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PD and change management

By Derek Wenmoth

professional development

In a previous post on this blog I discussed how professional development (PD) is a key to enabling teachers and schools/kura to cope with the constant of change in our education system. While I stand by what I wrote in terms of the dimensions of an effective PD progamme, I’d suggest that, while PD may build the capacity to cope with change, we need to set our sights a little higher than simply being responsive to external change pressures — to being the architects of change in our schools and system.

If, through our programmes of professional development, we are seeking to achieve more than growth and development in individual teachers, and lift our horizon to thinking of organisational change, we need to consider the relationship between professional development and change management.

The key link here is in the thinking about how to make professional learning engaging, and what motivates teachers to pursue their ‘cycles of inquiry’ etc., to improve their practice. The same (or, at least, similar) thinking needs to be applied to how we then engage these same people in pursuing the change management goals of the school as an organisation.

Some years ago the McKinsey organisation published an article on the Psychology of Change Management, in which they claimed that companies can transform the attitudes and behavior of their employees by applying psychological breakthroughs that explain why people think and act as they do.

They identified four conditions for achieving this that I’ve used here with explanation for the education sector:

Purpose to believe in

Nearly all teachers will alter their mind-sets only if they see the point of the change and agree with it—at least enough to give it a try.

There are two key things to consider here: relevance and meaning.

In general, relevance occurs when people see how something fits into the larger scheme of things. Most major organisational change efforts in schools are based on improving the educational outcomes for students. When teachers can see how the organisational change contributes to this goal, they are more likely to perceive the change as relevant. This big-picture view gives the change purpose, and raises the awareness of the staff as a whole.

Meaning comes from how people see themselves in the organisational change. Is it important to them? Can they find where they personally fit in it? Do they understand the impact on them and what will be asked of them because of it? Will their role, responsibilities, or way of working change because of it? Meaning is personal—and people need to know the personal impact of the organisational change on them to find meaning in it and commit to contribute to its success. This is why it is important that PD programmes target the individual needs of teachers, and that within the cycles of inquiry process, teachers can pursue goals that have meaning for them (or the cohort they identify with).

Reinforcement systems

Most educators understand well the principles of B F Skinner’s theories of conditioning and reinforcement — offering rewards for good choices and punishments for bad ones —  to shape behaviour. When a school’s goals for organisational change are not reinforced, employees are less likely to adopt them consistently. If staff are encouraged to work collaboratively, for instance, but their appraisal is based on meeting individual targets and performance, they are not likely to bother.

Michael Fullan picks this up in his paper titled Choosing The Wrong Drivers for System Reform. One of his ‘wrong drivers’ is focusing on individual quality instead of group quality. He points out that truly collaborative approaches (a ‘right’ driver) cannot be achieved by giving incentives only to the people at the top, or a privileged few in the system.

Fullan also points out that a focus on standards, assessment, rewards, and punishment as core drivers assumes that educators will respond to these prods by putting in the effort to make the necessary changes. It assumes that educators have the capacity, or will be motivated to develop the skills and competencies to get better results. Intrinsic motivation and competency development is what is needed; accountability is not going to drive the change, nor build widespread capacity.

A key thing about reinforcement is that the strategies used cannot remain ‘locked in’ and assumed to work forever. They need to be responsive and changing. Just as Skinner’s rats eventually became bored with corn and began to ignore the electric shocks, structures and processes that initially reinforce or condition the new behaviours we desire in our teachers and schools do not guarantee that they will endure.

Skills required for change

There are two perspectives required when thinking about equipping staff with the skills required for change. The first relates to the specific skills that are going to be required to operate in the changed environment or approach. This may include skills associated with using a new piece of technology, a new approach to curriculum or assessment, or, a new way of working with students. In education we’re familiar with such things being introduced to us in workshops, staff meetings etc., with the onus on us to apply them in our practice in the classroom. Such an emphasis remains important in the change-leadership approach — it is folly to ask teachers to move from teaching on their own in a single-cell classroom to working in large, open environments with three times the number of students alongside two or three colleagues, without any form of preparation in terms of the new skills and knowledge required.

The second perspective should be on helping our teachers develop the skills/competencies that will be important in helping them cope with and manage change into the future. The sorts of skills required here include the ability to think outside of the box, to be reflexive and skilled in personal inquiry, to be collaborative, skilled communicators who are able to move from ideas to action etc.

These skills/competencies can’t easily be ‘taught’, but will develop if the design of the professional learning opportunities used to introduce the first category of skills reflect and reinforce the second.

Consistent role models

Change in an organisation is most challenging when it requires people to change the way they do things. In other words, the change involves behavioural change. The impact of positive reinforcement on behavioural change as described in the previous section is widely known. Perhaps less obvious is the impact of role models, especially peer role models.

There’s common reference in the change management literature to the influence of leaders in organisations. When they visibly and consistently support a change initiative, leaders become highly effective role models for everyone in the organisation. In schools, the principals and senior leaders who '’walk the talk’ by supporting the change both publicly and privately, also have substantial influence on the way staff react to change.

To change behaviour consistently throughout an organisation, it isn’t enough to only ensure that people at the top are modeling the new ways of working; role models at every level must ‘walk the talk.’

 Here we’re talking of the impact of peer role models. This influence is most evident when staff work in teams, and underpins the benefit of collaborative working relationships. The role modeling that is most valuable in these contexts isn’t the modeling of ‘ideal’ behaviours by those who know how something should be done, but the modeling of the characteristics and dispositions that make such people effective in facing and working through change, including communication skills, perseverance, problem solving, and excellent interpersonal skills etc.

The importance of a clearly defined and corporately owned set of organisational values is so important here. The way role models deal with their tasks can vary, but the underlying values informing their behaviour must be consistent.  The most important thing about being a role model is that their words and actions will align with and reflect the values of the school — it’s about modeling the ‘why’ of the organisation, not simply the ‘what’.

Applying this in your context

To help make sense of what I’ve written here, you might find the following questions useful to reflect on as you think about the approach you take to professional learning in your school or centre:

  1. Is everyone clear about the purpose of the change that is being suggested? Can they see the relevance of the change to the goals of the school/centre, and will it have meaning to each of them in the context of their work?
  2. Have you given careful thought to providing the appropriate levels of support and incentives for people to participate? Or, is this just another thing that is being added to the already full lives of the teachers? Are the incentives available to all, or do they benefit a privileged few?
  3. Have you clearly identified the skills and dispositions that staff will require to (a) participate in the change process, and, (b) work effectively in the future state? Are you providing opportunities for staff to develop the skills they need as individuals — or are you using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach?
  4. Have you established a clear set of values in your school that are widely known and regularly referred to? Do these underpin the desired behaviours that are role modeled by school leaders? Are staff working in collaborative teams where they can benefit from the peer modeling that occurs?
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