Giving Change Legs with Project Zero

As I have been reflecting throughout my week at Project Zero here at Harvard, we started to have the internal “yeah, but…” dialogue. We here in attendance are all on board – we are the early adopter crowd that had to convince someone to get here and that our time here would be worthwhile. But what would be the next steps once we got back home to our schools? David Perkins had a few insights.

He started by calling it the “5 Year Effect”, which gives us a scope about how much time we should really think about these ideas taking root. In other words, don’t expect things to change at your institution overnight. In fact, that is a bad plan in the first place.

Perkins cited this as the “installation” model, which is where a new pedagogical system is rolled out and installed at a school. This is done through some trainings, brochures, posters – whatever gets the message out that things are changing. After doing so, the new system is supposed to just work. The problem is, this assumes that teachers are there simply to cover material and that their efficacy can be heightened with a magic bullet of sorts – the installation of a new technique or strategy.

As we have been reviewing, PZ is more about establishing a culture of thinking within your practice, and to do that you have to change the occasional behaviors of students to dispositions. This will take time in your own classroom, let alone across the curriculum in our schools.

Perkins proposed what he called the “ecological” model, which is more complex and nuanced. He started by identifying the 4 major components that function at an educational institution: the framework, its leadership, the community, and the institution itself.

Framework

They are not created equal. Is the framework being implemented compatible with your school’s culture and personnel? Its mission statement? Is it fair? Is it adaptable? Is the framework unreasonable or reasonable – can it be made one’s own?

One of the great problems with frameworks is multiplicity – there are too many frameworks overlapping and confusing everyone. They use different terminology or speak different languages. Where is the focus? These all become obstacles for initiation.

Perkins suggests the Thinking for Understanding and Making Thinking Visible frameworks as two that could complement one another. In other words, institutions need to consider their mission statements and visions in order to find a framework that fits – and stick to it.

Leadership

There are three basic forms of leadership – ones that are very supportive, ones that are resistant, and ones that are “generous” leaders. All three have pros and cons but the third type seem to be the most destructive although they appear to be the most benevolent.

Generous leaders are very good at trying new things but this approach is not good for the long term. They offer no direction and as a result, create chaos with too many things going on. They are trying to be everything to everyone. This approach is great on the individual level, but not so great for the community as a whole.

Perkins proposed a two-pronged approach to leadership containing a political visionary in the first position with a practical visionary subordinate to it. Political visionaries see the forest for the trees; is responsible for budgets, support, scheduling, and other logistical needs for the institution. They should be conspicuous and supportive. The practical visionaries arrange for meetings, provides training, get members of the organization involved. Their viewpoint is based on being on the ground and in the trenches. A bicameral approach will not only help prioritize things, but will also fight against any systemic erosion that may occur.

Community

Getting buy-in is extremely difficult and based on the previous two factors (framework and leadership) the communal aspect gets a little more complicated. If we follow the installation model, the belief is simply that if you tell people they’ll do it! There is also the false belief that everyone will become inspired by this sack of ideas you are bringing back and will follow along! In other words, there is no systematic way to propagate a new system and this ultimately leads to disaster.

The best approach is a systematic expansion where there is gradual addition over time. There must be a careful approach here as well, because it could result in social polarization – the “haves” and “have nots”. The encouraged group will be seen negatively by those who are not adopting new methods and this will polarize into the “in” versus “out” groups. This builds antagonism and again, you have failure.

Perkins suggests that we need to aim for “fuzzy” edges, blending boundaries over time. This can be achieved by making meetings non compulsory, creating shades of introduction and adoption – again, those fuzzy edges. This also has a lot to do with the natural way people approach new ideas – you have early adopters, mainstreaming, and the late adopters. Think of a bell curve and you get the idea – or any new gadget that gets released to the public.

Institution

This is a factor that should not be of an immediate concern as the 5 Year Effect takes shape, this will slowly build into the institution. They key is to build this change into the “bones” of your institution so that there is a long-term effect, not a quick flame but a slow, enduring burn.

What would this look like? Changes could get placed into the school mission. There could be a position within the institution that gets carved out. This new pedagogical vision gets written into descriptive materials; it could be shared with the school’s board; new heads have to maintain it and be responsible for its upkeep. This doesn’t have to be forever, however. There will be a need to revisit and evolve certain aspects but change will be mindful, purposeful, intentional and not accidental.

These four factors must be considered when a change is being implemented. There is a need, of course, to establish a culture when institutionalizing such changes but the culture will be the result of such a thoughtful implementation. The ecological model is more nuanced and complicated, but offers a more sustainable approach with more reach and buy-in from everyone in the community.