How can you help the elephant to change? Shape the path

Travel is one of my passions, especially cities. I love being where the people are, negotiating my way around a city, perhaps a in language I’m unfamiliar  with (embarrassing my family in the process) and imagining what it would be like to live there.

When I play this imagination game, life in the city, be it Venice, London or Copenhagen, is so much more glamorous in my mind than it would be in reality. So often when we return, I try to cook what I’ve eaten or proudly place a keepsake that serves as a memory trigger. But it is never quite the same.  That’s because I live in Australia and not Venice, nor London or Copenhagen and Australia’s journey is vastly different.

My work is very interesting and unique. I am privileged to host many passionate educators from around the world who seek to transform learning in their context and decide to come to Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) to see what’s happening here. My role is with SCIL* the school’s research and development centre and I am their point of contact and seek to make their visit as productive as possible. Many are interested in the school’s focus on learning, the place of technology and learning spaces, yet they seem to leave with so much more. But like my travel imagination, the context at NBCS is usually different from their own and what visitors see today is the fruit of a deliberate and strategic process of change that has occurred over the last six or seven years.

Unconventional Furniture


The external and visible elements such as open spaces for learning, somewhat unconventional furniture for a school, mobile-desks-caddies for teachers and students working independently on a Blooms/Gardners learning matrix are not elements that can easily be picked up and replicated in a new setting without the contextual elements being addressed. But taking a few steps back can make these transitions successful – they are part of a greater process, parts in a strategy.

Smart Caddies: For teachers on the move


As I mentioned in the previous post, the approach presented by Chip and Dan Heath** serves as a bite-sized model that supports the process of change. The three parts of the model are:

  1. Direct the Rider – provide crystal clear direction
  2. Motivate the Elephant – engage people’s emotional side
  3. Shape the Path – adjust the environment or situation to make the change inevitable.

Each is critical to the process, but often the neglected part is shaping the environment. There is much discussion on importance of providing direction and bringing people along the way, however, we will achieve greater success is the path that the elephant takes is made clear and obstacles removed or overcome.

The Heath Brothers identified three parts to shaping the path:

–        Tweak the environment

–        Build habits

–        Rally the herd

Each of these has been significant in the journey that the principal, Stephen Harris, has taken over the past few years.  Here’s some examples:

Tweak the environment – introduce furniture for learning spaces that doesn’t look like school furniture and teachers can’t default to rows of desks; no teachers desks in classrooms, ‘Smart Caddies’ give teachers mobility and inter-faculty connections build. They also replicate the mobility of life and work today.

Build habits – Change itself has become a habit, a part of life at NBCS; PD for staff is held  every Monday afternoon and is an integral part of the weekly routine; digitally based systems for communication ensure staff familiarity with using technology.

Rally the herd – Present all-staff PD in a way that is consistent with the values of learning: personalised, engaging, meaningful, valuable and fun. Celebrate achievement regularly, Teaching teams connect as they plan and learn essential habits of collaboration and teamwork that is modelled to the students

This is very consistent with the culture at NBCS. Change is implemented subtly, almost organically. There is much to learn about the process here for any organisation, not just for schools.


Professional development at SCIL



*Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning

** Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: how to change things when change is hard (2010) Random House,

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