Learning Environments Consortium International

Approaches to Change

James W. Keefe and Eugene R. Howard

The leader committed to the development of a learning organization in the school
must become a change agent. School design or redesign is an exercise in change. Traditionally, schools have been resistant to comprehensive redesign efforts because well-defined processes for school improvement and suitable instruments for data collection and management have not been available. That is no longer true. The purpose of this publication is to outline and explain the proven change processes and instruments available to school leaders for systematic and systemic school improvement.

Traditional Approaches to Change — Strengths and Limitations

For the past three decades the prevailing approach to change has been solely diagnostic and prescriptive. The process, which has been perceived as linear, has traditionally consisted of the steps depicted in Figure 3.1.

A Traditional Change Process
Step 1: Needs and (Sometimes) Strengths Assessment/Problem Identification and Definition
Step 2: Priority Setting
Step 3: Action Planning/Problem Solving
Step 4: Implementing, Monitoring, and Modifying the Action Plans
Step 5: Impact Evaluation and Reporting Outcomes

The first step of the process is intended to uncover the current strengths and weaknesses of the organization. This is followed by priority setting, defining which needs, problems, and/or strengths should be immediately addressed. Plans are then developed (Step 3) and implemented (Step 4). The effectiveness of the implementation effort is monitored (process evaluation) and plans modified as experience indicates. The outcomes of the process are then evaluated and reported.

New priorities for organizational improvement are identified, and the improvement cycle begins again.
Such a process can be effective in implementing incremental and piecemeal change. When focused on generally perceived needs or problems, the process can address the concerns of tile school’s staff and the students whose needs are not being adequately met. Needs-generated and problems-generated change can be effective when used as a short-term management strategy. We can and should continue to use these processes for implementing limited change.

There are five reasons, however, why traditional approaches are not likely to result in comprehensive change:

  1. The process is basically negative. It is based on the assumption that an effective way to improve a school is to find out what is wrong and then fix it.
  2. The surveys used to collect the data for defining change are typically limited to criteria derived from the school effectiveness literature. These assessments often reflect how the school we havecan be most effective. The question, “What are the characteristics of the school we need?” may not be adequately addressed.
  3. The “needs and problems” approach tends to deemphasize successful practices or organizational characteristics. Focusing on needs or problems precludes the possibility of building peaks of excellence. (School leaders can address this shortcoming by including in their improvement plans a variety of projects aimed at the organization’s strengths. One key question might be, “What are we doing that is working well and how can we do more of it and do it better?”)
  4. Problems, once solved, tend not to stay solved, especially if their basic causes are not addressed.
  5. Traditional approaches to change do not address the systemic nature of organizations. The usual outcome of non-systemic change is the selection of interventions directed at one or two of the organization’s (systemic) components. This narrow focus results in these components being “out of sync” with the others. When systemic components are “out of sync,” missing, or operating ineffectively, the organization malfunctions. (For example, school leaders might choose to implement a block-of-time schedule–a major modification of a school’s structure–but fail to adequately train teachers in the teaching strategies needed for the new schedule. Modifications needed in the physical setting may not be made. Curriculum integration may be overlooked.)

W. Edwards Deming (1993, p. 53), addresses these shortcomings in defining his concept of “optimization of a system.” He writes:

“Optimization is a process of orchestrating the efforts of all (systemic) components towards the achievement of the stated aim…. Anything less than optimization of the whole system will bring eventual loss to every component in the system.”

Systemic Thinking and Comprehensive Design-Based Change

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990a) describes how the design and production of the DC-3, the world’s first commercially feasible passenger aircraft, was dependent on five new “component technologies”:

  • The variable-pitch propeller
  • The retractable landing gear
  • A type of light-weight molded body construction called “monocque”
  • The radial, air-cooled engine
  • Wing flaps.

All five of these systemic components, according to Senge, were essential to the success of the venture. He cites the failure of an earlier design, the Boeing 247, which was introduced with all the critical components but one. Without wing flaps, the plane was unstable on take-off and landing and the engine had to be downsized. It could not carry an adequate load for suitable distances. The later DC-3 design was successful because it provided for systemic integrity. All essential components were included and each component contributed to the effective performance of the others.
Well-defined systems are essential to successful designs, not only of aircraft, but of many kinds of complex products. Through systems thinking we are now able to design, develop, and manufacture highly sophisticated products with interactive, mutually reinforcing “component technologies.” Two examples are automobiles with their power-generating, transmission, suspension, electrical, lubricating, braking, and control systems, and spacecraft with their sophisticated propulsion, navigational, control, life support, and communications systems.
Recently we have witnessed successful attempts to design and redesign complex business organizations to make them more productive and responsive to human needs. The time has come for us to apply systemic and strategic thinking to the redesign of schools.

Some Definitions

Deming (1993, p. 50) defines a “system” as a “network of interdependent components that work together to accomplish the aim of the system.” All organizations, including schools, can be defined in terms of their interdependent components. Further defining the concept, Deming (1993, p. 51) writes that “A system must have an aim. Without an aim there is no system. The aim must be clear to everyone in the system.”
School aims are defined in mission and vision statements and in statements of desired student outcomes. These are two of the “Basic Components” of a School Design Statement. A “design” is a document that defines all the systems in the desired state of an organization. A School Design Statement consists of:

  • Basic components
  • Systemic components
  • Specifications for each systemic component.

“Specifications” are more detailed descriptions of each systemic component that define the elements essential to the school’s successful operation. Principals and design team members will find information on which to base specifications in three key sources: CASE-IMS surveys and intervention suggestions (see Chapter 5); locally based literature searches, including the recommendations of national commission reports such as NASSP’s Breaking Ranks (see Chapter 6); and the school design team’s observations of current successful practices within the school that the team wishes to retain in the new design.

A Comprehensive Design-Based Change Process

A process for implementing design-based, strategic change is summarized in Figure 3.2. A design-based, systemic change process differs from the traditional process defined above in five important ways:

  1. A new design is developed for the school; after that point (Step F in the change process), change is design-driven rather than needs or problems-driven.
  2. The school’s new design is based not only on an assessment of the organization’s present state, but also on a literature search (environmental scanning) and other analyses. Information from these analyses is used to define specifications for the organization’s design.
  3. A strategic action plan is formulated to ensure the design will be realized.
  4. The new design is implemented in such a way that all modifications are synchronized. All the design components are addressed systematically as the comprehensive change process is implemented. Priorities are set among the specifications (not the design components).
  5. The evaluation process is both formative (“To what extent is the design being implemented’?”) and summative (“To what extent are the anticipated outcome objectives being accomplished’?”)

This process combines the most practical features of strategic thinking and systemic approaches to change management. The steps of this process are more interactive (less sequential) than the traditional process. Awareness activities (Step B) are usually continuous, accompanying each step of the process. Data collection typically continues as a part of task force activity (Step H) to support implementation efforts. Evaluation is ongoing.

The Design Statement — Key to Systemic and Strategic Change

A key component of the change process outlined in Figure 3.2 is the School Design Statement, a set of specifications for a desired school of the future (see Figure 3.3). All components defined in such a statement are interdepedent and must be consistent with one another. The total design must be comprehensive; i.e., all components necessary for the operation of the school must be specified. The Design Statement provides the direction and focus for the school’s systemic change process.

A comprehensive design consists of 11 components. The first 3 components are basic and must be accomplished. largely at the same time, before the 8 system components are defined (Steps E and F in Figure 3.2). All 11 components are essential to a successfully restructuring school. Figure 3.3 identifies the 3 basic components and 8 systemic components that form the structure of a Design Statement. The basic components define the conceptual base for the design, and the systemic components provide the structure for the action plan (Step G in Figure 3.2). Together they constitute a blueprint for the desired school of the future.

Figure 3.3
Basic and Systematic Components for School Design Statements

A: Basic Components
1. Mission & Vision Statements
2. Culture/Climate Statements
3. Student Goals & Outcomes
B. Systematic Components
1. Curricula & Instructional Programs
2. Instructional Strategies
3. Structure & Organization
4. Leadership, Management & Budgeting
5. Staffing & Staff Development
6. Communication & Political Structures
7. School Resources, Physical Plant, & Equipment
8. Evaluation Plan


Text from Redesigning Schools for the New Century: A Systems Approach, Chapter 3, NASSP, Reston Virginia, 1997; used with permission of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. For more information about NASSP services/programs, call 703-860-0200, or visit www.principals.org

LEC Forum

LEC Forum