How To Lead School-Wide Change That Sticks

Want research-informed answers like this direct to your inbox?
Sign up to our mailing list.

Key takeaways

  • Remember that change is easy, but improvement is hard. Don’t confuse change with improvement. Only changes that improve student outcomes are desirable.
  • Engage in student-centred leadership. Getting closer to the classroom is the best way to lead improvement rather than change. This might feel uncomfortable but it’s worth pushing through.
  • Drill into ‘theories of action’. Invest time in understanding the values and beliefs that underpin the practices you are trying to change.
  • Engage don’t bypass: avoid the trap of superficial consultation, engage deeply in a dialogue of different values, beliefs and actions to arrive at a co-designed, shared theory of action. That will give your the best chance of leading change that sticks.



How To Lead School-Wide Change That Sticks

The Australian education system is experiencing an interesting combination of lots of improvement initiatives, but little improvement in student outcomes. Over the last decade, there have been lots of changes in education including changes to curriculum, testing, teacher standards and funding models – but student outcomes have not improved. During this same period the percentage of students completing year 12 hasn’t improved much, NAPLAN data may be stagnating, and the country’s PISA results have steadily declined.

Many schools replicate this pattern with lots of ‘improvement initiatives’, but not a lot of improvement in student outcomes. It contributes to a feeling of change fatigue in schools. An exhausted sigh often greets school leaders implementing another new initiative. Research suggests that during periods of continuous, but ineffective change in Australian schools a group of teachers emerge that are cynical, apathetic and negative towards change. These are the teachers that resist change, hold car park meetings after professional learning sessions and quietly subvert change initiatives with the stoic wisdom, that ‘this too shall pass’.

Effective school-wide change is hard but not impossible. Viviane Robinson’s book Reduce Change to Increase Improvement provides a road map for schools to make changes that stick.

Change is easy, improvement is hard

It’s relatively easy to lead school-wide change. You perceive a problem to be solved, develop a solution, introduce and implement it via some whole-staff professional learning, write up supporting documentation and then support and monitor its implementation. If you’re busy, you can skip most of these steps by paying an external consultant to design, deliver and document the new solution for you. The problem with this ‘spray on’ school change approach is that it is very unlikely to change any of the outcomes you want it to. It’s unlikely to have much positive impact on teacher or student outcomes, it may even result in negative outcomes.

Robinson is very clear to distinguish change from improvement in schools. Change is a value-neutral term – it can be good or bad. School improvement, on the other hand, is necessarily good for students and teachers. It’s important that school leaders don’t think that by achieving ‘change’ they’ve improved anything – this is very different.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

To lead change is to exercise influence in ways that move a team, organization or system from one state to another. The second state could be better, worse, or the same as the first. To lead improvement is to exercise influence in ways that leave the team, organization or system in a better state than before

One problem is that change is enticing. School leaders often feel they need to stack their CVs with numerous different change initiatives to be successful. Schools that don’t change are seen to be ‘stuck’ and those with lots of visible changes going on are celebrated in case studies. In Victoria, there are schools that in the last five to ten years have engaged in all of the following improvement initiatives:

  • implemented a new instructional model
  • overhauled curriculum design and documentation practices
  • introduced a new model of assessment
  • implemented a new coaching or peer observation framework
  • developed a new model for supporting positive behaviour
  • engaged in a range of professional learning on building Professional Learning Communities, Aboriginal cultural awareness, trauma-informed practice and student, voice agency and leadership.

That’s before you get to the more domain-specific foci for these schools including literacy, numeracy, test preparation and cross-curricular capabilities, never mind considering individual teachers’ needs.

Change for the sake of change is not desirable, what is desirable is change that leads to improved student outcomes – that’s all that is really important when you work in schools. It follows then that it is the quality not the quantity of change that matters.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

…the best indicator of whether or not the changes that leaders make constitute improvement is their impact on learners. This test is consistent with the widely shared moral purpose of education, which broadly speaking, is to enable all children and young people to succeed at intellectually engaging and enriching tasks and, in doing so, to become confident and connected lifelong learners

When focusing on improvement, leaders become more responsible and more accountable for delivering high-quality change in their schools. Leaders need to spend a lot of time considering the logic of proposed changes, how this logic may be received by teachers and to really interrogate how this change will bring about improvements in outcomes.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

By making the distinction between change and improvement we increase leaders’ responsibility for developing and communicating the detailed logic of how their change will produce the intended improvement.

So, no more ‘change something and monitor its implementation’, instead, effective teachers need to carry out certain combination of actions to lead quality improvement in student outcomes.

Student-centred leadership

Robinson draws on some of her own earlier research to draw out the leadership practices that have the most impact on student outcomes.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

…the more leaders focus their relationships, their work, and their learning on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes

This involves a really ‘student-centred’ approach to school leadership and this isn’t necessarily easy. Often this sees school leaders get much ‘closer to the classroom’ than they have traditionally, and this can feel uncomfortable. It can also feel uncomfortable for teachers who may see school leaders’ efforts to influence classroom practice as an erosion of their professional autonomy that undermines their professional experience, judgement and capacity.

Drill into ‘theories of action’

The reasons behind teachers’ existing practices are really important. An underlying set of values and beliefs support teachers’ current practice. When leaders overlook this, they run the risk of trying to get teachers to do something that goes against the way they see the world and their place in it. Before barreling on with trying to change practice, effective leaders need to properly understand the practices they are trying to change.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

For change to succeed, leaders need to focus as much, if not more, on understanding the practices they wish to change as on designing the alternatives they seek to introduce. My reason for this claim is that the hardest part of change is not its planning but its implementation because that involves uncertain and complex processes of integrating and aligning the new practices with hundreds of existing practices.

The practices that leaders are trying to change are usually serving a purpose for teachers. People develop their usual way of doing things by adapting and adopting practices that they believe will help them achieve their goals. These practices form part of a “tacit personal theory of action” for teachers. Without always understanding it explicitly, teachers do things in a certain way, because they believe that is the most effective way for them to achieve their goals – this is a theory of action.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

Practices that are the target of change are the outward manifestations of a tacit personal theory about how to achieve one’s goals

Theories of actions have three components – the actions (i.e. behaviours), the beliefs and values that underpin those actions, and the intended or unintended consequences of those actions. Digging deeply into the underlying beliefs and values is critical to leading change well. Doing so helps leaders understand what underpins teachers’ existing practices and what they might need to do in order to change this practice.  

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

Once we understand the relevant theory of action, we understand what maintains the existing practice and what might be involved in changing it.

You want to lead a change, and you know that understanding the theories of action of staff is important – how do you go about marrying your objectives with their way of doing things?

Engage don’t bypass

Effective leaders spend time understanding how the proposed theory of action compares with the existing theories of action of those who will carry out the change. These leaders engage in a dialogue with the people they seek to influence. This dialogue digs deeply into both the leader’s proposed theory of action (i.e. the change) and the person’s existing theory of action which is underpinning their current practices. The best way to do this is to begin by genuinely inquiring into the theory of action of the other person. Robinson calls this the ‘engagement approach’.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

In the engagement approach, inquiry into the tacit theory that sustains and explains current practice produces a dialogue between two theories of action: that of the leaders of the reform and that of the persons that they are attempting to influence… This approach is more effective because improvement does not involve the adoption of new practices but their integration into a complex repertoire of existing personal, interpersonal and organizational practice.

Leaders that don’t do this use the ‘bypass approach’. Such leaders tend to try to persuade people to adopt their own alternate theory of action without engaging properly in theirs. This may result in asking someone to adopt a new way of doing things that conflicts with their fundamental values and beliefs – this isn’t going to work. Instead, the bypass approach just creates fertile ground for a cynical, negative, resistant or subversive reaction to the change initiative to emerge. A common, but an ineffective reaction to this is to blame the solution, thinking ‘we implemented the wrong thing’. Leaders often respond to this thinking by finding another solution, but again implementing it using the bypass approach. This leads down the well-trodden path of lots of change, but not much improvement.

The engagement approach has four main phases:

  1. Agreeing on the problem to be solved
  2. Revealing the tacit theory (i.e. beliefs, values, actions and consequences) that underpins the current practices
  3. Evaluating the relative merit of the existing (teacher’s) theories and the proposed (leader’s) theories to arrive at a share theory of action
  4. Implementing and monitoring the new theory of action

Using the engagement approach effectively relies on leaders undertaking genuine engagement with teachers. This can’t just be superficial consultation where leaders engage with staff or other stakeholders to advocate for their change agenda. Instead, effective leaders need to remain open to the notion that their idea isn’t necessarily right and genuinely welcome feedback and revisions of the change agenda.

From Reduce Change to Increase Improvement:

The process is reciprocal in that the change leader’s alternative theory must also be explicit and open to revision, especially at those points where there is tension between it and current theories of action…

For many leaders, this involves a substantial shift in focus from advocacy of their change agenda to collaborative inquiry and evaluation of the relative merits of the current and proposed theories of action.

When leaders and teachers engage in this process properly, they co-develop a shared and agreed theory of action. When you get to this point, you’re onto a school change that is likely to stick, lead to changes in practices and improve student outcomes.

Key takeaways

  • Remember that change is easy, but improvement is hard. Don’t confuse change with improvement. Only changes that improve student outcomes are desirable.
  • Engage in student-centred leadership. Getting closer to the classroom is the best way to lead improvement rather than change. This might feel uncomfortable but it’s worth pushing through.
  • Drill into ‘theories of action’. Invest time in understanding the values and beliefs that underpin the practices you are trying to change.
  • Engage don’t bypass: avoid the trap of superficial consultation, engage deeply in a dialogue of different values, beliefs and actions to arrive at a co-designed, shared theory of action. That will give you the best chance of leading change that sticks.

Want research-informed answers like this direct to your inbox?
Sign up to our mailing list.

One thought on “How To Lead School-Wide Change That Sticks

Comments are closed.