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Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Moving is a common conceptual metaphor for change. It's particularly useful in fixed mindset environments where "change" conjures images of disrupted routines, uncertain futures, and psychological discomfort. Moving, on the other hand, suggests new horizons, transitions, fresh starts, and better days ahead. While people change their minds all the time, they don't change their beliefs unless they are moved to change them, usually because of a compelling message. Leaders who build enduring greatness in their organizations, the highest level of executive leadership according to Jim Collins, do so by institutionalizing a collective growth mindset. The mastery of the metaphor may help wedge the door open just enough to get that compelling message across. Once beyond the threshold, the movement can begin. Readying the audience is an early rung on what I call the girding ladder, and a key component of implementation science, popular in the healthcare industry, where change is a matter of life and death.

Leaders should not be obsessed with change or changing people. They should be more interested in moving people from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Not many people want to be changed. But who doesn't want to be moved? And, speaking of metaphors, how does that glass below look to you? This optimism quiz question is among those my students will consider in my current leadership course, Human Dimensions of Educational Change. Leaders with a fixed mindset will not be able to move their teams because they cannot move themselves.

How does that glass look to you?

Whether it be in Sacramento, Washington DC, or on the 210 or 5 freeway, we hate gridlock. We thrive on movement. The world's economy depends on it too. Delays of any kind bother us. Think of the radial line throbber on a computer (the term itself is ominous): technological gridlock in action. The infamous spinning wheel is symbolic of the juxtaposition of fast-moving, leading technologies and gritty life. We want to move...but not necessarily if we have change to do it.

As complex as change is, often it’s the simplest things that derail it, such as a turn of a phrase. Leaders often underestimate, or are obstinately stubborn, when it comes to semantics and the power of language. Savvy leaders, in contrast, steer clear of buzzwords and acronyms. Fullan is among the scholars who have debunked the myth that education as an industry does not embrace change, arguing that change has been systematically misguided. Building enduring change requires a level of sophistication that not only distinguishes between the right and wrong drivers, but more importantly recognizes the forces driving change, for better or worse.

For example, when the PLC and PBIS movement gained momentum, at the height of NCLB hysteria, there was a well documented backlash. Researchers and practitioners alike agree that it was largely due to the fact that the terms traveled faster and more aggressively than the concept. Too many schools engaged in superficial activities disguised as PLCs or PBIS, effectively undermining the movement. "This too will pass" became a rallying cry for those who tired of one failed reform effort after another. The equity movement (NCLB's North Star) was underway but failed to define itself in terms that made sense to those of us doing the work. Don't blame teachers. Don't blame administrators. Blame failed federal policy (Read Ravitch reverses course on NCLB) and the global hiccup that the International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Assessment (TIMSS) caused as it shed light on our convergence around the international mean for reading, math, and science literacy. It caused a Sputnik-like ripple in the education community.

Savvy leaders who were working with entrenched teams of people during this period when change was mandated, recognized this fast-moving asteroid hurtling in their direction. They reframed the conversation based on their knowledge and understanding of the distinction between espoused theories and theories in use, as Chris Argyris noted decades earlier with his work on experiential learning. What action science practitioners refer to as reflection in action, leaders move people to explore their own mental models in action and become acutely aware of the lens they view their world through. Systems scientist Peter Senge describes mental models as deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Organizations that learn explore behaviors and beliefs.

In Human Dimensions of Educational Change, we will focus on the effects mental models have on organizational behavior, acknowledging that we all create mental models and we all share them too, shaping the inner workings of an organization. To understand the impact of model models, students will complete a personal change project, an assignment I borrowed from scholar Edgar Schein, who used a similar tool in his graduate management class that was part of the Masters curriculum of the MIT Sloan School. He asked students to pick some personal change goal that he or she wanted to work on for the semester. Here’s my version of the assignment if you're interested in checking it out or trying it for yourself. Part of the exercise includes using my Force Field Analysis tool to identify the forces driving change. Dr. Schein was kind enough to endorse my iteration of his original assignment. He's not only a scholar, but a gentleman too. My role in this assignment is similar to his: provide concepts, principles, and questions that test the reality of each student's change project.

OK. Back to the semantic challenge we face as education leaders to move people. Numerous failed change efforts have taught us that the dearth of attention paid to semantics and the fundamental elements of implementation science is responsible for many of those failures (occurs at an early stage on the implementation spectrum). Applied semantics in the context of leadership is understanding how people construct meaning and how those meanings are shaped by mental models. It's not to be confused with rhetorical style, glamorized in popular leadership culture by the charismatic leader with indomitable will and persuasive charm.

Taking one step back before moving forward: Why change? Among the the unintended consequences of the before-mentioned NCLB was the lack of public confidence in public schools, as evidenced by the emergence of the choice era, which blossomed during NCLB. According to EdSource, significant trends over the last five years show an overall 0.8% decline in student enrollment statewide. While at the same time, charter school enrollment has grown from 544,980 students to 652,933 students. California is now a principal battleground for the charter school movement. Given California's moratorium on new charter schools, the charter movement is shifting to the safe haven of the suburbs. It's also shifting its strategy away from an over-reliance on lobbyists. Borrowing from the District of Choice (DOC) advocate's playbook, the movement is now relying on students, educators, and families to influence lawmakers. California's DOC program allows students to attend schools outside of their home district. It was granted a six-year extension in 2017 when it was set to expire, more than 20 years after it was first approved. It will now last through 2022-23. Both choice and charters drain school districts of limited resources. Districts must compete for students, or at the least retain their own.

The State of California Department of Finance projects a decline from the current 6.2 million students to 5.9 million students over the next ten years. For comparison purposes, in 1970, 1 out of every 3 Californians was under 18 years old. By 2030, only 1 out of every 5 Californians will be under 18 years old. Combine that with potential federal immigration policy and it's not far fetched to expect a significant decline in Proposition 98 funding as overall enrollment declines. The Times They Are a-Changin'.

Whether we want to change or not...things are moving fast as consumers of education shop for schools. The pressure on leaders to move their organizations forward in what has become an education marketplace has never been greater. Nor has the challenge to lead in a milieu that is increasingly suspicious of change and weary from it. Skilled leaders don't distort reality. They create a new reality. They are mental model innovators, a term I once heard being used to describe Steve Jobs, a master at reframing a problem.

Leaders who move people get them to produce results that they couldn't see for themselves. They get people to not only change their minds, but their beliefs too.

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