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Affecting Change in our Schools

Affecting Change in our Schools

Educational Pathways - Issue #4

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Now that the school year is well underway, many school governing bodies and administrators are turning their attention to necessary improvement and if need be, change. If the past is any indicator, soon parents will get into the act and call for reform of one kind or another, whether in an academic program or the restructure of the school itself. This is not something new, in fact for as long as I can remember there have been calls for educational reform. Every few years a new body of research shows how children are lacking in one area or another and there are calls from the ivory towers for "educational reform".

Change evolves when the administrators, educators and parent body work cooperatively, taking small indefinable, and incremental steps with a very specific goal oriented approach to success.

For those old enough to remember, the call during the late 60's and 70's was for 'open' education. The stifling environment in the classroom with all its limitations was "demonstrated" to negatively impact student development. In order to maximize the potential and achievement of our children we needed to free them from the bonds of walled classrooms, narrow assignments, specific skills building, and 'unreasonable demands'. If we guided them properly, the theory went, and presented opportunities for growth children would learn from their experiences in a myriad of ways. As a school principal in Hartford, CT during those years I was instrumental in building a magnificent school facility with moveable partitions instead of walls and wide open learning areas.

Ultimately this grand experiment in educational reform failed, and a decade later in Hartford, walls were constructed and traditional classrooms returned. This story repeated itself throughout the country. Why? Was the idea so faulty or were the processes employed to actually affect change the problem?

 Researchers have divided change processes into two basic categories. The first is slow, incremental, gradual and evolving, the second is dramatic and sometimes revolutionary. Each of these demands a different approach and the processes necessary to succeed each case, are completely different.

To affect gradual change we identify a problem and establish long term and short term objectives to remedy it. We set up specific measurable steps which will effect the necessary change. To be successful, the promoters of the change need to involve all the stake holders and orchestrate their cooperative efforts, one step at a time. The leadership needs to constantly monitor the progress and make the necessary adjustments in consultation with all the stake holders.

Dramatic change demands a different way of thinking. It necessitates reeducation of those who will affect the change and their total dedication to the cause. This kind of change can not be undertaken incrementally over a long period or only in part. It calls for single mindedness of purpose throughout the whole process. Ultimately unless all the stake-holders dramatically change the way they look at things and act accordingly, the effort will peter out.

I have seen many educational innovators propose what appeared to be really great ideas but they ultimately failed to set up the structure to assure effective implementation. I am willing to wager that the same could be said for many of the sweeping changes which did not catch on. The literature says that's what happened to the 'open education' movement. So, if you are contemplating change in your school I'd like to share these lines with you.

Let me say at the outset that I make these comments at this time, as a cautionary word from a voice with some experience. While we may identify areas within a school which could benefit from dramatic change, experience has shown that schools do best when change is gradual and incremental. That is not to say that we can remedy a problem with a half hearted attempt or if only some of the stake holders go along. Change evolves when the administrators, educators and parent body work cooperatively, taking small indefintifiable, and incremental steps with a very specific goal oriented approach to success.

Here are a few words of unsolicited advice.

  1. Change is most likely to succeed when it percolates from the bottom rather that when it filters from the top down. Boards shouldn't legislate to the classroom, and administrators shouldn't try to impose teaching methods or even curriculum, by fiat. When teachers buy into an idea and take ownership of it, they work their knuckles raw to make it work.

  2. Effective change means identifying each step which needs to be undertaken and their order. Trying to do too many things at once or hurrying the process along by skipping a step may result in failure of the project. Change one thing at a time. Undertaking too many things at once may result in chaos.

  3. Every worthwhile project needs a leader who will make it "his baby". He will need to meet with all those who are working with him regularly, they will know exactly who is doing what and by when it will be completed. Sharing information, so that everyone knows where things stand promotes cooperation.

  4. Even after all the steps leading to change have been taken and the change is fully in effect, it's not over. Like Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over 'till it's over, and even then it ain't over". People are creatures of habit and they naturally gravitate back to all familiar ways. Any change has to be monitored and adjustments have to be made until it becomes habitual. In addition, it is seldom possible to foresee very eventuality, which is why it is essential to keep monitoring every step and adjusting thing as problems present them selves.

No school can afford to ignore the need to progress or to evolve with the times. I've seen too many good institutions stagnate because they were reluctant to undertake change. Smart educational leaders, professional and lay, will chart a course to reflect the future needs of the community they serve and undertake whatever change will lead in that direction. My word of caution is that it has to be done right if it's to come out right.

Rabbi Nochum Kaplan serves as the Director of the Merkos Office of Education.
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Discussion (1)
January 11, 2008
Communication
Rabbi Kaplan
this weekend I am conducting a retreat on communication for 25 school directors.
Thank you for the wonderful articles, of which I will pass out..
Good Shabbos
Renee
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