Improvement of any system or process requires some degree of change for if we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get what we have always gotten. Australian educator Caroline Press said it well, “If you want things to change; change something!!” The question then becomes what, when, where and how do we improve a system and at what level do we begin? I believe transformation of a system has a more powerful systemic effect than reformation. Transformation happens at the individual level of thinking and causes systemic changes over time. Reformation often happens at the governing level. Reform changes do cause systemic change to take place, but are they aimed at the correct target of learning improvement? A case in point is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reform in America. NCLB is a massive federal government effort for reform over the last 10 years. The data on nationwide school improvement with NCLB is inconclusive and debatable. Certainly, it has forced schools to perform better data analysis and it set a target; 100% of all students will be academically proficient by the end of the 2013-14 school year. But the most essential component missing in this reform is the answer to the following question: “By what method will we achieve such gains?”
Why do politicians and people with formal position resort to reform as a method to attempt transformation? Transformation of thinking is difficult; it takes time, persistence, continual coaching and feedback. It is easier to attempt reform by offering a reward for the best, than to persuade the hearts and minds of people in the system to change. Each individual who seeks a better result has to start with the largest system over which they have influence. If you are a teacher, your job is to lead a continual transformation toward greater levels of learning within the classroom. If you are an administrator, your job is to lead a continual transformation toward greater levels of learning within the school or district. Stop thinking about reforming education and start thinking about transforming thinking.
I believe the first step in transforming a system is acknowledging dissatisfaction with the present system. As long as individuals are satisfied with what is currently happening, there is no impetus to improve. Years ago, in the Leander Independent School District in Texas, they started calling me “the disturbance”. After our improvement training sessions, they felt disturbed by the thought that they should be doing better. So what did they start to do? In 1994, Leander started a transformation thinking process called “Getting Better Together, The Leander Way” which has caused a major transformation in thinking over an extended period of time. Below is just one indicator that Leander’s approach has been transformational and is continuing.
“Getting Better Together, The Leander Way” is the consistent message they communicate throughout the district that conveys their method of using data, tools, PDSA, ideas, processes, research and communication to achieve a common aim – improved student learning. Leander’s transformation is even more astonishing when you consider they have grown from approximately 8000 students in 1992 to 27,000 students in 2009. Not only have they had to cope with transforming the thinking of the organization, but they had to do it within the reality of exponential population growth.
Please do not start calling or visiting Leander with the intent of copying the “Getting Better Together, The Leander Way“ program. Thinking you can reform your system by copying someone else’s program is like thinking you are a professional chef because you can successfully copy an original recipe. If what you are doing is not helping learning, stop doing it. If it is helping learning, focus on the improvement processes and share your successes. We learn from our successes as well as our failures. “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George E. Box.
I have helped Leander through the years and continue to support them with training and consulting. However, their successes and failures are all their own. Leander will be quick to tell you they still have problems, but most people who visit say, “I wish we had your problems.” Leander is an example of what Dr. W. Edwards Deming said was the way to achieve quality, a committed group of people working in a consistent manner.
Who are the keys to Leander’s success? The people who are part of the system, internally from the students to teachers to support staff to clerical staff and administrators, as well as those outside the system – consultants and trainers as well as parents, businesses, and government entities. The keys to success are the people who are willing to embrace transformational thinking and put into action the successful processes and plans that were developed as a part of the transformation thinking process.
“The most visible transformation is the staff enthusiasm generated by this philosophy. It has rekindled the spirit of educators frustrated by an antiquated system of education. It has also generated enthusiasm among students as bit by bit, step by step, the on-going transformation shifts attention from teaching to learning and student ownership.”
– Monta Akin, Assistant Superintendent Leander Independent School District Leander, Texas, USA
David P. Langford President, Langford International, Inc.