Applying Incremental and Fundamental Change to Actual Cases (Part 3)

In working with over a thousand teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members in California, Minnesota, Washington, New York, and Virginia I have asked them to tell me where they stand on the kinds of change they seek in schools. I asked each person to pick a spot along the continuum of incremental to fundamental change. Almost two-thirds chose the fundamental side of the continuum (see Part 2, April 6, 2010).

But they challenged me that choosing a spot on the continuum was too crude. They knew that districts and schools were organizations that fitfully and slowly solved problems. They wanted to combine incremental and fundamental with different ways of achieving these changes. In short, they recognized that strategies also mattered.

To accommodate their wishes I combined types of change and different implementation strategies into one 2 X 2 matrix. I offered them a choice of strategies to implement the changes they desired: Make the changes in small steps or make the changes in one fell swoop or grand moves.

________________SMALL STEPS_____________________

i                                                                                                                                       f

n                                                                                                                                     u

c                                   A                                                  B                                           n

r                                                                                                                                      d

e__________________________________________________a

m                                                                                                                                    m

e                                                                                                                                      e

n                                   C                                                  D                                           n

t                                                                                                                                        t

a                                                                                                                                      a

l                                                                                                                                       l

____________________GRAND MOVES_____________________

To illustrate these choices, consider a kindergarten teacher—call her Janice–who put herself in the A quadrant (and where in the quadrant she would place her name—in the middle or close to B, C, or D indicated where her blend of inclinations rested) was an incrementalist. She defined a problem as her five year-olds lacking experiences with new technology. She introduced computers in her kindergarten by having one machine installed this year and another next year thereby having a computer center just like her centers for blocks, art, literacy, and science.

Barbara, a high school principal, placed herself in the C quadrant. In January, she had decided to introduce a block schedule of 3 daily 90-minute periods in September because she believed it would make teaching and learning more effective than the current 7 periods of 48-minutes. She concentrated only on schedule changes maintaining existing departments and avoided questioning teachers about what they would do in the 90-minute block. Within six weeks she had mobilized a faculty group to support the change, solved the logistical problems teachers identified, found the appropriate software to make the changes and got the parent school-site committee to endorse it. She found money for half of the staff to spend 2 weeks during the summer planning activities in each subject for the 90-minute block.

If A and C are incrementalist quadrants, B and D belong to those who seek fundamental changes in their classroom, school, or district but at different paces. Lillian, a veteran elementary school principal in a largely Latino barrio, confidently wrote her name in the B quadrant. She framed the problem as a rapidly growing majority of Latino students segregated from the rest of society. She wanted to create a dual immersion school (Spanish and English) where language skills and culture of her families and students could educate non-Latino children while Latino children could learn from others unlike themselves. She was passionate about this innovation but knew that it would take at least 3 years to get approved by the school board and enroll students. She laid out all of the steps that she would have to follow each year and listed the problems that she could anticipate.

Science teacher Sondra dashed her name into quadrant D with a flourish. She had found her customary way of teaching biology and chemistry inadequate for the culturally diverse students she faced each year. She believed in students discovering scientific concepts and working in teams on projects yet she was still tied to lecture, using the textbook with occasional lab periods. She wanted to make dramatic changes in her teaching. She located 10 laptops, a handful of biology software programs nicely integrated with key units that she would teach, and found a young biology teacher in another school who agreed to help her learn the new software. Over the summer, Sondra reorganized the traditional biology course. In September, with the help of a student whiz with machines and software, Sondra put half of the class to work on computers while she concentrated on the half-dozen students who needed extra help from her. In the past, these students fell behind quickly and eventually failed.

Which quadrant would you choose?

Wherever practitioners chose to put their names, it was clear that change, solving problems, and managing dilemmas were thoroughly entangled. Invariably, a planned change was a solution to a problem or a compromise to a dilemma. Also, the change itself, as it was implemented, would generate other problems and dilemmas. The deeply entangled process of identifying problems, figuring up practical solutions, managing dilemmas, and making changes is perpetual in schools and classrooms.

2 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school reform policies

2 responses to “Applying Incremental and Fundamental Change to Actual Cases (Part 3)

  1. In a highly restrictive environment, any tiny move can be seen as big because we are focusing on conflict rather than cooperation. These tiny moves may have no cumulative effect because they are not mutually reinforcing.

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