Reflection on the “Why” vs. the “How” of School Change

Will Richardson, Modern Learners, facilitates a discussion at Pathways High.

On November 12th, Pathways High was proud and excited to host one of a series of worldwide Modern Learners Labs facilitated by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon. The entire Pathways High staff, some board members and co-founders were among the 55 participants from public district and charter schools across Wisconsin and Minnesota. The theme and discussions of the day-long lab centered on the “Why” vs. the “How” of school change. Not surprisingly, the lab’s kick-off illustrated the dominance of “How” questions on the mind’s of every participant.  Will and Bruce were convincing in their arguments that school teams must first achieve a shared understanding of the “Why” behind school change and common definitions for words like learning and agency. They asserted that absent this foundation, change efforts will neither be effective nor lasting. Will and Bruce also delivered the important message that building this foundation takes significant time and stated it’s easier to start a new school than change an existing school or district. While I would never describe our journey to create Pathways High as easy, I readily agree with their statement.

The Modern Learners Lab reminded me that although many of the professional development sessions at Pathways High have been focused on creating a shared vision and common language, we still need to invest significantly more time and energy into this work.  Furthermore, this effort needs to extend to the broader Pathways High community of students, families, board members and the external community with whom we interact. As co-founders and pioneering team members of a school based on student agency and inquiry, we cannot take for granted that other early adopters -- students, families, staff -- have a shared understanding of the “Why” for school change.

This realization brought to mind a quote I recently read by Guy Kawasaki, entrepreneur, author, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist: “Want to change the world? Upset the status quo? This takes more than run-of-the-mill relationships. You need to make people dream the same dream that you do.” Kawaski’s emphasis on the power of relationships to drive adoption of change is a key take-away for me.  Relationships of all types -- student/family to staff, student to student, student to mentors etc. -- are a cornerstone of Pathways High and will be a key component of our students’ long-term success. However, as our Director, Kim Taylor, often points out, building relationships take time because you cannot will or mandate them.  Likewise, you cannot will or mandate others to believe your “Why,” to share your dream. You can model, champion, and evangelize your dream. You can inspire, support, and encourage others to share your dream. Relationship building is an essential investment as it engenders people’s ownership of the vision and enables us to move beyond the “Why” and make progress on the “How”.

While debriefing the Modern Learners Lab with Angelique Byrne, Pathways High Art, Design and Makerspace teacher and expert at shifting schools to inquiry and agency, she provided the following insight: teachers need time to mourn change.  Given my understanding of effective change management practices and the Kubler-Ross Change Curve* describing the stages of grief associated with change, Angelique’s statement resonated with me. So often in education and other industries, the focus of change initiatives is on professional development and training for the new way of doing things.  There’s a sense of urgency to get the “How” implemented and show results. While the new way may be highly valuable and improve outcomes, there is often actual loss and perceived loss that needs to be appreciated and acknowledged by those involved in the change effort and this takes time.

​Angelique saw the need for her high school students to think critically and become process-driven, not just execute tasks or memorize facts. To accomplish this goal, she had to take time to guide students through the design thinking process which meant spending less time on some art skills. Angelique commented, “For the first several years of teaching at KM Perform, I mourned great art and the ability to focus on my content area.” She attributes her success in making the shift to inquiry and agency to her team’s focus on the “Why.”  The school community’s commitment to the vision helped her navigate the inevitable setbacks with implementing the “How.” Furthermore, the relationships she’d built over time with school community members led to a shared purpose that energized and propelled the team to achieve improved outcomes for students. Angelique’s eyes lit up when she shared with me, “So many of my students come back after graduation and tell me how much better prepared they are for college, jobs and life than their peers because of the critical thinking and process skills they learned in my class.”

The bottom line: Invest time in relationship building and the tireless pursuit of the “Why” and the “How” will follow, slowly but surely.

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Pathways High
3022 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53208
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