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September 1999

Floating on a
Sea of Change

Two Conferences Address Change
Issues in Education

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By Rick Chambers

"There are really only three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who say, ‘What happened?’"

Many educators in the past decade have been overwhelmed by the changes that have swirled through education. For decades, the system as a whole had been so firmly entrenched in tradition and traditional practices that the real necessity for teachers to change was limited.

Fads came and went. Administrators, principals or department heads with new plans or directions were usually, in the whole scheme of things, short-lived. Innovations were mandated or initiated at upper levels but the trickle-down effect was minimal.

Teachers continued to close the doors to their classrooms to do what they had always done. Until quite recently, the consequences for ignoring change have been few.

As Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) have pointed out in What’s Worth Fighting For Out There?, teachers no longer have the luxury or freedom to ignore change. The changes are not going away.

The "out there," as Fullan and Hargreaves say, is now "in here."

Government policy-makers have imposed their ideas on the system in unprecedented ways. Parents are better informed and more active in their children’s education. Education is rarely out of the spotlight, and parents, reporters and policy-makers are asking teachers and administrators tough questions about what they do, and why they do it that way.

All of this, of course, has led to much teacher anxiety and stress, which in turn has caused many to think about early retirement or career changes, while others have become demoralized, angry or cynical. In fact, as Fullan has said, given the way that changes have been implemented in Ontario, many teachers feel they have earned the right to be cynical.

Otto Neurath, a 20th-century philosopher and scientist, envisioned scientists as "sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom... They must make use of some drifting timber of the old structure. . . but they cannot put the ship in dock to start from scratch. During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves."

As a metaphor for the change that education is experiencing, Neurath’s is apt. The pace of change is accelerating and there is rarely time to step back or stop altogether to take stock of where we are or what we should do next. We have to adjust on the fly while keeping the system afloat.

Two conferences this past spring addressed change forces from a school community’s perspective, and from a system’s perspective. "Breaking Through Change Barriers," a two-day workshop with Michael Fullan and Carol Rolheiser, dean and associate dean respectively at OISE/UT, presented examples of change from their research and direct involvement with school change experiences and shared the reactions of the participating school communities, principals and teachers.

"Partners in Facilitating Whole System Change," a four-day symposium for educational leaders and Bank of Montreal change facilitators was held at the Bank of Montreal’s Institute For Learning in north Toronto. The event was sponsored by The Learning Partnership, a consortium of business, culture, government, and education partners, together with the Staff Development Council of Ontario and the Bank of Montreal. Suzanne Bailey of the Bailey Alliance in California co-ordinated the four days.

Interestingly, the conference at OISE/UT attracted a largely American audience of teachers, principals and administrators to sit at the feet of two of Ontario’s best known educational researchers and practitioners. The Learning Partnership and Bank of Montreal symposium included a mostly Ontario audience of consultants and superintendents to glean what they could from an American expert in change processes.

Even though the audiences were different, Fullan, Rolheiser and Bailey addressed many of the same issues about change that perplex teachers and administrators.

Michael Fullan said that schools must become learning organizations that can deal with the overload, fragmentation, incoherence and confusion of unrelenting change. Behaviour, practices and skills are central to change. People will often change their behaviours before they change their beliefs; in other words, people are willing to go through the motions of change without actually believing that the change will work. Belief comes later through seeing the improvements wrought by the change.

Suzanne Bailey emphasized that traditional staff development focused on skills, activities and behaviours, when in fact, many of the reform changes today require a shift in beliefs and values. This kind of shift, she said, takes an intervention such as dialogue, stories of best practices and interaction with diverse stakeholders.

Chris Hurst, a superintendent from the Durham Catholic District School Board and participant in the symposium, had a different view than Fullan’s.

He said that belief is the first step to finding solutions and that it is crucial to involve the stakeholders in a dialogue to establish the beliefs before attempting solutions or implementing changes.

In the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says to his young daughter, Scout, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." To effect change, Fullan and Rolheiser said that you need to have empathy, and establish relationships. It is essential to build relationships with people you don’t know, or possibly don’t even like.

They recommended that proponents of change avoid associating only with like-minded innovators. Such behaviour has a tendency to create cliques and frustrate change. Instead, resisters-to-change should be invited to participate in the process, and that as long as the original focus isn’t compromised, their ideas be incorporated wherever possible. Persistence, patience and "walking around in their skin" are highly recommended.

In the same vein, Suzanne Bailey suggested shifting across multiple points of view. As each school board group at the Institute For Learning began to identify the problem that it would address at the symposium, the Bank of Montreal facilitators were to help the groups view their issue from different perspectives. After listening to the problem, they probed to find out from whose vantage point the problem wasbeing described.

In other words, whose skin were the board representatives walking around in as they outlined the issue? The team from the York Region District School Board was examining the issue of inclusion for special needs students, a direction that the board had decided must be implemented.

How to do it was the question for the York representatives. One of the great benefits of the encounter, according to Diane Finley, a superintendent with the board, was having people from outside of education prod their team to go beyond what the team originally thought were the limits of the issue. At first, the pushing and prodding created some defensiveness, but eventually, the larger picture emerged to clarify the direction that the team should take.

"Breaking Through Change Barriers" and "Facilitating Whole System Change" encouraged the participants to find balance in their work. Michael Fullan talked about the importance of each of us taking stock of our own emotional intelligence to help us better understand those with whom we work: being aware of ourselves, our ability to manage moods, to motivate ourselves and others, and to hone our skills at empathizing and working effectively with people.

Fullan and Bailey both urged participants in their separate conferences to use what Bailey called "helicopter perspective," keeping an eye on the big picture.

Fullan cautioned against becoming a "Christmas-tree organization," one that feels that it has to hang every ornament that somebody hands you so that eventually the innovations hide the character within.

On a similar note, Bailey urged participants to learn to discriminate between "noise" and "signal." Noise is cacophonous, but a signal is rhythmic. Learning to filter the difference helps to make change manageable.

In the end, Suzanne Bailey’s emphasis was pragmatic and process-oriented, searching for common ground rather than consensus. Her visual dialogue charts and icons encouraged participants to challenge their assumptions and "helicopter" into new perspectives.

Michael Fullan and Carol Rolheiser traced the increasingly familiar ground of the Change Forces and What’s Worth Fighting For series of publications in an engaging and stimulating format. If, as the Greek proverb says, "There is nothing permanent except change," both sessions left participants better prepared to challenge change barriers and to effect whole system change.

For more information about Suzanne Bailey’s program, visit Michael Fullan’s books Change Forces and Change Forces, the Sequel are available from Irwin Publishing in Toronto at 1-800-263-7824; the What’s Worth Fighting For series is available from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Teachers at (416) 962-3836 or 1-888-838-3836.