Tech-tonic shift: What type of change do you want?

Please note: This is the second in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration.

I have the great privilege of working with one of my professional mentors. Dr. Sharon Harsh is an exemplary educator who is also an acknowledged national leader in the field of organizational change, especially as it relates to education. She has studied the organizational change literature across many industries and has used that knowledge to craft strategies and procedures to support systemic change at the statewide level to much success. For this, she is acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Education, and I get to pick her brain often and learn from her. How cool is that?

Early in the change process, those in charge really should sit down and determine what kind of change they’re really seeking. Harsh (2012) summarizes that there are three levels of change, and using strategies for one type to address another can not only be ineffective but can frustrate those involved and hamper the ability to implement future change initiatives. She describes three types of change:

  1. Incremental or first-order change occurs when a change initiative is localized to an individual or small group of individuals within an organization. In schools, this can occur when a group of teachers take a class or attend a training together and attempt to implement a strategy they’ve learned. Or perhaps a grade-level team may work on adopting a new technology resource together. In this type of change, an individual may build capacity, but the organization as a whole stays very much the same.

  2. Transitional or second-order change ramps things up a bit. This type of change focuses at a larger group of people, a well-defined group, such as a workgroup or a team in an organization. In schools, this could be a group like all counselors, all algebra teachers, or all technology coaches (to use a Dubuque example). The goal of second-order change is to help an entire subgroup of the organization build their capacity to meet the goals of the organization, but whole-scale organizational change is still not occurring.

  3. Transformational change or third-order change is true systemic change in which all of the players in an organization are impacted, some profoundly. This type of change is, obviously, the most challenging type of change to undergo and see to a successful conclusion, because it can impact the entire culture of the organization. It may require people to reflect and modify their philosophy of their role in the organization and what they want to get out of being in the organization. Some may leave the organization. In a successful effort, everyone changes to some degree.


Again, more great lessons, but what does this mean for schools? Especially those in the midst of a tech-tonic shift? In my experience, the most obvious answer rests in the mismatch between intentions of a change initiative and the strategies used to get there. Transformational change is hard. It’s complex and requires a great deal of preparation and forethought. As Harsh is fond of quoting, “complex problems require complex solutions.” Simplistic approaches won’t lead to successful change in complex situations, like whole-organization change. Transformational change is truly a contact sport. It requires rallying the troops and getting everyone on the same page. It can even involve thinning the troops or finding those more sympatico to the change vision.

In my experience, too many education organizations attempt to implement transformational change through incremental strategies–using simplistic strategies that can’t address a complex problem. In most cases, those I work with are seeking transformational change whether they originally intend to or not. Also in most of these cases, the strategies used are limited to individuals or a small group or do not tackle the larger and more complex issues related to revising personal philosophies, developing a shared vision, or changing organizational culture. Yes, those are challenging aspects, which may be why so many people want to avoid them, but you have to be true to yourselves and those with whom you work. If you want transformational change, roll up your sleeves and get ready to do some heavy lifting. If you’re not ready for the long-term investment required for transformational change, change your sites. Focus on incremental change, and select strategies that will support it.


Harsh, S. (2012). Taking successful change initiatives beyond capacity: A multiple-dimension approach to capacity building. Fairfax, VA: ICF International.