Why Change Doesn’t Seem to Change Much… Part II

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson gave his first TEDTalk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” In the years following that talk, now one of the most viewed TED Talks ever, we have seen a growing number of highly regarded speakers offer increasingly harsh indictments of our system of education.

These talks, as well as writings on the same topic, draw on well over 50 years of experience with what is now referred to as ‘educational reform’. As I’ve shared in previous posts, the results have been disappointing, with minimal change in assessment scores and continued declines in student engagement (Gallup, 2015). A recent report published by the US Department of Education federal government revealed the latest disappointment when it revealed the following about the impact of the latest large-scale reform effort, the State Improvement Grant (SIG) program…

“Schools that received School Improvement Grants (SIG) to implement school intervention models used more of the practices promoted by these models than schools that did not receive grants. However, the SIG-funded models had no effect on student achievement, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Mathematica Policy Research, January 18, 2017

Many of us have heard some version of the saying that ‘insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results’.

And the insanity continues. We are increasingly aware of the dissonance between what our students need to be prepared for in a rapidly changing world and the experiences they have having in our schools. Adding to the insanity is the reality that we continue to be increasingly aware of the flaws in our education system and, at the same time, we demonstrate that we are unable/unwilling to change that system. The voices of dissent grow in number and volume while we continue to tinker around the edges of the real problem.

For more detailed explorations of this disconnect, please look here, here, and here.

This has to change. The solutions – i.e., all of us doing the wrong thing better-  just keep getting us further from the real purpose of education.

So, continuing my reflections about leadership and change, I’ve been looking at (1) literature about the change process, (2) literature about the need to change schooling, and, (3) literature about the role of leadership,

Two things happened this past week that moved me to further extend these reflections. First, Will Richardson’s recent article entitled, “Zen and the Art of School Change”, showed up in my inbox. Then, a friend, knowing of my reflections/explorations around leadership shared a post from the Leading and Learning blog that featured an article by Robert Fried about the work of Seymour Sarason.

Richardson’s article flowed from his experience re-reading Robert Pirisg’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In writing about Phaedrus, Pirisg writes…

“…institutions such as schools, churches, governments, and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for control of individuals in the service of those functions.”

Richardson asks if schools really do ‘direct thought to ends other than truth’ and, further, do they actually ‘perpetuate their own functions and control individuals in the service of those functions’? His answer is a resounding “yes”. So I added #4 to my explorations – literature about the ways in which institutions are designed for self-preservation.

Robert Fried writes thatSeymour Sarason is often described as a “sculptor of Ideas”, a “cautious radical”, and a “challenger of conventional thinking”, He authored over 40+books , including The Predictable Failure of School Reform. Here are the first entries from a list of Sarason’s ideas that Fried shares…

Every school has a culture that defines how the people within it operate;

The ‘regularities’ of the school’s culture – the rules and procedures, that are mostly assumed – tend to undermine the basic purposes of educating our youth;

The overriding purpose of the school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world, yet that is mostly ignored;

The educational “system” has an oppressive impact, stifling progress. The search for culprits – teachers, students, bad parents, and schools is a popular activity. The real culprit is the system itself;

The system, as it is currently functions, is intractable, not easily reformed. Its most significant feature is its ability to self-perpetuate”

And so I added #5 – literature about institutional cultures and the prioritization of culture over strategy

Consider Richardson’s observation about truth vs. institutional self-preservation when educators see the following slide from one of Richardson’s presentations. This slide is taken from one of Richardson’s TEDTalks (Vancouver). In it, he lists what we known about learning (truth) vs what we do most frequently in schools.


Richardson reports (and my own experiences showing the slide corroborate his experience) that the overwhelming response is “ah ha” in support of the obvious truth revealed in the slide.

Now let’s “marry” the new pieces of awareness… the tendency of institutions to value and promote self-perpetuation over truth and the ways in which cultures determine what will be accepted and incorporated into the organization.

For me these additions both clarify the roles of leaders and, at the same time, complicate the task of developing followership about ideas/truths that run counter to the regularities of behavior that have served and continue to serve the interests of institutional self-preservation.

I’ll add yet another force that complicates the development of followership – fear. As Sinek points out in his work on trust and circles of safety, we tend to come together to protect ourselves from danger – i.e., our decisions to join others to get safety are fear-based based.

Michael Fullan offers in “Core Principles As a Means of Deepening Large Scale Reform” that a critical role of leaders is to drive out fear.

In building a culture of action one of the most critical elements is what happens when things go wrong? Actions, even those that are well planned inevitably entail the risk of being wrong.(p. 253)

Does the culture have a “learn from mistakes orientation or does it treat failure harshly?”

[… ] Fear fosters knowing-doing gaps so drive out fear.

 Organizations that are successful in turning knowledge into action are frequently characterized by leaders who inspire respect, affection or admiration, but not fear. (p. 256)

So to return to an earlier question…

Why have the voices like Zhao, Robinson, Sarason, Richardson, etc. produced such meager and impotent support/agreement? If the self-perpetuation factor is a one of the keys to aligning Sarason’s purpose for education with what actually happens to youth, what is it about the institution that is so durable as to be able to resist the acceptance of the “truths” – i.e., Where does the dismantling of this self-perpetuation begin?

I’m thinking it begins with fear, both the identification of the fears that drive the perpetuation of the familiar as well as the fears of that accompany exchanging the known (regardless of identified shortcomings) for the unknown.

Note: I’m also thinking that this fear-based explanation also connects directly to Sinek’s concept of trust and the leader’s ability to create the “circle of safety” and that, quite frequently, we are unaware of the fears that are subtly “steering” our decisions.

What happens if we begin with an examination of the fears faced by the various stakeholders in maintaining the status quo? And then move to concrete actions that lessen the sense of fear?

  • What are the fears facing participants in school governance?
  • What are the fears facing those employed by the system?
  • What are the fears of administrators (district and schools )?
  • What are the fears faced by teachers? Do they change with age and experience?
  • What are the fears faced by parents?
  • What are the fears faced by students – i.e., I know how to play the current system? Can I be successful in anew system?
  • What are the fears faced by members of the community?
  • What are your fears in considering the recognition and modification of the culture of self-perpetuation as reflected in your school/district?

Note: This past week, I had the good fortune to attend a program in Washington, DC organized by Derrick Harkins, Senior Vice President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Marianne Williamson. One of the first exercises we were asked to do was, coincidentally, to take a moment and silently name at least one fear that we recognize as limiting our lives. I say “coincidentally” because I had already written the above section on fear prior to this event. It was a powerful moment as evidenced by the absolute silence of the approximately 2000 participants.

Suggested actions:

  • Carve out 10 minutes from your schedule.
  • Be alone.
  • Identify no more than three fears that you feel are limiting your willingness/ability to achieve what you want most to achieve.
  • Write them down.
  • Quietly reflect on one of these, and
  • Write down your thoughts as you experience them in this quiet time

What are you going to do about it?

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