erickson writes about the fact that in PLCs the intellect is engaged therefore teachers are more motivated as they feel they are contributing and being valued.  When we are told what to do, say or think, then we feel little personal fulfillment.  When there is a shared vision, the school moves forward.  

My reflection on the above:  I'm thankful that I have worked in excellent schools like this - where, for example, at ISA I was involved in a year long Project Zero cohort of teachers who met every 2 weeks to reflect on our professional practice.  In NIST I was part of a curriculum leadership team which met, again every 2 weeks, to read and discuss professional literature (On Common Ground being one of the books we read and talked about together.)  For me being part of a professional learning community in these schools has been intellectually very stimulating - and for me now I am so grateful to have a wonderful PLN who I interact with on a daily basis though Twitter and the Blogging Alliance and who constantly stimulate and challenge my thinking and help me to move on and reflect on what I am doing and where I am going.

Photo Credit:  Fly away with me by Aussiegall


  1. Sometimes looking at other situations we see the things in our own that make us thankful. I've marked down this book as one I might want to read as well!

  2. You are absolutely right Vicki - we need to appreciate and be thankful for what is working well for us. I would definitely recommend this book. Lynn Erickson has written another book that's on my "must read" list too: Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Teaching Beyond the Facts.