John Kotter - summary and some thoughts on change in education

In my previous post I wrote about my reading plans at the start of  the IC2 module in my TELIC journey. IC2 stands for Innovation and Change 2. The previous module TEL2 focused on the relation learning <> technology in social contexts. This time we’re diving into the actual change process itself. Change-transformation and its underlying processes have intrigued me for years. What is at the root of human resistance for change? To me, it points towards this: change threatens  our inner, mental order. New information entering our consciousness either creates disorder (entropy) or frees up energy in our minds. I hope to learn more on this in IC2.

So, I’ve been reading Csikszentmihalyi on the anatomy of consciousness, following sessions with @janbommerez, and @johanroels and @charliepalmgren introduced me to the creative interchange process and the vicious circle. ‘Creative Interchange is the dynamic process that brings about transformation in human life.’ (Palmgren, 1998, p.1261). Last year we’ve organised some sessions on creative interchange and the counterforce at work: the Vicious Cycle. Reminds me of writing about The Chicken Conspiracy for IC2! This book describes the origin of stress and organisational mediocrity. I will take it up in another blogpost.  

For  now, I finished reading John Kotter’s Leading Change. Very interesting, I made a summary in this popplet. John Kotter provides an 8 step plan for successful transformation in organisations.

Some thoughts on transformation in education:

1. Establishing a sense of urgency: are  teachers, headmasters (and pupils) truly determined to change? I don’t think so. I think too often there is a common sense of complacency with teachers. “It is not all that bad, a kind of sleepy contentment with the status quo”. True urgency is driven by the determination to win, not anxiety about losing.

2. Creating the guiding coalition: putting together a group with enough power to lead the change. On macro level, politicians perhaps have the power to lead the change, but I honestly have the impression they are driven by the power itself, and not the actual transformation in favour of our biggest treasures: the kids themselves. On school-level, there is actually no “guiding coalition”. At best there is a group of reformers lead by an innovative headmaster, but a lot of the teachers are  left out of the coalition, and they block progress. Schools have got ‘atypical’ organisational structures: one or more headmasters and many, many, many others: teachers, parents and children. This inequality in numbers makes creating a guiding coalition hard.

3. Developing a change vision: very often there is no shared vision. Perhaps there is a vision, indeed, but it is far from shared! Truly shared, I mean. Some staff meetings and brainstorm sessions don’t do the trick. Listen to the real culture-talk in the toilets after one of these staff meetings, and you’ll know what people really think.  A vision should provide real guidance, it should be a safe and easy reference for every innovative action in the school.

4. Communicating the vision, not once, ten times, but hundreds of times the vision needs to be communicated. Again, this is not the case for most schools. Undercommunication and inconsistency are ruling. Reason? We don’t have the time (we think we don’t), and we underestimate the importance of this phase. This a matter of knowledge. Headmasters are not trained in these matters. Also, actions speak louder than words. Do teachers and school leaders “walk the talk”?

Nothing undermines a communication program more quickly than inconsistent actions by leadership.

5. Empowering broad-based action: many people indeed work hard, very hard to improve and transform their organisation. I’m the first to say ‘thank you’ to those people. But since step 1 to 4 are neglected, the hard work is not efficient and transformation is blocked.
This fifth step is about removing as many barriers as possible and unleashing people to do their best work (Creative Interchange process). One example of a fundamental structural barrier: the tenured teacher with a fixed mindset. The system allows that teachers who don’t deliver quality can obtain full tenure. But there are many, many other structural and systemic barriers. A decent diagnosis of structures, systems, staff, style/leadership is needed before you can start removing barriers. Again, the leader is key, but headmasters are not trained to do so.  

6. Generating short-term wins: creating visible, unambiguous success. There are already many classroom innovations and good practices of educational transformation. Great! But the problem is they result from (groups of) passionate individuals. They are not embedded in the bigger whole that results from  steps 1 to 4. When those “passionata’s” stop teaching/working, often the innovation also ceases to exist.

7. Don’t let up: consolidating gains and producing more change. Be aware of the forces that re-inforce complacency and the status-quo. Even if you’re successful in the early stages, regression may still follow. Producing more change when the first steps are not fulfilled is futile.

8. Make it stick: sustained change. New practices must grow deep roots. Roots are often not deep enough. The result is people download to their old routines, and fundamental transformation is blocked. The social forces at work in cultures are strong, very strong. Book closed.

This is not the most optimistic blogpost but it was a good read! It helped me analyse what goes wrong with transformation in educational contexts.  Kotter’s 8 steps provide useful insights on transformation, but “how” are we going to realise this? Let’s start with our-selves: start interacting authentically. ‘Authentic interacting fosters creative interchange, in that we are willing to voice, with integrity, our unique perspective, thinking, interpretations, beliefs, and values while encouraging others to do the same.’ (Palmgren, 1998, p.1271)

Walk the talk…

Summary in popplet:

1. Hagan, S., & Palmgren, C. (1998). The Chicken Conspiracy: Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Recovery Communications.