Pathways to Inclusive Education’s mission is creating and sustaining inclusive cultures in dynamic learning organizations. Schools who desire to create, continue developing, or sustain an inclusive culture find themselves immersed in complex change. Often, the current need manifests itself in a problem of practice in classrooms or as a gap in a structure or process within the program which is impeding the school’s potential to impact student learning. What we know about complex organizations is that the ripples which are felt in one part of the system often originate elsewhere. In this post, We will share one analogy for shifting beliefs, programming, and practices in schools and then over time connect this thinking to these book titles and topics:
The Three Levels of an Organization
A well-used but still helpful analogy in which to think about complex change is one of elevation. It is the 30,000 ft, 15,000 ft, and ground level thinking which supports us in paying attention to strategic alignment, programmatic clarity, and fidelity of practice. These intertwine together to create cohesion and clarity that captures “the way we do things around here” in the life of a school. Because schools are constantly in motion, they must solve problems and manage unsolvable tensions at all three elevations simultaneously. Often times, outside expertise can disturb the system and provide guidance in a way that cannot always be done internally given the many different demands school leaders face each day.
At 30,000 feet, organizations are thinking strategically. This is where the concept which represents the complex change (The What) come together with the inspiration for it (The Why). It strikes at the identity of a school. Sometimes, The Why drives the change as a new or evolved identity emerges through strategic planning, accreditation, changing student demographics, or economic pressures. At other times, The What comes from below; it emerges from the status quo as schools realize new opportunities within their current student population. Discovering resources and barriers present system-wide supports schools in moving from their existing state towards their desired state. At this elevation, attention is not only focused on the school’s identity but also the beliefs of individuals as well.
A school’s perception of its identity and an individual’s perceptions of their professional identity (which may or may not be in alignment) manifest itself in classrooms each day. A lasting change in individual skill set comes only after changing mindset. Neither of these can really be shifted until someone’s heart-set, or beliefs about the change, shift as well. For all of us, emotion drives cognition. Advances in neuroscience support our understanding that certain stimuli can initiate powerful feelings of fear. The amygdala relies on the cerebral cortex to evaluate information as threatening or benign and the bi-directionality in the nervous system suggests that emotion and cognition are completely intertwined. Separating them is not practical or useful (Myers, et al, 2014). Supporting people in shifting those beliefs is delicate; helping them discover dissatisfaction with their own practice is one way to do that and I will be exploring the how behind that conceptual change in an upcoming piece. As leadership teams face transformational culture shifts, they must anticipate barriers and either remove those or plan around them. Patrick Lencioni suggests that people need to interact with a big idea as many as 7 times. Establishing and communicating relevance is key as some people struggle with feelings that are often associated with change. Designing processes which support people and groups in building a common clarity about The What and The Why empower them as the school develops The How.
Programming which supports beliefs and values of teachers comes in the form of systems, structures, and other mental models at 15,000 feet. Once The Why is clarified, existing systems can be projected against it as part of the desired state and/or perhaps new systems be created. Once clarified, these mental models or frameworks support people in their understanding of how they should put The What and The Why into practice at the ground level.
Some of these instructional models are very specific and others represent frameworks. Readers and Writers Workshop is quite tight in implementation, while content standards like the Common Core, NGSS or C3 provide teachers a structure to work within. Another framework that Pathways to Inclusive Education is collaborating with schools in developing is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. So at 15,000 feet, the 20/60/20 lesson trajectory of Readers and Writers Workshop, the 3 Dimensionality of NGSS or the 4 Dimensions within the College, Career, and Civic Life aspects of the C3 standards provide teachers guidance as they create powerful learning opportunities for their students.
The academic (Response to Intervention) and behavior (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) aspects of the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework is a good example because it requires systems and structures both in and outside of the classroom. Tier 1 calls for high-quality core instruction for all students. The framework here might be Universal Design for Learning which is a unit and lesson planning mindset which recognizes learner variability and removes barriers from the curriculum for students. In Tiers 2 and 3 of MTSS, structures like the referral process for students of concern and the scheduling of intervention blocks are just a couple of examples of systems that need to be developed, understood, and used to impact student learning. Having clarity around these models helps teachers and other faculty understand how to navigate the system; it supports the connection between The What and The Why to The How of the practice at the classroom level.
On the ground, when we see teachers actively supporting the culture change it is because they understand the importance of The Why as a part of not only the school’s identity shift but theirs as well, Systems and structures are being developed at 15,ooo feet which are highly connected to the new way of doing things. This clarity of beliefs and coherence of practice creates a climate where people feel challenged and supported as a community of learners; together they are working to better understand how to use the mental models, systems, and structures in support of their classroom practice.
Regardless of the analogy, it seems that any leadership team preparing to embark on a culture-shifting endeavor benefit when they identify a model which guides their organization through complex change. When a model is not used we often hear community members talk about feeling confused, anxious, or frustrated due to false starts and this results in a momentum-killing resistance (Ambrose, 1987). A leadership team which dedicates time to learn together, identify an approach and plan for the change both honors the group and organization by lessening the need for a major recalibration midstream.
We would welcome your ideas for other books to explore and also your thoughts in general. Please feel free to make those in the comments section below. Hopefully, our learning will support yours as well.
What motivates and reinforces you as a lifelong learner? When we consider our students’ motivation we often get lost in lengthy philosophical debates about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. We talk about students getting too much reinforcement and about reinforcement in the classroom not working. When I think about the role reinforcement plays in my personal motivation in daily life, it’s easier for me to broaden my beliefs about application in the classroom.
Consider your experience at a gym, for example. Historically, finding motivation to work out has been most challenging for me. Let’s face it, going to the gym can make us uncomfortable and activates our insecurities. Even so, I keep going back. The gym has been intentional about increasing reinforcement opportunities because they know working out is hard. Reinforcement is present there around every corner. Sometimes it is hearing “ good job “ from the trainer. Sometimes it’s knowing my heart rate was in “the zone” for a large amount of time, sometimes it’s lifting a heavier weight than I did last week, sometimes it’s running faster or burning more calories than the person next to me, sometimes it’s the craft coffee that I will drink when I am finished. The truth is that any of these things can reinforce me on a given day. While my motivation and preference vary from day to day (and frankly moment to moment), the trainers provide ongoing and varied reinforcement continuously. They have “dialed in” reinforcement by giving challenges, special offerings, prizes, praise, and live data about my health statistics. All of these are reinforcement.
Just like my experience at the gym, reinforcement is necessary, planned and should be frequent and dynamic in the classroom. A learner is not either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. They are both and what reinforces each of them varies from moment to moment. Reinforcement is not one static system or a token economy. It is systematic and intentional. It should be programmed. What opportunities for attention, praise, competition, tangible rewards, choice, and independence do you provide as reinforcement for students, understanding that learner variability includes motivation? What lessons can we take from coaches and personal trainers related to motivation and reinforcement? We would love to hear your ideas.
Years ago, a friend told me that he managed to make it through high school without ever reading an entire book. After graduating from college he eventually pursued his passion, becoming a successful entrepreneur and an active member of his community. In our recent discussions of politics within the United States, he’s commented more than once about just how crucial education is to the well-being of a high-functioning democracy. It relies completely on the informed participation of its’ electorate; an informed electorate becomes so mostly because of the education a country provides to it citizens. Unfortunately, it seems that democracy has been pummeled globally in recent years. If Nationalism is too strong a word, then at least it feels like countries are contracting in an attempt to isolate themselves politically, socially and economically from a world they feel threatened by. Students sometimes react in a similar way, feeling hesitant to participate in classrooms. Schools and democracies are the best versions of themselves when the individual is fostered by the potential within themselves and the environment. Both places thrive when the emerging understanding of its participants supports an appreciation of diversity; diversity of not only ideas but people as well. Resisting the urge to withdraw, instead, they spread their arms wide. Welcoming the unfamiliar is an important act that recognizes diversity as a resource. Taking an inclusive stance helps the world become a better place.
If a well-educated population is a guardian of democracy and schools serve as a place where all students have a right to become “motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, and goal-directed learners” (CAST, 2018) then schools must continue to become more inclusive. If our education system is a mirror of democracy then, “inclusive schooling is making a commitment to provide each student in the community with the inalienable right to belong and not be excluded.” (Falvey, Givner, Villa, and Thousand, 2016). Over time, some international schools have crafted identities such as “an elite school for elite learners” with little room for those outside of high academic achievement and “typical” behaviors. Now we are beginning to see international school communities asking themselves tough questions about why one sibling in a family may be admitted while the other is not. What these schools are realizing is that the sort of change needed to become more inclusive lives in the heart-set, mindset, and skill-set of the entire community (Bane, 2018). Preparing for that transformation is an example of complex change; strategic thinking is crucial in the design and implementation of such a culture shift.
For many people, the desire of a school to become more inclusive raises questions and concerns that are often emotional in nature. Brain research supports the idea that when people are feeling threatened by a new idea, they are unable to access areas like the prefrontal cortex and it is hard for them to engage in higher-order thinking. This is true for all of us, regardless of age. Think about the last time you were stuck on something because of the emotions you were feeling. How hard was it for you to move into a place where you could really hear what the other person was saying? You were in your “lizard brain” and perhaps the level of stress in the conversation was keeping you in “fight or flight” mode. Maybe after a few minutes, you were able to move towards another place, or perhaps not. Because of that, we also know that people most often do not change their practice before changing their beliefs. Engaging in complex culture-shifting change, like becoming more inclusive, relies on an ever-evolving plan which supports the transformation of beliefs and values, the mental models used organizationally to guide the choices both individuals and teams make each day (behaviors) and the evolution of the environment in which it all takes place (Dilts, 2014). Attending to the details at each of these levels over time supports the shift of a school’s identity and with it, a new understanding of “how things are done around here.”
So what do you believe about the inherent value of all learners and the diversity they bring to your community? Thinking about “the way things are done” at your school, what resources exist? Where are the barriers? If, as Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman state in The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups, leadership is a function and not a role, what might you do next to support your school, students and community in becoming more inclusive? If schools are indeed a reflection of democracy, you will not only be a change agent for inclusive education in your community but also be an advocate for the ideals of democracy as well. I think the world needs more of that right now.
Kim, Jason Kelly and Paula can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org