This year has begun in an extremely busy fashion for me – as you can tell from the lack of posts! The constant in it all has been thinking about and planning for change – in almost every sphere of work I am involved with.
This week I had the privilege of speaking to the mentors forum of the First Time Principals programme. This group consists of over sixty principals from across the country who have been selected on the basis of their experience and demonstrated skill and expertise to be mentors to the first time principals who participate in the programme – so it was a pretty eclectic and challenging group to speak to.
I was asked to be provocative in what I spoke about, so selected the title "Change or Die" taken from the article by Alan Deutschman in which he tells the story of coronary patients who were told that if they didn't change their lifestyle (after surgery) they'd die – but only 10% did. By studying a range of interventions researchers at John Hopkins University found that besides simply providing information (data) about the need to change, there needs to be a combination of vision, trust and support provided for the patient. When these things were present 72% of patients actually changed their lifestyle.
This lesson has fundamental for where we are at in our education system in NZ at the moment. On the one hand we have growing evidence that our school system is failing to adapt sufficiently to the influences affecting almost every other sector of our society, and on the other, schools/teachers/principals who are continuing the practices of the previous century (and perhaps the one before?), demonstrating the same reluctance to change as the coronary patients in Deutshman's article.
To address this we need to look carefully at the three conditions that were identified in the study that Deutschman writes about – Vision, Trust and Support.
Vision is an essential aspect of leadership. Great leaders are those that have vision, are able to articulate that vision clearly to others, and who engender trust in others to pursue that vision. We're sorely lacking that in our system currently – at every level. Politically our vision is mitigated by fiscal concerns and about our PISA rankings. At the ministry level vision is mitigated by a culture of 'risk aversion' (understandable when you look at the Novapay debarcle) and a focus on an improvement agenda rather than a transformation agenda which is what is really required. Within the profession itself, vision appears to be limited by the focus on the immediate concerns of management rather than leadership – as illustrated in Tom Parson's recently published sabbatical report titled "Principalship: the endangerd species".
These concerns, while perfectly valid and definitely all worthy of scrutiny and attention, are really nothing but band-aids on band-aids unless they are contributing explicitly to a much broader, aspirational vision – and I don't see a lot of that being promolgated at the moment.
One of the problems here is that our system itself (at the school level particuarly) is vision-limiting in its design. At the recent ICOT conference in Wellington, keynote speaker Kerry Spackman identified how influencing peoples beliefs is so important in the process of bringing about change in society – using the example of the power of the media to persuade and influence (for good and bad). He used his 'moral scale' to demonstrate five levels of thinking, which I've interpreted in the diagram below with an education focus:
Spackman postulates that there is an increasing number of people moving 'down' the scale in our society – moving toward a selfish view of the world and of life. I'd suggest that in our current schooling system, the emphasis on the self-managing school as an isolated and inward focused entity means that we have, in effect, a sort of 'glass ceiling', that limits people's conception of vision at the third layer up. Because this is the primary concern of those in school leadership positions, and obviously within their locus of control, discussions about what might be the impact on society as a whole and associated behaviours such as beign prepared to concede areas of 'control' and 'influence' in the current paradigm in order to achieve this don't occur that often in my experience.
We need a new model. A new paradigm. one that is focused on the very top of the pyramid. Where the concerns are about what's good for society as a whole, for the system as a whole, for the longer term benefit of the youngsters who are starting school this year and will be leaving at the end of 2026! We need to be led by a vision of what is required to participate in that society, to respond to the things that are changing us now and likely to change in the future etc. We need to understand that it really is a case of change – or die!