An Uncommon Theory of School Change: Leadership for Reinventing Schools is a book “for educators who believe that schools need to be improved and are hopeful that real change can be achieved. The authors argue that if educators want to create more equitable, socially just, and learner-focused schools, then they need a more robust, transformational theory of school change—an UnCommon Theory.” This important book discusses why the “common” approach to school improvement often fails to yield the impact we desire for all students, and it includes case studies from school leaders about how they went about changing the existing school culture, re-examining assumptions, and leading the entire school community on the type of “deep dive” necessary for transformational learning. Pegasus Springs Education Collective (PSEC) had the opportunity recently to ask co-author of the book Kevin Fahey (KF) some questions about some of the book’s important ideas.
PSEC: More than just “improvement” of schools, the book talks about school reinvention. For people who have not yet read the book, can you explain what the typical or “common theory” of school improvement seems to be—and why it does not always yield the results we need?
KF: The fundamental argument in An Uncommon Theory is that the work of changing, reforming or improving schools is often characterized by a very straightforward, linear way of thinking. We call it the Common Theory. Simply put, a problem is identified (often by looking at test results), a program or initiative is identified to address the problem, some professional development is provided for teachers, the program is implemented, someone holds teachers accountable (sometimes), results are measured (sometimes) and schools are improved (but not fundamentally). Our argument is not that this linear thinking is wrong. In fact, it is very useful for such things as selecting textbooks, tweaking schedules or choosing which math program to purchase. What this thinking does not do is help schools examine their most closely held assumptions and practices, think deeply about the purpose of schools, or take up troubling issues of race or equitable educational practices. It does not help schools reinvent themselves because the Common Theory ignores what happens in real schools. It ignores the competing commitments, long standing ways of doing things, unspoken norms, varied capacity for leadership, and conflicting assumptions that characterize real schools. We argue that if they want to go deeper, then leaders need to dive into the messy risky, waters where the Common Theory no longer is useful. This then, is a book for educators who believe that schools need to be reinvented, that things need to be done very differently.
PSEC: The “uncommon theory” is based on a “deep dive” concept that develops educators’ collective capacity to explore, question, and rethink fundamental assumptions. Can you explain a little more about the “deep dive” and why—although challenging—it is so important?
KF: The Deep Dive is based up the premise that educators are held by their assumptions, by the “downloaded patterns of the past” that the social theorist Otto Scharmer talks about. It is often hard for us to imagine other, new ways of doing things. Because our assumptions are so powerful, in An Uncommon Theory, we argue that we need to learn to “see” them. Moreover, learning to “see” has to be done in a community. The more educators can work together, give each other feedback, share their practice, develop shared norms and values, the more they can “see” hidden assumptions and downloaded patterns, and eventually change them. Without learning to “see” clearly schools are likely to continue to have the same conversations with the same results.
PSEC: Many educators who become school administrators often end up spending a majority of their time “managing” the school. How can administrators ensure that they are truly being a leader and not merely a “manager” who is simply completing tasks, attending to issues, or implementing action steps as directed by a district plan?
KF: This is a difficult and very practical question. In the An Uncommon Theory, we tell the stories of school leaders who have successfully managed the tension between the “urgent” and the “important.” Part of the answer to the question is that none of the school leaders we profiled were able to devote the majority of their time to a Deep Dive. Implementing the Common Theory took up most of their time. This is just the nature of organizational life in schools. However, all our school leaders shared at least two characteristics. First, they all had a passion for the Deep Dive. They were troubled by inequitable practice or hurtful assumptions about students and could not let it go. Second, they did not do this work alone. All of them had partners or a network or coaches who persistently reminded them about the Deep Dive and provided perspective. Our advice is: (1) Stay committed – but know that much of your time will be spent with the Common Theory and (2) don’t do the work alone.
PSEC: The book also addresses the tensions between “espoused values and fundamental assumptions and diving into longstanding competing commitments and unarticulated traditions.” Essentially, it’s the difference between “what we say we do” and “what we actually believe and do.” Can you explain this tension and why in a deep dive exploring it is so important?
KF: This is the central tension that holds schools right where they are. Because schools and districts are often content with mission statements, vision statements, guiding principles and strategic plans (what we say we do”), they never develop the courage or capacity to examine what they “actually believe and do.” How many schools have wonderful mission statements about “high levels of learning for all students” but have healthy percentages of students that do not do well or just go through the motions? More troubling is that many of these students are often children of color or students who speak a different language at home, learn differently or are figuring out their sexual identity. The Common Theory is about “what we say we do” while the Deep Dive challenges educators to examine “what we actually believe and do.”
PSEC: To be successful at this type of leadership, it seems imperative that we not only accept but also embrace the notion that our core work as school leaders is really about adult development and reinventing culture. Can you talk about these two ideas?
KF: If schools are to have the courage and capacity to examine “what we actually believe and do” and not be content with “what we say we do,” then the adults in schools need to be able to think in more complex ways, ask difficult questions, resist easy answers, and be comfortable with disagreement. Helping educators develop these capacities requires more than adult learning, more than learning a new initiative or implementing a new program. This difficult work requires adult development. We base our argument on the work of Bob Kegan who argues that while every educator understands that children develop as they mature, educators often forget that adults can also continue to grow and develop. Helping educators become more complex thinkers is a core leadership competency for leaders committed to a Deep Dive.
Our argument about culture is based on the work of Edgar Schein. We often think of school culture as connected to how we get along with each other. We talk of positive and negative school cultures. Schein argues that culture is much deeper. It is connected to our fundamental assumptions and “what we actually believe and do.” Culture is hard to see because we are immersed in it, and because it is taught to us as we join the organization. Culture is often a powerful ally of the Common theory.
PSEC: An organizational culture is a powerful force within a school, but the book explains that the culture is actually learned and taught by the group to new members. And therefore, adjusting or “changing the culture of a school—while difficult—is a learning and teaching task.” How do we best go about teaching a new culture—and why does the “common” theory usually have so little impact on this process?
KF: The challenge for leaders is that although culture is taught and learned, it is not learned in the same way that a new computer app is learned. It cannot be implemented directly the way a new science program or bus schedule might be. The main engine for teaching culture is what leaders do – not what they say. How leaders allocate resources, what they ask of teachers, how they structure faculty meetings, and how they use their time are powerful influences on school culture. How educators work together, disclose their practice, reflect on their work, and build shared norms and values are important levers that leaders can use to influence culture. However, influencing a school’s culture is long-term work requiring persistence and passion.
PSEC: The book explains as well that the “uncommon” approach is definitely not “business as usual.” Often this can be very challenging, even scary work—especially for new leaders? What are some of the obstacles and/or anxieties that the leader and organization might face in this process?
KF: “Business as usual” is a powerful ally of the Common Theory and challenging the Common Theory is risky – very risky. In our book, we use Joe McDonald’s idea of Action Space to help understand these risks. McDonald, in a very thorough study of the failure of large scale school reform efforts, argues that successful reform only happens when three elements line up: (1) resources – there are enough resources to actually support the change, (2) political will – there is political support for the change and (3) professional capacity – educators have the professional capacity to undertake the change. If any of these elements is missing, then the leader needs to attend to building professional capacity, or political will, or securing resources before going much further. Schools need to be reinvented but school leaders should be smart about managing the obstacles and risks.
PSEC: If we want to try to avoid some of these pitfalls, how can leaders best approach the “uncommon theory” process in a way that’s both affirming and collaborative—and also builds the capacity of their team in a positive way?
KF: All the leaders in our study understood that reinventing schools is long-term work. The work does not and cannot happen overnight. These leaders were successful because they were able to communicate that the school community was doing important work – the reinvention of schools – and that this work would be done persistently, thoughtfully, and together. Each of the leaders was also transparent about their own learning. They clearly signaled that there was no program or initiative that the school could purchase that would let a new future for the school emerge. The leaders knew that a new future had to emerge, but the precise nature of the future would only be discovered as the entire community worked together.
PSEC: The book addresses such an important concept, which is too rarely talked about—and yet so fundamental to successful educational leadership. How did your passion for this topic develop?
KF: In my case the answer is simple. Early in my teaching career –late 80’s – I met a bunch of folks who thought that schools did not have to be the way they were. They thought schools could be different, more engaging places that served each and every student well. Many of these folks – Bob McCarthy, Ted Sizer, Gene Thompson Grove, Paula Evans and many more – were associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools. That schools could be different was an idea that I was easily and eagerly drawn to. It is an idea that has informed my professional life.
PSEC: What final advice do you have for school leaders who truly want to have a positive impact while in their roles?
KF: My students frequently ask me this question. My answer is always the same, “Don’t do it alone.” The work of reinventing schools is too hard, too risky, too complicated but so necessary that no one can do it alone. I tell my students to find allies, build networks, share their ideas, learn from each other, get a coach, join a support group or find a mentor, but “Don’t do it alone.”
Kevin Fahey, professor emeritus at Salem State University, works with school leaders to use critical friendship, facilitative leadership, and equitable practice to lead student, adult, and organizational learning. Angela Breidenstein is a professor of education at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair at Salem University, where he coordinates programs in educational leadership. Francis Hensley was a founding member and director of the School Reform Initiative.