Developing Capacity in Making the Case for School Change

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879c8e91 f84d 4800 a58f 22b0ea24155dPeter Gow, Communications and Publications Coordinator, will be guiding AISAP in an enhanced communications plan and in the creation of new publications that will showcase best practices, new ideas, and current issues. A long-time independent school teacher, administrator, and consultant with deep roots in academic program development as well as branding and marketing, Peter will be familiar to many members as a regular contributor to Independent School magazine and an indefatigable blogger for Education Week and EdSocialMedia as well as his own main blog, Not Your Father’s School. Contact Peter at [email protected]

“I did feel just as though I’d been handed a tray of cookies to sell, but I didn’t know what was in them or how they were made.”

The frustrated admission officer had just heard me use this metaphor at the recent Association for Independent School Admissions Professionals (AISAP) Annual Institute for the experience of many independent schools trying to explain their new and innovative practice to various audiences. Other heads nodded.

Schools in 2014 are under enormous pressure to adopt novel approaches to the work they do, particularly in the areas of curriculum and instruction. The pressure comes partly from a market in which forward-thinking practice, particularly in technology, math, and the sciences, is seen by many families as a positive good. Perhaps even more, however, the impetus comes from a parade of education “thought leaders” and consultants whose constant theme seems to be “innovate, or die.”

This kind of pressure puts a premium on action without necessarily providing a deeper context for why a particular practice or approach might benefit the students at a particular school, and it often asks academic leaders to climb an ever-steepening learning curve with only whatever guidance they can find in a few publications, a provocative TED Talk or two, and whatever they can glean from their own Professional Learning Network (PLN) by way of blogs and Tweets.

The next challenge for these leaders is to bring faculties on board with what may appear as sweeping change or at least unfamiliar ideas. Teachers, often convinced that their school’s value proposition lies in the very stability of its methods and learning culture, are often hard to engage with new ideas about how they should be working—as almost any academic administrator who has been designated as an institutional change agent will tell you.

Despite our culture’s fascination with things new and shiny, the academic administrator’s problem is often magnified when it comes to making the case for change—or even explaining its basic nature—to external audiences, and the task faced by advancement offices, whether communications or admissions or development, is harder still.

In my work I’ve found that the key to making the case for change is knowledge, and above all knowledge in the context of the school’s fundamental values and purposes. Schools that make programmatic transitions smoothly have almost always been schools that are able to explain WHAT they are doing, WHY they are doing it, and above all the BENEFITS FOR STUDENTS of the new approach. The more deeply the original change agents—usually the academic administration—understand and can speak with clarity about the nature of the new work and the more quickly and deeply they engage key audiences and bring them to a similar understanding, the more easily the transition to new methods will be both appreciated and completed.

The “what” of new practice is a critical piece. Design thinking is a hot topic right now, for example, but few educators, even at schools where the approach is being widely incorporated, can explain it with clarity and brevity. It is incumbent upon leaders of change to figure out how to describe it—simply to tell what it is—well and accurately. If the leaders behind a new method struggle to explain it, how will anyone in or considering joining a school community understand and value it?

Whether the audience for the “case statement” is internal or external, its centerpiece must be “foundational framing”: embedding the case authentically and clearly in the historical and ongoing, essential and strategic, work of the school. Can the school point to earlier innovations in its approach, or to a strategic vision that sets the stage for new kinds of practice? Is there language in a mission or values statement that cues the new approach as being more student-centered or more about developing skills and habits for, say, lifelong learning or global understanding? Sometimes even the hackneyed and often clichéd language of an aspirational or foundational document can actually provide clarity in the case for change.

The final piece of the case is a clear explanation of why this practice is good for children, good for students. As educators we sometimes forget how important it is to make clear to our families and students why something do is beneficial; “because we’re the experts” isn’t good enough any more, if it ever was. Both academic and advancement leaders need to go out into the field, collecting stories and anecdotes from teachers, students, and even families that build a coherent narrative illustrating how the new practice actually works out as a good thing, a better thing, for the students.

Events like the AISAP Annual Institute can support admissions and other advancement personnel in developing the skills to make the case for change, but the core work must begin in the school by making sure that academic leadership has those same skills. Leaders at the academic dean–director of studies–department chair level may be expert in understanding pedagogy and curriculum and assessment design, but they are not necessarily equally versed in making the case for change, adding to the frustrations of already challenging positions. It may seem strange, but capacity-building training in this essential area for leaders at the middle management level is often hard to come by—which explains some of the frustration of that admission officer tasked with promoting arcane and opaque new work—the mystery cookies—at her school.

For many years I’ve been associated with the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG, which was formed and has grown with its primary mission being to support schools in developing and implementing mission-based, school-created approaches to curriculum and assessment. As the current executive director of the ICG, I see a critical role for our organization (a TABS partner) in helping academic leaders build capacity in learning about, understanding more deeply, and above all developing their abilities to make the case for and lead change. In October, in fact, we’re holding our first annual “Retreat for Academic Leaders” to further develop the agendas and the conversations to move this work forward.

I believe deeply in schools and in their capacity to adapt to new conditions and new challenges. At the heart of my belief, however, is an expectation that schools will undertake the work necessary to adapt thoughtfully, carefully, honestly, and well. Doing something because the competitor is doing it is not enough, nor is doing something poorly or superficially in the cynical belief that customers won’t notice the truth about the emperor’s new clothes. As schools we have deep obligations on many fronts, and we must simply be at our clear and most straightforward best in whatever we do. Our cookies, to go back to that reductive metaphor, will sell much better and frankly be more nourishing when we can proudly proclaim what’s in them and how they are being made.

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