This is the second of a series of edited version of papers I’ve submitted to one of my doctoral courses. I’m always open to feedback, so please share thoughts, ideas, critiques, etc.
Traveling Theory of Change:
My theory of change is one closely tied to leadership. In the context of “uncertainty, chaos, and rapid change,” effective change leaders identify with the practical and intellectual qualities that allow them purposefully initiate and sustain organizational change—empathy, collaboration, motivation, and a growth mindset. This post will draw on various readings from Michael Fullan, describing the secrets of a efficacious traveling change theory as well steps towards becoming a resolute change leader.
In The Six Secrets of Change Michael Fullan writes “Theories that travel well are those that practically and insightfully guide the understanding of complex situations and point to actions likely to be effective under the circumstances.” This suggests that good theories are those that travel across disparate sectors of an organization, applying to geographically and culturally diverse situations. My theory of change is action based, drawn from research and experience in education, from the viewpoints of a technology professional as well as a classroom teacher.
It appears that far too often, strategies are developed with ideas on change, yet many lack the most crucial elements of the plan—reflection, communication and action. There is no perfect blueprint that helps leaders cultivate meaningful innovation or develop creative learning cultures. It is practice, and purposeful reflection—not strategy.
School leaders must not allow themselves to become disconnected from change initiatives. In chapter four of Change Leader, Fullan discusses change towards “building collaborative cultures.” In its most basic form, collaboration promotes knowledge distribution and collective accountability, while leading to new insights and key institutional processes. A good traveling theory is one that spreads across an organization. In the world of education that includes separate campuses, divisions, and departments—each presenting the potential of a divergent learning environment. To promote a learning culture within a school, leaders have to figure out how to break down silos, building towards collective goals and accountability.
It takes more than one person to change a learning culture—thus it’s critical that a coalition of diverse leaders work together to achieve organizational goals. Meanwhile, execution, with a high degree of transparency will help the community understand collective engagement and accountability. This presents an opportune shift from the top down hierarchy carried over from the industrial age.
Although collaboration does not imply competition, this type of team work has the ability to raise standards by pushing colleagues to perform as well as, or even better than their peers. Fullan refers to this as “collaborative competition” whereby peers work to achieve individual and collaborative capacity building.
In Change Leader Fullan writes, “Being right is not a strategy.” Ideas from those high atop the leadership hierarchy are often critically necessary, yet it’s imperative that decisions are made collectively with other leaders in the school community. Fullan refers to this as “impressive empathy”—the ability to listen to others is paramount with all change initiatives. Rarely will a leader encounter a potential change in culture or process where he or she does not face differing opinions or resistance. It’s the empathetic change leader that remains resolute in their decision making, while always taking others viewpoints into consideration.
A key element towards true empathy is the ability to examine contrasting thought processes, and then reflect towards gaining the wisdom to relate to the varying perspectives. Fullan suggests, “The most successful leaders seem to be able to combine authority and democracy seamlessly.” There is a distinct difference between being “resolute” and dictatorship—leaders will achieve success in their resolution by listening to their peers, building relationships, and empowering colleagues to voice their ideas.
Technology is ubiquitous and ever changing, creating opportunities in education for teachers and students to become creators, as well as inquisitive problems finders and solvers. We have the ability to communicate and collaborate globally; no limits existing on the amount of information we can discover with the swipe of a finger. Still, the primary goal of educational institutions is learning—for both students and teachers.
Fullan points to “two fundamentally different mindsets: fixed and growth” from Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Those with fixed mindsets believe that acumen and ability are ingrained within a person and cannot be changed. Accordingly, failure is understood as inferior intellect—thus new learning is never pursued because of the risk involved. On the other hand, the growth mindset involves progress over time and the perpetual pursuit of knowledge and wisdom—failure is often embraced with this type of learning orientation.
A common challenge with leadership is the inability to be wrong, or even admit mistakes—it is this type of fixed mindset that impedes change. While the fixed mindset is an unsustainable mental model, Fullan suggests, “the good news is that a growth mindset can be cultivated.” The fixed mindset results in a model of education based on the industrial age where classrooms are teacher centered, focusing on instruction rather than student learning. Ultimately we are preparing our students for a world that will not exist when they exit school.
In light of uncertainty, chaos, and rapid change it is difficult to project exactly what skills students will need to possess when it is time to look for jobs. However, it is clear that change is required to shift away from educational system rooted in the antiquated industrial economy. A paradigm shift is required, prompting resolute school leaders develop cultures of collaboration and learning while nurturing new sets of skills to better prepare our students for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive. San Francicso, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader: Learning to do what matters most. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.