New Slide: Sustainable Change in Schools

As I’ve mentioned before, the ideas of Steven Johnson are really influencing my thinking about school change right now.  What Johnson argues is that sustainable change in any field really isn’t about revolutionary ideas.  In fact, Johnson believes that embracing revolutionary ideas about change is a recipie for disaster.

Johnson’s ideas are echoed by Kevin Kelly, who writes in Wired Magazine:

Ideas that leap too far ahead are almost never implemented—they aren’t even valuable.

People can absorb only one advance, one small hop, at a time. Gregor Mendel’s ideas about genetics, for example: He formulated them in 1865, but they were ignored for 35 years because they were too advanced. Nobody could incorporate them.

Then, when the collective mind was ready and his idea was only one hop away, three different scientists independently rediscovered his work within roughly a year of one another.

Interesting stuff, huh?  And still more proof that ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere in education—whether we’re talking about reforming teacher evaluation models or reforming instructional practices.  What we really need, argues Johnson, is thinking at the edges of the box:

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

How does this sit with you?  Are you exhausted by the “we need a revolution” rhetoric surrounding education?  Do you think evolutionary change for schools makes sense instead?

Do we have the time for evolutionary change to occur?

What are the consequences of too much out-of-the-box thinking in our schools?  How about the consequences of not enough out-of-the-box thinking?

Will we ever get the balance just right? 



Original Image Credit:  10_cardboard_rough_03 by Six Revisions

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on February 6, 2011


15 thoughts on “New Slide: Sustainable Change in Schools

  1. Matt Townsley

    Ideal percentage…a handful of revolutionary folks who intelligently surround themselves with a slew of evolutionary minds.
    My perception is that revolutionary minds rarely exist in the classroom, because they’re quickly told to “keep quiet and get back to teaching.” They may end up as consultants or in some other role. Or…they might continue teaching and start blogging about their grand ideas. 🙂
    I’m admittedly not one of the dreamers. I think teaching a high school math and being a dreamer might be considered an oxymoron! As a newbie district administrator, is this a bad thing? Is it possible to lead the type of change you’re thinking about without the revolutionary folks’ involvement…a “one step at a time” vision casting process?

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Matt wrote:
    We need the revolution-minded folks (read: education conference keynote
    speakers) to keep us focused on the big picture, but in my mind we need
    the evolution-minded folks even more to move the masses ahead one step
    at a time.
    Heres an interesting question for you, Matt: What percentage of the teachers in your building, district and/or state are revolution-minded? Evolution-minded?
    What would an ideal percentage be?
    What types of people are typically drawn to education? How does that influence our ability to drive change?
    Ive got a ton of rumblings running through my mind about all of this—–but would love to hear what you think.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Russ asked:
    Is the reason outside-the-box ideas fail to gain traction because of
    the idea or the lack of a clear plan to get from inside the box to
    outside the box?
    I think theres real truth here, Russ. I know that in 17 years, I dont remember too many times where anything that we did in the schools where I worked felt like a part of a clear plan. A part of the muddling was a result of a lack of consensus building or vision setting at the school level. A part of that muddling was the result of external agencies setting new directions irrespective of our own context and setting. A part of that was because of teachers who were so damned sick of trying to implement muddled changes that they just plain gave up.
    But the idea that change starts with little steps still rings true for me—-and yet we continue to hear the experts who criticize our profession pounding on the need for a revolution in education.
    That just doesnt sit with me.
    Any of this make sense?

  4. Russ Goerend

    Hmm. I’m just not sure. It’s not that I think the point you’re making is incorrect. I think it’s correct. It’s descriptive of change that actually does occur. But is it prescriptive of change that could occur?
    What role does scaffolding play in this? Is the reason outside-the-box ideas fail to gain traction because of the idea or the lack of a clear plan to get from inside the box to outside the box?

  5. Matt Townsley

    I’m not sure I have much else to add here other than I agree with the evolution vs. revolution idea. I’ve found that casting the vision, whether it’s evolution or revolution, is a always a good start, but helping individuals and groups realize their next steps towards this vision is the empowering part. Those steps, similar to what Bill described with his colleague and the Livescribe pen, are what I’ve found to be most successful as a teacher in the past and most recently as a district administrator.
    We need the revolution-minded folks (read: education conference keynote speakers) to keep us focused on the big picture, but in my mind we need the evolution-minded folks even more to move the masses ahead one step at a time.
    Heck, I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog, Bill. You provide an appropriate mix of “here’s where I think we should be going” and “here’s what I’m doing to influence that change locally – you can, too.”

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Andrew wrote:
    They need techniques which are actually going to work for them, in the
    current model, that shift them toward a new stance, but not actually
    INTO that new stance. Its kind of like very slow educational kung fu.
    This is a GREAT quote, Andrew—-both the language around shifting towards a new stance but not actually into that new stance and the bit on educational kung fu! Both are great mental constructs for thinking about how sustainable change happens in schools.
    I think we should get people blogging about what this looks like in action. Theoretically, its solid—but theoretical thinking is not always easily understood by people.
    Im planning on a post describing how a teacher on my team who isnt particularly tech savvy is using my Livescribe pen to create tutorials for her students. The pen is an approachable tool for her because its a pen and a notebook—-nothing revolutionary there. But the fact that the pen can capture all of the audio and text content created and then post that content to the web is definitely revolutionary simply because the teacher can now create a library of tutorials that can be used for enrichment and remediation.
    Differentiating instruction at the student level becomes possible.
    Basically, Ive shifted her towards the new model of individualizing learning at the student level by using a tool that isnt all that revolutionary. Shes working at the edges of her box instead of jumping outside of her box.
    Does this make sense?
    If you decide to write a post explaining what all this looks like in action from your setting, let me know. Id love to at the very least spotlight it on the Radical—and at the very most (with your permission), post it as a guest blog entry.
    Rock on,
    Bill Ferriter
    101 Wax Myrtle Court
    Cary, North Carolina

  7. Andrew B. Watt

    I think you’re on target here, Bill. I’m involved in helping plan some (r)evolutionary stuff at my school, and the more out-there ideas aren’t even getting noticed. My colleagues literally cannot wrap their heads around them, because they can’t see how their box-within-a-box will still fit within the new model. If they have to abandon techniques that currently work for them in the old-style classroom, without having a handle on the new techniques, they simply won’t do it.
    They need techniques which are actually going to work for them, in the current model, that shift them toward a new stance, but not actually INTO that new stance. It’s kind of like very slow educational kung fu.

  8. Mike Matheson

    It is really not about evolution or revolution. It is about inspired teaching and learning. It’s about a willingness to be continuous learners. I keep asking myself the question “how do I get myself and my teachers to develop patterns of continuous learning that allows us to keep up with the latest technologies and strategies that are effective with our students”. We can’t get so far behind or disconnected from the current reality that it is impossible to catch up or connect with our students. If this is a revolutionary concept, then I guess it is time for a learning revolution.

  9. Kevin

    Definitely makes sense. I could not agree more with the legislative failings. Everyone feels they are experts on education because they went to school. It is an easy political trick to attack an amorphous system because they know there will be unified defense. Not to mention at the federal level, with the exception of NCLB, they are all but powerless over public schools. I think a discussion about the organization of the educational structure is more appropriate.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Here’s the thing, K: The gatekeepers that you are talking about aren’t really teachers and principals.
    Instead, they’re the policymakers who keep passing legislation that binds the hands of educators.
    Take No Child Left Behind as an example. It is a policy that was developed with little input from actual practitioners, but it literally drives almost everything that happens in our schools. What’s more, it places the focus for almost every school choice on reading and math exams only.
    The reason: The accountability stakes of NCLB are impossible to ignore and the costs attached to tracking performance are consuming an almost amazing proportion of our budgets.
    So to argue that the failure to innovate in schools rests on the shoulders of teachers and principals is, simply, inaccurate. We have to respond to policies whether we believe in them or not.
    Complicating matters, policymakers are elected by the general population—and the general population has almost always expressed satisfaction with their schools.
    Sure, they’re ready to burn down the entire system—but ask them about their children’s teachers and buildings and their responses are almost overwhelmingly positive.
    Aren’t those citizens—the ones who are casting ballots anyway—essentially gatekeepers too?
    If parents aren’t pushing for changes—-or aren’t electing school board members and state representatives who are pushing for changes—-they’re just as responsible for the inflexibility in school structures that you’re so frustrated by.
    “The system,” which everyone loves to deride, is actually a pretty complex organism that includes taxpayers and the policymakers that they elect.
    Any of this make sense?

  11. Kevin

    I am tired of the “revolution” rhetoric. Mostly because the revolution these people want would make a system, based on business principles, that would be far worse than what exists.
    There is not a national education crisis. There are localized areas that are educational wastelands, all over the country. This is more an issue of economics than education.
    NCLB did a great deal of damage to even the high performing schools and a decade of that will take time to recover from, if what follows isn’t worse.
    I do think there needs to be a serious change in the way teachers are trained. PhDs who have no education experience other than university should not be training the future teachers this country needs. I like the med school approach of teaching hospitals and residency programs.
    Change is good, but we aren’t looking over a cliff just yet.

  12. K. Borden

    Consider this image: A clear day, students arriving to begin their school day carrying 40 plus pound filled backpacks slung over their shoulder, while texting on a handheld device. They enter a series of interconnected brick and concrete boxes. Once inside they segregate, largely by age, to the appropriate box within the box. The anachronisms present in this image represent evolutionary prevailing over revolutionary thinking.
    You said” Interesting stuff, huh? And still more proof that ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere in education—“
    As long as “out- of- the- box thinking” requires a hall pass from yesterday’s wall builders and gatekeepers your statement may well, but sadly, be true.
    However, what is need not continue to be. Consider the other quote by Mr. Johnson you highlighted in your previous entry: “Environments that build wall around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open ended environments.”
    I would agree, with a sigh, that “out-of-the-box” thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere IN education–, at least as it has evolved.

  13. Hatcherelli

    You have hit the nail on the head…evolutionary change is the answer. Our schools are not going to change over night…it will take time. It is up to teacher leaders like ourselves to make sure that we are changing for the betterment of kids!!

  14. Edu_Traveler

    Thank you for your post. I’m personally exhausted with the call for a revolution. There are many excellent schools and they are all different. It’s about finding the right pieces that work for your school community at the right time.

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