So you want to be an education change agent
Education is embedded in some of the most change resistant bureaucracies around, and trying to change the why, what, how, and way in which education is delivered can be a challenging undertaking. ThreeJoy Associates was founded on the learning of iFoundry initiative (www.ifoundry.illinois.edu) or Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education, which fostered effective change at a large public research university. The following set of rules captures key elements of that learning in succinct form:
To change an organization, prepare yourself for change. Transformation of an organization, with or without authority, requires the change agent to adopt a new role, think differently, and generally show up in a way that makes others comfortable with the idea of change. Helpful resources: Watkins, The first 90 days and hire an executive coach.
Become a broad learning machine. Most educators come to their role with specialized knowledge in a particular discipline. Educational change agents need to draw on knowledge across many disciplines depending on the needs of the educational transformation process at any given time. Helpful resources: Courses in the Teaching Company. Good starting point is Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.
Notice and reflect to promote deeper change. Organizations and individuals get stuck in stories about themselves, and the key trick to getting out of those deep ruts is to, first, notice and be aware that you or your organization is stuck and then reflect on what misalignments exist because the story is a remnant of a bygone era. Helpful resource: Chalmers, Language and the pursuit of happiness.
Avoid the bright shiny objects of education reform. In educational reform, the bright shiny objects are pedagogy, content, and curriculum and many efforts start with these. This is generally a mistake. Successful change efforts change the shiny objects, but only as a response to a larger cultural, organizational, and personal developmental process that you intentionality bring to fruition through a different set of opening moves. Helpful resource: Heath brothers, Switch: How to change when change is hard.
Start with language and story. Cultural change occurs when different stories are told and different distinctions are made. An early step in successful change efforts is the critical examination of extant stories and terms and the repetitious use of alternatives that foreshadow the coming of a culture consistent with the changes you have in mind. Helpful resource: Heath brothers: Made to Stick. Missing basics video (here) and Creativity imperative video (here).
Provoke collective learning, then targeted doing. Your organization has been screwed up for a long time, and hoping to change it overnight is a prescription for disappointment. Your first steps should be to engage in what Watkins calls collective learning. Plan activities that promote learning in others. Speaking, posting to the web, creating videos about where you’re going, organizing events and meetings that galvanize support for what you’re doing are the opening moves of a successful change effort. Helpful resource: Watkins, First 90 days.
Don’t plan, smallify & effectuate. Bureaucracies refine old routines to reduce error and variance in outcomes. Entrepreneurs smallify and effectuate. Effectuation is the process of taking your best shot at a course of action and then being paying attention to what actually happens, thereafter designing next steps with emphasis on what happened, not what didn’t. Smallifying is the process of starting small and increasing the size after sufficient success has been achieved. . Helpful resources: Sarasvathy, Effecuation: Elements of entrepreneurial expertise. Sims, Little bets: How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries.
Move quickly, boldly, broadly, and well enough. The cadence of educational institutions is slow, cautious, narrow, and risk averse. Educational initiatives move quickly, boldly, broadly, and well enough. This meeting of opposites continually risks turning the change initiative into an element of the bureaucratic blob and the change agent must guard against increasing sloth, caution, narrowness, and risk aversion, especially as time goes on. Many of the activities of a change initiative are one-off pilots or events and are managed on a project basis. Good project management procedures should be established with clear goals, authority, scheduling, and reporting. Helpful resources: Allen, Getting things done. Sims, Little bets. Fields, Uncertainty: Turning fear and doubt into fuel for brilliance.
Scale up & ladder up. As initiatives are introduced at small scale, the change agent needs to increase them in size. Also, as initiatives are introduced in lower grades, the students from those initiatives will move on, and it is important to innovate ahead of them just in time as they move through the pipeline. Helpful resources: iFoundry papers here, here, here, and here.
Find friends up, down, and around. Avoid boo birds. First, as a change agent you will face lots of resistance in almost everything you do. Do not take it personally, and avoid working with or trying to persuade those who disagree with. Thank them for their feedback and move on to others. Also, educational change does not require support, funding, or permission up the chain of command. You want friends everywhere, but boo birds in your chain of command, up and down, should be treated like boo birds elsewhere: thanked and ignored. Network with people who like what you’re talking through one-on-one networking, group lunches and meetings, seminar series or talks. Credible friends outside your organization who will say nice things about your efforts are especially helpful. Helpful resource: Goldman, What got you here, won’t get you there.
Create a dynamic dot-connecting hub. To change your organization you need to rewire to get different results, but many change efforts fail by imitating existing organizational forms. Success in educational reform is the result of lateral alignment of individuals across the organization, and isolated departments or centers do this poorly or not at all. From the beginning, you should create a hub that seeks to connect dots across campus. Helpful resources: iFoundry papers.
Incubate, translate, and disseminate. Existing departments and units naturally resist change as threatening. Effective transformation initiatives require a safe haven for piloting change, an incubator or pilot unit. The key bargain for an academic incubator is permission to conduct pilot changes with volunteer students and faculty in exchange for the promise to return to regular units for regular curriculum approval. Incubators should create new things and then translate them into practice and then disseminate the changes, both in- and outside the institution. Helpful resource: iFoundry papers.
Unleash students and discover the power and light of scalable educational reform. Educational reform assumes that the primary actor is the faculty member and that students are relatively passive vessels into whom static buckets of knowledge are poured (and retained). All current educational transformation efforts work, in part, because they unleash student motivation toward intrinsically motivated learning. Many of these efforts are outside the curriculum and one of the tricks of educational transformation is to bring them inside. Helpful resource: Pink, Drive: The surprising truth of what motivates us.
Balance change among heart, head, and organization. Education is understanding dominated in the sense that cognitive understanding is given priority over other ways of knowing. Unfortunately change is driven emotionally and enabled by effective organizational modification. As a result. head-based change efforts fail for lack of motivational underpinning and inattention to changing the path. Effective change is a balance of elephant (emotion), rider (rational), and path (institutional). Helpful resource: Heath brothers, Switch: How to change when change is hard.
Seek experienced guidance in complex change efforts. The foregoing discussion gives some hint of the complexity of almost all educational change efforts. Administration of routine activities is very different than leading an educational change initiative. Pushing an educational change initiative forward is a complex undertaking, intellectually, emotionally, and organizationally, requiring persistent and pervasive innovation, connection, communication, and learning. ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. was founded on the basis of experience in bringing a change initiative to fruition at a major research university. It is carrying that learning over to educational organizations around the globe, providing, training, coaching, and consulting services appropriate to different change initiatives in different schools, cultures, and countries. Helpful resource: www.threejoy.com or contact ThreeJoy at email@example.com.
Contact ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. for information about effective change initiatives and management in education.