Tech-tonic Shifts: What can school leaders do to support change?

Please note: This is the fourth and last 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. 

So, now you’ve gotten started. You’ve bought some new materials, perhaps some technology devices or new curricular materials, or you’ve brought in some trainer to help spread the word. Boxes have been opened, people have been trained…now what?

Unfortunately, this is when a lot of initiatives fall short. They’re frontloaded with planning and training, but the resources aren’t put into place to nurture and sustain the effort. I can tell when I visit a school or district with a follow through problem when teachers (or other staff) talk about “what we did last year,” or even the year before and there’s no clear connection from year to year or initiative to initiative.

This also happens in those districts or schools with implementation overload. Every year someone introduces new materials, new methods, new devices with no clear long-range plan that ties them all together. I was visiting one school where the faculty complained they had “too much” training. They were introduced to so many things, they said it was like a buffet. But in the end, as one overwhelmed teacher told me, “Just show me 1 or 2 things that works and give me time to really learn how to use it.”

I developed the following guidance for school leaders implementing technology initiatives in their schools, but they could help anyone charged with implementing change. You’ll see some advice repeated from earlier, but that just highlights the importance of some of these strategies. This list began with advice from Margaret Heritage (2010) but I’ve combined some items and school it down to be a little more manageable.

  1. Communicate. This bears repeating. School leaders articulate, and constantly communicate, the value of any change effort. This begins with and returns to the vision, but it has to be relevant. If it’s not important to school leadership, it’s not important to teachers. Administrators who don’t buy in to a change effort can actually derail it. School leaders help everyone–teachers, other staff, parents, students–understand the importance of the initiative and reinforce it through multiple and varied communications.
  2. Support. School leaders provide explicit support to their teachers and staff related to the effort. People participating in and impacted by the change will need different kinds of support. Often, this implies new kinds of support. Determine what kind of support is needed. Be specific. Avoid platitudes or overgeneralizing. Yes, teachers need professional development, but what kind? Lesson study, observations, time to collaborate? Yes people will need time, but what kind of time specifically? Time to collaborate, to plan, to experiment? Identify the types of support and prioritize those needs.
  3. Dedicate time: School leaders find and protect time to engage in real work around the change initiative. Change efforts require ongoing time for meeting, reflection, and discussion. If these times succumb to other meetings or duties, the change won’t occur. Many schools have professional learning communities (PLCs), some just in name only. Any change effort, if worth doing, should be incorporated into existing PLC efforts. Every PLC meeting should result in some tangible outcome related to the change effort.
  4. Embed and connect: School leaders make connections to other initiatives. Teachers don’t have a lot of time, so even the best intended initiative won’t be effective if they don’t understand how new initiatives support existing initiatives or processes. School leaders should make these connections explicit, communicate them often, and tie them together. If a new technology initiative is implemented, school leaders help teachers understand how it will impact or support lesson planning, instruction, classroom observations, communications with students and parents–everything.
  5. Allocate resources: School leaders make strategic decisions about the allocation of resources that support the initiative. Not all resources require new funding. New initiatives should be implemented as an effort to addressing an existing need. Is literacy an issue? How will the change initiative support literacy? Conduct an analysis of what does and doesn’t work and get rid of those that don’t! Too many schools hand on to legacy programs that are ineffective just because “that’s the way we do it around here.” It can also help to get staff from different departments, along with the budgets they oversee, to get together and see how a new effort can support their work. Very often, technology initiatives can support multiple programs (e.g., Title programs, special education, literacy, and technology programs) and can be made affordable when budgets are combined across programs, something that may not be attainable by a single program’s budget.
  6. Take risks: School leaders establish and nurture an atmosphere of risk taking and learning from mistakes. School leaders will have to consider how they deal with taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers are not the only ones who will be trying new things or having to learn new skills. School leaders should be sure to learn alongside teachers by determining which trainings and meetings they’ll participate in with teachers. They may also want to consider which meetings they won’t participate in, in case teachers want some time to practice and work on their own.
  7. Acknowledge and celebrate! School leaders comment on, encourage, and celebrate teachers who demonstrate positive aspects of the initiative. Whenever a school leader visits a classroom, they should be sure to recognize aspects of the initiative (catch teachers doing good things drawn from the initiative) and comment on and encourage teachers who are doing so. And plan for and implement celebration! What celebrations are already in place where teachers and others can be acknowledge for the work their doing? Can they be acknowledged at staff meetings, daily announcements, with letters or cards, in newsletters, or on digital media like the school website, Facebook page, or other means? Celebration is fun and encouraging but often overlooked.

I encourage school or change leaders to do an analysis of existing strategies and processes that support each of these seven strategies. Include people responsible for them, such as the school secretary that puts together the school newsletter where you’re going to acknowledge the good work of your teachers, or the department heads that are going to carry your message back to their colleagues on a daily basis. Determine what works and whom to involve.

You may also need to develop or implement new strategies. For example, some schools may have department meetings but not really PLCs. If you plan to support the change effort with teachers from multiple departments, schools may need to find and adopt a PLC model to help organize those meetings and make them more effective.

In summary, I suggest that we, as an education community, know a lot about implementing and sustaining successful change initaitives. Unfortunately, we, as individual educators, may not always know about this body of knowledge nor about the strategies necessary to successfully implement change. Hopefully this brief overview provides some concrete ideas and strategies for those either leading or succumbing to change efforts and will find it helpful to make those change efforts more successful.

References

Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment. Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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.

References

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

 

Tech-tonic Shifts

Please note: Susan Swift, a dynamic language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, asked me to contribute some thoughts on a book she’s writing about technology integration. This and the next three posts (at least) are in response to Susan’s request.

I’m not sure whether she realized it or not, but Susan has selected an ironically appropriate topic and title for my chapter. As a former music teacher, I’m pretty well versed in the idea of tonics as they relates to sound. That combined with my current status of helping educators plan for, integrate, and evaluate technology-based initiatives can truly be summed up as approaching the idea of “tech-tonic” shifts from many perspectives. In music, tonic shifts (some might say modulations) follow certain rules or guidelines. They are usually prepared for, some quite eloquently so. Sure, some day an Arnold Schoenberg will come along and bend those rules completely, but in all reality he and his contemporaries were also working from some very strict rules of their own. Every domain has some accepted ways of doing things, and we can all learn by knowing some of those rules or guidelines.

Unlike musical composition, there may not be hard-and-fast “rules” for technology integration (or any other change effort), but there are certainly lessons learned–both in education and from the larger field of organizational change. After leaving the classroom, a fortuitous accident led me to further study in instructional design for both general education and corporate training. Adventures in this field include product and program evaluation as well as providing technical assistance to a wide range of folks. Some of this has been official, such as serving in leadership roles for a Regional Education Laboratory and two Comprehensive Centers, both of which are programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The latter, the Comprehensive Center, is specifically charged with “building the capacity” of state education agencies (SEA). A daunting task, if you think about it. And not one to take lightly. Show up on the front step of any SEA and say, “I’m here to build your capacity,” and you won’t make it past the door.

So, with a few well-earned battle scars and even a few checkmarks in the win column, with those in the other column probably providing stronger evidence for what not to do, I hope to share a few ideas. I’ve culled these from my experiences from working with educators from across the country in terms of supporting organizational change–from single schools to entire states. Whether wanting to focus on isolated integration in a single classroom or school or working on whole-scale organizational change, these are some of the rules I’ve learned.

Continuum Theory

While I often work with schools and districts that are beginning their journey of technology integration, we’ve been using digital technologies in classrooms for quite a while. I didn’t use a personal computer in my own education until working on my Master’s degree, but computers have been in classrooms for almost half a century! That means lots of years of experiences and lessons learned. One of the most important lessons learned that I keep returning to time and time again is one that comes from those early days of integration, and that is, as teachers (and school leaders) integrate technology, they do so across a continuum. This lesson was first (and perhaps best) presented by researchers for the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project in the 1980s (Dwyer, Sandholtz, & Ringstaff, 1991). Yes, the 1980s. We’ve been doing this “tech stuff” that long.

The basic lesson from that time is that educators adopt technology along a continuum. This is a foundational truth I find holds true in every technology initiative I’ve worked with, with mentions found repeatedly in the literature since that time in various reincarnations, such as the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (NETS-T) from ISTE and the (what’s old is new again) SAMR model. Maybe I need to recycle some decades old idea with a new label?

The ACOT researchers described their continuum with 5 stages, from Entry to Innovation. Along the way, teachers build their skills and knowledge and learn how technology provides support to create learning opportunities that just can’t be done without the technology. Yes, I went there. Things you can’t do without technology. It’s not just about efficiency. It’s about creating new learning environments. Need proof?

In Virginia, students can access and control the same telescopes astronomers and other space scientists do to explore the night sky (the catch is the Virginia telescope is in Australia because it’s night there when our kids are in school). There are other probes students can interact with, from the bottom of the Puget Sound to a rover on Mars. Students are also interacting with their favorite authors and others through telecommunications that bring them into their classrooms in real time or through asynchronous blogs or chats. And kids are running their own businesses, filming their own documentaries, and writing their own apps. Do that with paper and pencil.

It takes some time to get to that stage, however, whether you think of the continuum as having 3, 4, or 5 stages. ACOT says 5. ISTE says 4. I sum it up in 3:

  1. Replication. Teachers begin by using technology to replicate what they are familiar with. If they are familiar with a lecture followed by students working independently on handouts, they might support a lecture with presentation software and print out (or post digital) handouts for students to complete. If they like collaborative groups and problem-based learning, they incorporate technologies that allow students to work together in and outside of classroom and solve problems.

  2. Adoption. Teachers start to see the value of technology, become more efficient at what they do, and even try some new things that the technology makes it easier or more effective. Gradebooks and lesson planning tools are ones that many teachers first see increased benefit from using. Not only do they make grading easier and save time in terms of creating, storing, and sharing lessons, but these tools also have added benefits like securely sharing grades with students, sending out notifications, running reports, and even providing communication opportunities with parents.

  3. Transformation. This is where teachers create activities or entire learning environments that just can’t be done without the technology. I’ve given some examples, but what might be considered transformative is continuing to change. We’ve seen this recently with the widespread emphasis of personalized learning, blended learning, mobile learning, competency-based learning and the impact these trends are having on well-worn (and some would say outdated) educational stalwarts, such as seat-time and Carnegie units.

Continuum of Adoption

Continuum of Adoption

All of this may be interesting, but what does this mean for supporting change? How does this promote technology integration? For me, the golden rule of the continuum is: you have to meet the teacher where s/he is. A teacher at any stage can use technology effectively and promote student learning. If the teacher is at the replication stage, a change agent (often a technology coach) can focus efforts at supporting that teacher as s/he learns to use technology to replicate what they feel comfortable with. When they’re ready to move up the continuum, they will, if given the support they need. Transformation, while fun, can also be challenging. And if you’re not there, don’t expect to get there immediately. Maybe not even in a year. And some teachers never will.

My hope is that all teachers first feel comfortable in the stage they naturally find themselves and occasionally push themselves beyond. Those who may not believe transformation is their goal might benefit from working with someone who is at that stage, because it is possible for all teachers. But it doesn’t have to happen every day or every lesson. The first goal for all teachers is promoting student learning, and change agents can help teachers reach this goal every stage of the continuum.

References

Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45-52.