Change only happens through contextual and trusting relationships | Richard Wells | 3 Min Read

Thousands of schools around the world have leaders pushing for some sort of change. Educational change exists on a spectrum from administrative to an organizational learning culture. Listening to the Future Learning Design Podcast, one would think change was a foregone conclusion that all the experts agree on and no district or Principal could argue against. What fascinates me most about education is how little change actually happens and in particular embeds long term. Leaders can use statistics, worldwide reports, and even strong anecdotes from ‘real people’ and it still seems like the status quo wears impenetrable body armor. Why with such strong trends and with the learnings from Covid are we still likely to see little change in 2022?

Relationships before research

Author and guru in system change, Michael Fullan (Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto), writes much about Leading from the Middle and from his national system context. He refers much to school Principals being the gate-keepers for change as they decide more than anyone the culture and priorities of a school. A reason for this is that, unlike national or district government departments, Principals have the personal and thus emotional connections with the implementers of any change to take place. In most cases, they have the trust of their community in a way distant authorities, including said worldwide experts and research, do not. 

Context is everything

This trust-based approach in Leading from the Middle can also be used as a change framework at any level. If you work in a school, the gatekeepers to change are the middle leaders such as the Head of Science. If a senior leader in a school wants to drive change, they must work with their middle leaders in building mutual respect and understanding of what that change is and why it’s important and beneficial for all. Without this, the change required in classrooms will not be implemented as desired. This is because only the middle leader has an emotional and contextual relationship with their classroom teachers. To a science teacher, the change has to benefit science education. 

Senior leaders as servants to the middle

The role of the senior leader is to respect that the middle leaders are busy and require resources and time to build a vision of and purpose for the change, with contextual examples. Middle leaders need to be upskilled in discussing and arguing for change. The concerns of classroom teachers need to be heard and answered by their middle leaders within their context. Through their contextual relationship, middle leaders are the most likely to convince their own teachers and more importantly, a whole school community that any particular change is appropriate. On a number of occasions, I have found a Head of Math to have more sway with parents than a Principal in how Math education should look. 

A complex problem demands empathy

That might seem straightforward to some but there are challenges. It is not uncommon that a middle leader was not only successful as a student in twentieth-century education but has risen to leadership because of their understanding of its priorities. Despite research and experts saying the contrary, this can convince many middle leaders that the status quo or last century’s approach was a successful model and is still appropriate today. This leads to pushback against any kind of change. This is where serious investment in building a team consensus between senior and middle leaders is step one to any significant change. Until middle leaders are convinced of the need for and skill in debating for change, classroom teachers should be left alone to get on with their job. 

Senior and government roles

Senior leaders need two things. Firstly a confidence to argue the detail of any vision of what the research and experts are all pushing for and why. Secondly, the skill to build a single senior-middle leadership team to explore it and push the convincing arguments for it within all their respective contexts. 

The district or national government’s role is to provide a tested framework from which Principals can start and maintain the conversation for change with their communities. Principals are historically skilled at serving the vision of education that their community understands. Many need guidance in how to manage the change conversation with their parent body and it is the government’s role to provide that framework.

Richard Wells

Richard Wells is a world-recognized educator, author and blogger on future education trends. He has presented around the world and has been rated in the top 50 world influencers for educational technology use. He currently works in school leadership and is passionate about moving schools forward to better represent the needs of the 21st century. Richard is an EdTech influencer who founded EduWells, a top 10 education blog. He is the author of A Learner's Paradise, a book in which he explains how education can operate without classrooms, lessons, subjects, and tests. Richard proudly started his career with a degree in Fine Art from Manchester in England. He worked in IT before contracting to work in schools, digitalizing their workflows in the late 1990s. He became an educator in 2003.

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