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What Does It Mean to Be a “Change Leader” in Education?

January 12, 2013
by: Tony Wagner

Over the past 20 years, I have studied and worked with educators who have aspired to be change leaders in a wide variety of schools in the US and elsewhere. The most effective of these change leaders – whether they are classroom teachers, principals, or systems leaders – share a number of common practices.

First, successful change leaders clearly articulate the need for change to a variety of audiences in ways that are intellectually coherent and emotionally compelling. The ability to do this requires that change leaders immerse themselves into radically different worlds.

The first world that change leaders must understand deeply is the world for which they are preparing their students. Effective change leaders clearly understand and communicate what will be demanded of their graduates – what skills, what habits of mind, and what dispositions. They recognize the rapidly changing world of work, and the accelerating pace of the commoditization of knowledge. They realize that the world no longer cares how much students know, but rather what they can do with what they know.

The second world effective change leaders understand is the world of students. They have studied how students learn and what makes the particular students with whom they work unique – their culture and their community. They also appreciate the importance of students’ intrinsic motivation for learning and achievement. Finally, they seek out and listen carefully to students to better understand their classroom and school experiences.

Highly effective change leaders don’t merely preach these things to their teachers and parents, however. They engage them in adult learning about a changing world and how students learn best. They realize that the only way that change can be sustained is if the adults in the community also deeply understand the need for change, and so these leaders sponsor readings, talks by local experts, and discussions.

I recently worked with Jim Merrill, who was the 2012 superintendent of the year in Virginia, and whose campaign for adult learning culminated in a community wide discussion with more than 1000 participants. At the end of the evening, after hearing presentations and then discussion at small tables, individuals voted for their top priorities in the school district. Having come to better understand the changing world and how students are best motivated, the community voted overwhelmingly for critical thinking and independent learning to be the school district’s most urgent priorities. (For a more complete description of this project, see my September, 2012 article in School Administrator

The best change leaders I know bring their understanding of these two worlds into the classroom every single day. They use these two criteria to continuously assess and improve instruction. They know what good teaching looks like, and they are relentless in their expectations. They understand that their job is, first and foremost, to be an instructional leader and coach.

However, they also know that “isolation is the enemy of improvement,” as a brilliant systems leader Anthony Alvarado often said. While accountability for continuous improvement is critical, Alvarado and his colleagues in New York City understood that teachers needed to work in teams and to have an effective coach in order to transform their lessons. Teachers must be given the working conditions that will enable them to improve and to be successful. They need time to learn and to collaborate. In Finland, which has the highest-performing education system in the world, teachers spend an average of only 600 hours a year in the classroom teaching lessons; in the US, the number is closer to eleven hundred hours.

Finally, the most effective change leaders I know take calculated risks. Historically, education has been a highly risk-averse profession – which is one reason why we have seen so little change through the years. Managers do not take risks. Leaders do. They model the behaviors of learning, collaboration, effective teaching, and risk-taking that they expect of their teachers.

What Does It Mean To Be A Change Leader in Education?
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