When I speak to school boards, I talk about leadership and explain that because the world, Wisconsin, and the expectations of public education have changed, we need to lead our school districts in a different way. Today, globalization and technology have combined to speed up the pace of change, changing the nature of our economy and connecting people in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Demographic and economic changes bring new challenges to the state. The focus in public education has shifted from inputs to outputs, and the notion of “all children can learn” has been codified in public policy.
Put all of this together and we see that the challenges we face today are complex. And complex problems require a different leadership strategy. Solving a complex problem is a lot like raising a child. Expertise plays a role, yet the relationship you have with your child matters more. Like every child, the challenges of complex problems are unique, and what works in one situation does not assure success in a similar situation. Finally, outcomes remain uncertain, in spite of our best efforts. Complex challenges require more than technical leadership; they require adaptive leadership. Complex challenges require different leadership strategies, yet leaders tend to address the challenges we face today as if they were technical in nature, and draw on strategies that do not work in adaptive change situations.
When dealing with technical change, expertise rules the day. Problems may be complicated, and require collaboration across disciplines; yet the resolution of the problem is clearly identifiable. For the most part, when we face technical challenges, we focus on improving processes, providing training to improve skills, and doing the right things right. In other words, we know the answer; it is more a matter of implementation. Leaders who can take charge tend to be successful when the problem is technical in nature.
Adaptive changes require more than simply sharpening our processes and skills. Instead, adaptive change challenges our beliefs and ways of thinking; and requires that we do things differently then we have in the past. When leaders fail to recognize adaptive challenges, they tend to interpret staff behavior as resistance, when it is more likely that staff members are experiencing loss. Asking staff to learn new skills or break old habits is difficult, especially for people who have been successful using traditional practices.
For example, many school districts restrict cell phone use in school. Ninety-three percent of people under the age of 30 possess cell phones, meaning most students possess a tool that could be used to access the Internet to enhance their learning. Changing cell phone policies requires the adults in the system to think differently about students and their cell phones. Rather than controlling and limiting cell phone use, staff need to consider the benefits, and develop learning opportunities for students to develop responsible cell phone use—and, need to accept that they have to relinquish some control to students.
Adaptive challenges require that people with the problem are part of the solution. For example, in the cell phone scenario, a school board could change the cell phone policy and practices in the schools could remain unchanged. Unless teachers and administrators understand how they could use cell phone technology to enhance learning, and believe that the change was worth the time and energy to change practices, things would stay the same. In fact, it is likely that such a policy change would result in bigger problems. Teachers may not feel the effort is worth it. They may only imagine the problems that unrestricted student cell phone use would mean for them—ringing phones interrupting instruction; students accessing inappropriate sites or playing video games rather than working on school-related projects. Students would believe (rightly) that they could use their cell phones in school, creating opportunities for conflict with staff that did not support or understand the policy change.
Understanding the importance of including the people with the problem would take the board in a different direction. Rather than simply changing the policy, the board that understands the nature of adaptive change might provide opportunities for the staff to explore cell phone policy changes, include students and staff in the creation of guidelines for classroom use, provide professional development for staff so they could learn new techniques that would incorporate cell phone use.
For more than twenty years, education reform has focused on technical change—creating standards, aligning curriculum to the standards, creating accountability systems to monitor achievement. Yet, in spite of these efforts, little progress has been made. Many of the changes reflected in education reform challenge our beliefs and habits in addition to our technical skills. Today’s leaders do not solve problems for people. Instead, they provide opportunities for people to confront challenges and learn new methods; create a context where staff can safely confront uncertainty in spite of their discomfort, and adjust their values and perspectives to better develop solutions that address the complex challenges facing public education today.
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