As personalized learning becomes a more commonly accepted and implemented innovation, managing the profound change of high quality personalized learning is absolutely essential to maintaining momentum, embedding the change, and having it last through inevitable personnel changes.
But, unless the change is structured, supported, and guided, it will not amount to much, particularly in organizations that can be resistant to change, such as school districts. In other words, change — particularly significantly innovative change — needs to be effectively managed.
Some of the nation’s most successful leaders at implementing personalized learning models district-wide in diverse situations and locations, like Superintendents Ken Eastwood in Middletown, NY and Dena Cushenberry in Warren Township, IN, Assistant Superintendent Cindy Ambrose in Loudoun County, VA, and Principal Amy Creeden, also of Middletown, NY, well understand and actively implement these principles of change management.
Managing change is about preparing all those who can influence or are impacted by a change to be engaged and ready for the initiative, to understand how it will affect them and to know how they will be supported in the changing environment in order to succeed in improving and sustaining performance.
Superintendents and other leaders can be the catalysts for change, as well as the chief change managers. They need to help everyone, but especially teachers, work as part of a system; but it takes leaders to address the ‘functions’ and ‘dysfunctions’ in the system that need to be enhanced or removed so the organization can realize its goals.
Borrowing from Peter Senge, pioneer of the “Learning Organization” concept, and John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, a leader should view the change process as taking time and requiring a series of steps that cannot be skipped without risking failure, including:
- Developing a shared vision that creates change on multiple levels: Schools with significant, lasting innovations have come out of multiple groups working together to implement an easily understood and remembered vision that includes values that are central to the change.
- Creating urgency: Start a long range plan/goal with the strategic urgency/crisis and strategically build in transition to sustainability.
- Helping employees work as part of a system: Take away the fragmented, “one teacher behind a closed door” way of working and create an environment in which teams understand the whole system and in which innovations can occur and stick.
- Empowering people at all levels to feel they have the ability to make a difference.
- Establishing a safe environment for innovation and change: Find and support principals who will guide, support, and create space for innovative teachers to try and fail (fast).
- Removing obstacles: Leaders must constantly take action to address “reasonable problems” that keep participants from engaging.
- Providing time for change to take hold: Building a shared vision isn’t about writing a vision statement. Over time, the change transforms people’s beliefs, views, skills, capabilities, and actions.
- Building on the change: Too often, organizations declare victory too early — as soon as they see early evidence of clear performance improvements — killing the momentum for all the change needed. Change needs to become part of the culture first, or the transformations that have been introduced will fade away.
- Anchoring the changes in the organization’s culture: The change must become part of the core processes and values in and throughout an organization and must continue to maintain leaders’ support. Staff and leadership must communicate how the changes have improved the organization and must consistently demonstrate the new approach.
Even in following these steps, change is a difficult process, and often results in what some have called an “implementation dip.” As described by Michael Fullan, an implementation dip is “a dip in performance and confidence as one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and new understandings. Leaders who understand the implementation dip know that people are experiencing two kinds of problems when they are in the dip — the social /psychological fear of change and the lack of technical know how or skills to make the change work.”
Over time, with effective management, especially the proper support for those undergoing the change, improvement and then mastery can be attained. In this way, the implementation dip can be overcome, and performance will improve to a level higher than what it was previously. For example, through deliberate, structured, and thoughtful implementation of blended learning to personalize instruction for all students in the district, Superintendent Eastwood and Principal Creeden ensured Middletown teachers were — and continue to be — provided the professional development, support, and resources necessary to meet the needs of every student and accelerate achievement.
The leaders mentioned at the start — Eastwood, Cushenberry, Ambrose, Creeden — are the first to acknowledge that they have much work still to do. They celebrate the initial success they have had, but are clearly not satisfied with the results, and have a drive to share their experiences with others.
They are all mentoring aspiring transformational personalized learning superintendents and district leaders through the Lexington Education Leadership Award Fellowship because of their thoughtful perspective on how to best personalize instruction through blended learning by focusing on teacher pedagogy first. They show how achieving this goal requires an actionable plan, strong leadership, empowered teaching, and partners that specialize in achieving remarkable learning gains with a wide range of students.
In the end, the success of a major structural innovation like personalized learning is the product of a well thought-out and expertly managed process in which many changes — small and large — are implemented and assimilated into the everyday structure and operations of a district and its schools.