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Educational change in the new year

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Contrary to the perception portrayed in the media, schools are remarkably well-run organizations filled with competent and caring educators. Day in and day out, educators in schools with hundreds of students are able to get them to move from place to place on time, follow directions, interact with others appropriately and learn a variety of subjects. There is also a remarkably high level of compliance in most schools with a wide array of regulations affecting many aspects of school life. Schools have much to be proud of — they do a good job.

Too often, the focus is on the exception — the minority of schools that don’t perform well, but even in those schools, it is a minority of students who fail; most do succeed. In spite of this success, the message across the board to all schools and everyone connected to them is to do better, change for the better and learn more.

When schools do improve, however, it seldom ever seems to be enough for many policymakers and the public. Has there ever been a time when the general consensus in our country has been that schools are doing okay and don’t need to change? In my 40 years as an educator, I can never recall such a time and find it hard to envision such a time in the future.

If schools are resistant to change, it is not because they are failing or that the people in them are not doing a good enough job, it is because they are “working.” Regardless of what others outside of schools think, those who work in schools know that they are competent, even when faced with the difficult challenge of educating a diverse group of individuals. Educators will naturally resist any imposition of change from anyone suggesting that they are not competent, caring and committed to improving their practice.

How to change

Since change is always about changing people and schools are perceived as needing to change, wouldn’t it make sense to consult the research on how people change. It seems however that most education policies do not reflect the research in how people change. In fact it sometimes seems as if current policy has been designed based on the research demonstrating how to prevent people from changing.

There are two well researched concepts in social psychology related to change that could be applied in schools:

The fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) is the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others.

The theory of self-affirmation is a psychological theory that was first proposed by Claude Steele (1988) with the premise that people are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. The ultimate goal of the self is to protect an image of its self-integrity, morality and adequacy.

There is a lot of empirical research supporting both of these theories. Therefore, any change initiative or policy that fails to account for this research probably would not be too successful in achieving the desired change. It is hard, however, to fault policymakers, because they (all of us) are taught to think like this:

Students are not learning what they need to learn, therefore, they are probably not motivated to learn.  Whose responsibility is it to motivate them and get them to learn? It’s obviously the teachers. The teachers need to do be doing something different, but it’s hard to get people to do something different therefore we have to find a way to change them. Let’s motivate them to work harder so they will be able to motivate the students to work harder. How do you motivate people? Provide consequences — positive ones when they do what they should do and negative ones when they don’t.

This type of thinking is the way most of us think and has shaped education for years. Schools have taught people to think like this, so since most people in policy-making positions have been successful products of schools, they now apply this thinking to changing schools.

This is however the crux of the problem; why change is so hard. Einstein summed up it this way: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

No wonder the default approach to change in schools plays out like this:

We try to change people by telling them, coaxing them, threatening them, bribing them to change. In doing so, we are implying that either they don’t want to change or can’t change on their own. This message is not affirming and therefore is either rejected and/or ignored, resulting in no change. This result however only reinforces the perception of those who are trying to get change, and that’s the reason why change is not happening because those who have to change are resistant to changing. The people who are trying to get change tend to increase the intensity of those change strategies because they either know no other way or because it would not affirm their view of themselves, if they did anything differently. 

No wonder that when it comes to change, it is easy to get stuck and getting unstuck is problematic. Maybe the new year is a time when we can all play with some new ideas, get unstuck and change for the better.

Here are a few ideas to entertain in the new year:

  • Assume positive intentions and capabilities in all people.
  • No one is to blame, but all are responsible. Eliminate “us vs. them” thinking.
  • Let’s drop the deficit model. It’s about getting better not fixing something that’s broken.
  • Involve the people who need to change in the change process.
  • It’s okay to be wrong and to change our minds.
  • It’s okay to be uncertain. In fact, it’s preferable to thinking you have all the answers.
  • Change doesn’t have to be hard and painful; it can be “fun” especially when people feel connected.
  • Realize that theories are helpful because they provoke thinking, especially new ways of thinking.
  • Listen to build trust.
  • Build trust to listen better with people who might think differently.
  • Try new things, reflect, evaluate together and try again.
  • Taking a few steps in the right direction together is a big deal, don’t underestimate it, but celebrate it.
  • Schools are about learning. We learn the most when things don’t go smoothly so embrace problems rather than try to eliminate them.
  • Learn together about how change works.
  • Be humble about what you know but confident about what you can learn.

Educational change can be an adventure if people approach it with the right frame of mind and with a sense of community. The new year is as a good a time as any to put some new ideas into practice.  Schools are great places and are ready to get even better. They just need people to get started in the right direction and lead the way.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at