Schools + change: the elephant is definitely in the room

In the Heath & Heath* metaphor for change the biggest thing to shift is the elephant. A very small rider atop a huge hulking elephant can direct it down the path, but the elephant must actually take the steps. The Heath brothers suggest a process ‘Motivate the Elephant’:

–        Find the feeling

–        Shrink the change

–        Grow your people

As I have written previously, the process of change at Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) has been strategic and deliberate in moving toward developing a learning environment that seeks to engage students so they are equipped to tackle the challenges and leverage the opportunities of a changed global environment.

The mission of SCIL (R&D centre located within NBCS) is Lead the Change. When educators visit the school they can see for themselves the outcomes of the forward thinking and vision-led leadership of the principal, Stephen Harris. Yet, just like the figurative ‘elephant in the room’ – the significant change that the school community has undertaken is not always evident at first glance. Our visitors see uniquely designed learning spaces, colourful and unconventional school furniture and students motivated and engaged in their learning, but the tipping point in making the change in practice across the school has been the immense work to changing the mindsets of the school community.

How did the leadership of the school manage to positively impact teachers and effectively bring them on this journey of change?

Find the feeling – At NBCS everyone is a learner and in the C21st School the teachers are learners alongside the students. A culture of learning is just one aspect of the change journey, however, it has been a crucial mindset to establish. Systems and processes in the school reinforce and heighten the significant role of the teacher as experts in learning.

Shrink the change – It is tempting for anyone who visits to seek to radically reinvent their own school overnight, yet this will be unsustainable. Teaching is a complex and demanding role. If teachers are forced to make wholesale changes in a short space of time, then it just won’t stick. As an example of one aspect, NBCS has the ‘open space learning’ model in place. Yet for the critics, this is cyclical, it was tried and then it failed in the ‘70s and then in the 80s – why should 2011 be any different? Why? Because the world is very different, technology is pervasive and young people need schools to step up. The change has been shrunk at NBCS  through embarking on a collegiate and collaborative approach with incremental success, acknowledging and celebrating milestones.

Grow your people – As the school grew in numbers and in its changing approach to learning, teachers were provided ample opportunities to grow. Each Monday afternoon the NBCS Professional Learning Community (PLC) kicks into session. This is a non-negotiable part of the school week for staff. From 3.30 – 5pm a variety of workshops are offered, primarily presented by staff at NBCS. All professional learning must be true to the schools values – meaningful, engaging, personalised and collaborative. Staff at NBCS are given opportunity to develop PLCs for their peers, and SCIL Associates regularly submit conference papers in their field of expertise. It is encouraging to overhear passionate professional conversations between teachers intent on taking responsibility for their own growth.

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


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