7 Kinds of Thinking Keeping Your School or District from Transformation

Is your school or district “missing the wave of change” that is propelling many other innovative schools and districts forward? What exactly is it within the DNA and thinking of your educational organization that is causing it to resist efforts to reform, transform, or change? We only need to look to business in recent times to learn what the consequences are for “failing to adapt to the enormous wave of change” that is all around us.

In Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, Ken Robinson writes:

“Organizations that stand still are likely to be swept aside, and corporate history is littered with the wreckage of companies and whole industries, that have been resistant to change. They become stuck in old habits and missed the wave of change that carried more innovative companies forward.”

Many of our schools are “standing still” and stuck in "old habits" and are in danger of being “swept aside.” It is difficult to believe in an era of reform, but there are still educators, policymakers, and politicians who are “stuck in the old habits” of seeing education “as something done to kids,” and who see children’s learning as a “process of adding value.” Those, who hold tight to this conception of education where children are passive participants in learning, will be standing among the “wreckage” of a public education system that stubbornly held on to past era.

Believe or not, I experienced this “wave of change” at an early age. At only seven or eight years old, I experienced firsthand Ken Robinson’s phenomenon of companies “standing still in a wave of change” way back in the 1970s. My father worked for the trucking industry, which at the time was a way to make a good living. Then, deregulation came along, and many of the trucking companies refused to adapt and cope with the new world they faced, and they went under, one by one. My father worked for a series of successive trucking companies, each folding the tent when they could not longer adapt and cope with rapidly changing transportation industry. Instead of adapting to the change, they tried to ride it out, only to ride into nonexistence.

Fast forward to more recent times and we see the same thing happening again and again with businesses. If you glance back four of five years, the names of companies like Circuit City, Blockbuster, and Borders come to mind. Each of these companies stood still in the face of change and it cost them dearly. More recently, news reports speak about the struggles of Best Buy, a major electronics retailer, who is trying to cope with the rapidly changing retail environment, and who seems guilty of the same kinds of thinking these businesses had. Each of these businesses found themselves in a changing environment and made decisions, based on specific and stagnation-generating kinds of thinking. With the exception of Best Buy at this point, that thinking ended in their demise. They could not adapt.

If you examine your school or district closely, you are likely to find this same self-destructive thinking that is causing your educational organization to “stand still in a wave of change.” If it continues, then you could find yourself standing in the wreckage.

What are these kinds of thinking that are clearly obstacles to adaptation and transformation? Over the years, I have come to see them in very simple terms. Here are the top 7 Kinds of Thinking, or what I might call “Resistors to Change.”
  • “We’ve always done it this way thinking.” In public education, I have found this kind of thinking the most common. You can easily run up against this thinking by simply questioning a policy or procedure, or by suggesting a new way of doing something. Immediate replies by the institutional-preservation police are, “You can’t do it that way. We've always done it this way.” Or, more simply, “I like the way we've always done it.” At the heart of our schools and school districts are thousands of these “ways of doing things” that are protected vehemently by others, not because there is anything special about them. These are valued because they are wrongly seen as  not negotiable for change. The best antidote for this kind of thinking? Asking the simple “Why” question. If the answer is, “Because we’ve always done it this way,” then the underlying rationale might be suspect.
  • “Head in the sand thinking.” I can’t help but wonder if this was the kind of thinking Blockbuster was guilty of. They had to see streaming video services coming, especially if they were reading anything about industry trends. But just as deadly as ignoring the “waves of change” can be, so can the same head-in-the-sand habit of getting so caught up in “the doing” that you don’t see the change coming. In other words, sometimes organizations are so busy caught up in doing what they do, that they don’t pause and connect to the world around them. In that environment, it is extremely easy to miss the “wave of change” right in front of you. Schools are sometimes notorious for adhering steadfastly to motions they've always carried out, and with change roiling all around them. Each of these businesses certainly had to be guilty of some of that. They did not notice the change until it was too late. That can happen to schools too. Antidote for this kind of thinking? Simply being informed. Having the latest information goes a long way helping education organizations avoid being blindsided by change. But there must be a willingness and courage to act on that information.
  • “It’s someone or something else’s fault thinking.” Back in the 1970s, many of those trucking companies complained that is was the government’s fault they had to go out of business, after all politicians brought about deregulation. In more recent times, I am sure there were those at Borders who blamed cheap electronic books and Amazon for their demise, and currently I read  where Best Buy is blaming Amazon for their problem of decreasing sales. Schools, school leaders, and policymakers do the very same thing. It’s the teachers’ unions fault. It’s the politicians’ fault. It’s the parents’ fault. In the interest of honesty and confession, I have been guilty of this thinking myself. Still, there’s no productivity in searching for a boogie man on which to place blame. There’s certainly enough blame to go  around anyway. If you spend all your effort and time trying to find someone or something to blame, you are wasting energy and resources that could be used to adapt and meet solidly the “wave of change” that is upon you. The best antidote for this kind of thinking is perhaps to engage in looking for solutions. That way, there’s no energy to expend on blaming.
  • “You have to do it this way because policy says so thinking.” I honestly find this one of the most ridiculous reasons why we defend so much of what we do in education. Educational institutions are notorious for this kind of thinking, and often they do it much more than businesses. Businesses, to exist for any length of time, are most often forced to question what they do, and when they become too entangled in “policy-think” they lose sight of their reason for existence: making money. Then they simply cease to exist. On the other hand, schools do the same kind of thinking too, and they continue to perpetuate it. They get so caught up in “policy-think” they lose sight of their purpose too. This is most evident when decisions are made, clearly not in the best interest of kids. When adhering to a policy is more important than meeting the needs of kids, the school or district has lost sight of its purpose, and it’s reason for existence, and the world will move on without it. Antidote for “policy-think?” Spending some refocusing on why we do what we do, the kids.
  • “I’m right and everyone else is wrong thinking.” In our polarized society right now, there is a great deal of this kind of thinking, and it can have a detrimental effect on an organization facing a “wave of change.” There was a time when being “open-minded” was a virtue, and compromise was not a dirty word. Tolerance ruled the day. Now, our polarized “”I’m right thinking” has bled over into our schools too. Polarized debates on topics such as school vouchers, sex education, prayer in schools, and teachers’ unions only serve to widen the divide between people. If someone questions the effectiveness or usefulness of these measures, they are immediately attacked.We can’t have an honest look at policy change without one side or the other cooking the data, which in educational research is all too easy to do. An immense amount of effort is going into establishing the “I’m right and you’re wrong” view, and the waves of change meanwhile are slamming hard into our educational institutions. There is greater interest in proving the other side wrong, than learning the truth of what really does work. What is an antidote for “polarized thinking?” Realizing that there is nothing sacred about being right in the debate, especially when it’s more important to do what’s right for the kids.
  • “Protect our turf at all costs thinking.” I have often thought, the only people who have a claim to “turf” in public education should be the kids, and that turf is “What’s in their best interests.” When the “waves of change” started battering the trucking industry in the 1970s, I remember well how trucking company owners held strongly to their turf of wanting wage concessions and benefit reductions to preserve the company. Union trucking company workers held equal ground on these same issues of turf, and in the end, both sides lost. Companies closed, and no one had any turf to battle over any more. Fast forward today, and the recent complaints by Best Buy about Amazon seem to be the same kind of turf battle. Best Buy does not appreciate Amazon’s selling electronics and appliances to undercut their prices, so there was talk about Best Buy refusing to sell Amazon’s Kindle readers. The end result of this turf war would not improve Best Buy’s current situation against the “wave of change” that is upon them. There is just too much money to be made in electronics and appliances. Protect the turf at all costs thinking in both these cases results in both sides losing. Amazon loses satisfying customers who want to go purchase an e-reader locally. Best Buy loses that customer who came to their store to purposefully buy an ereader. In education, protect-our-turf-at-all-costs thinking is happening on multiple levels. It is most insidious at the local level, where individuals fight hard to preserve what exists because it is their turf, and they’re not giving it up. Antidote for “turf-protecting thinking is simple. Keep your eyes focused on the real reason why we do what we do, the kids. Recognize that we share a common purpose.
  • “Change for Change’s Sake thinking.” With everyone yelling about the need to reform our education system, this is perhaps one of the most increasingly common forms of thinking that keeps a school or district from moving forward. This kind of thinking is perhaps best illustrated by the argument many make for certain reforms, by simply stating, “Well, we’ve got to do something.” This kind of thinking is responsible for the endless wheel of reform, education often finds itself on. Educators and policymakers institute change because, in their view, change is called for. Never mind whether the change is sound or really addresses the issues. Many people accuse those who speak out against such reforms or proposals as “defending the status quo” or as “advocating for what is.” But “We’ve just got change this” thinking is just as dangerous to an organization as well. When Borders decided to enter the ebook market, a great deal of blood between Barnes and Noble and Amazon had already been spilt. Their decision was late, and more importantly, it was reactionary thinking. Change for change’s sake thinking is reactionary thinking without deliberation. It is deciding to take a course of action, not because it is the best course of action, but because “We’ve got to do something.” I can’t but wonder whether a great deal of our current national ed policy under Race to the Top is this kind of thinking. There is no research to support that having Common Standards, instituting merit pay for teachers, or using value-added measures is going to raise student achievement. In fact, there is some research to the contrary, yet there’s the push to implement reform, and anyone who questions it is said to be guilty of “supporting the status quo.” Change of change’s sake thinking submits to simply taking a course of action, because there’s a perceived obligation to do so. The antidote for the reactionary thinking of this kind is simply pausing and resisting the urge to do something immediately. By pausing, you buy time for level heads to prevail. 
There are certainly many other kinds of thinking that would cause a district or school to miss that “wave of change” that propels other schools and districts to successful innovation. In my experience, the forces within a school or school district employ any and all of these ways of thinking to preserve things just as they are. Let’s just hope those schools and districts don’t end up like Circuit City, Borders, or Blockbuster.

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