Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change

Article excerpt

Today's successful educational leaders understand that they cannot make change alone or by edict, Mr. Wagner notes. They motivate groups to learn and to solve problems together by asking tough questions and naming the big problems while refusing to offer easy answers.

I HAVE worked in education for 30 years - as a teacher, principal, teacher educator, and consultant and as head of several nonprofit organizations working with schools. For the past 12 years, I have both studied and facilitated the change process in numerous schools and districts in the U.S. and abroad. I spend most of my weeks working in schools and with various groups concerned about education.

This article is an attempt to distill what I have learned about how successful leaders create change in schools - change aimed at improving learning for all students. I call this an "action theory" of change because it is a synthesis of ideas informed by theory but developed primarily from practice - trial and error and disciplined reflection. The theory describes how to create the conditions and capacities for sustaining change, which must be developed before more specific action plans can be considered.

The first question that any theory of change should address is: What motivates adults to want to do new and sometimes very difficult things? This question is especially critical in education, as I believe that the temperament, training, and working conditions of most teachers predispose them not to want to change. On the other hand, leaders are often individuals who like change and so see teachers' reluctance to change as sheer stubbornness or indifference. In my experience, most teachers are neither stubborn nor indifferent, but they do resist change for reasons that leaders must understand. Three of the most common factors contributing to teachers' resistance are risk aversion, "craft" expertise, and autonomy and isolation.

Risk Aversion

Historically, most people have entered the teaching profession because it promises a high degree of order, security, and stability. In my experience, most educators are risk-averse by temperament, while many who thrive in the business world are risk-seekers. (I believe this fundamental difference in temperament is one reason why the two groups generally do not understand or even like each other, and this lack of understanding and communication contributes greatly to the absence of a more thoughtful, balanced dialogue about educational improvement.)

The training and working conditions of most teachers have only reinforced this risk aversion. Schools of education foster docility with too many lecture courses and too few opportunities for problem solving and original thinking, and school district leadership rewards compliance rather than creativity and initiative. The educational "fads of the month" that have swept through schools for the past 30 years have served to reinforce the belief of many teachers that innovations are the fleeting fancy of leaders who are here today and gone tomorrow - and so are not to be believed.

'Craft' Expertise

In traditional cultures, many individuals worked alone as farmers and craftsmen. Historically, education has also been a "craftsman's" trade - attracting people who enjoy working alone and take great pride in developing a degree of expertise and in perfecting "handcrafted products." For many teachers, their special units or courses - on Native Americans, Shakespeare, Advanced Placement (AP) biology - represent expertise they have developed over years and are sources of enormous pride. Teachers' greatest sense of job satisfaction often derives from introducing just a few students to their "craft." Teachers have told me that asking them to give up teaching such units would be like telling them to cut out a part of what makes them unique as human beings. And many perceive the call to create uniform standards as a demand that everyone teach the same thing in the same way. …

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