Podcast Transcript: Changing the System

Mullen: Welcome to the EXPLORING THE CORE PODCAST, where we delve into the elements that make up our education system and learn more about how that system can improve for the benefit of all students in schools today.

I'm Greg Mullen and in this episode I discuss a particular model for changing a system in a school or organization by focusing on a bottom-up implementation with top-down support.

I'll also be talking to Nikki Roorda out of Iowa, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Johnston Community School District, who speaks to the positive changes being made in her state, in her district, and in her schools.

Thank you for listening, I hope you enjoy the show.


I’d like to start by addressing a big picture idea about MOTIVATION. Motivation fuels the strengths necessary to make important organizational changes. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re likely interested in learning about or are currently involved in transitioning to some form of a progressive model for standards-based or social-emotional learning. So let me say this right off the bat: if your school or district has not yet defined the WHY behind your transition, or if that WHY is being shared as a top-down mandate from high-level administration, it’s highly recommended by many professionals, including those interviewed in this podcast series, that this “why” be brought up immediately within your organization and discussed from the perspective of all stakeholders involved, and defining what’s driving this need to change.

It could be that there are political or regulatory pressures driving this change. Maybe there are financial pressures to collect state or federal funding driving this shift. Perhaps there’s a social or demographic shift that is at the root of your school or organization’s need for a shift in your system.

What I want to highlight in this episode from my perspective as a teacher is the need for transparent and intentional change to systems that involves more than just my own perspective or that of a particular group of administrators. Change can get pretty complicated and at times quite uncomfortable so an organized framework can be very helpful. The framework I’ll be describing in this episode is from 1987 called “The Managing Complex Change Model” by Dr. Mary Lippitt.

Because when it comes to schools adopting a standards-based or social-emotional approach to education, there’s a significant number of mechanisms that will need to be explicitly and implicitly adapted to meet specific needs of a community. This adoption will benefit from a Complex Change Model. What I’ve seen happened in schools in the past is that conversations within a school attempting to make changes begin conflating unique challenges and concerns. The complexity often leaves some to request one vision simply takeover; but I argue that such dismissal of ownership over schools overlooks the importance of a school’s impact on a community. So having a framework for system change can organize conversations and focus concerns and potential solutions.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if it were as simple as purchasing a manual, distributing workbooks at seminars, and guarantee successful implementation of a redesigned system. We must remember that changing a system by its very nature is an uncomfortable process and only from within that system’s community can a community’s needs be addressed and supported. Because every community will have subtle differences that involve subtly different group dynamics and a framework is important for discussing big changes to a system such as adopting Standards-Based Grading or Social-Emotional Learning in a school.

Now as you consider your own community and its needs and you start to get excited for engaging in a system change you may be envisioning, there’s a small but important consideration when all stakeholders congregate to discuss a need for a system change. Perspective. A school’s hierarchy of roles and responsibilities are often not explicitly defined within the context of that school’s typical norms and traditions. What I mean is, when challenges arise from changes to a system, even though a role may be contractually defined by a general set of expectations, boundaries and responsibilities often overlap. Some people like to share their responsibilities with others to help solve problems. I argue that this can inadvertently create confusion or even frustration among different stakeholders as more complex problems are addressed with more creative solutions and instead shared between different stakeholders one problem at a time. At the end of the week, when everybody’s emotionally drained and ready to recharge over the weekend, it’s easy to forget trends in problems that were solved by sharing roles and responsibilities.