Sunday / May 19

The Three Tipping Points for School Change

Change is daunting. Even the idea of making a bold change in your school makes many of us freeze in fearful anticipation that “what I have been doing is not good enough, and I am going to be forced out of what I know and love.”  But the process of changing our schools does not have to be a big, hairy monster. It actually can start with some very small, easy steps that lead to big, powerful, gratifying destinations.

As I describe in my new book, THRIVE: How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution, there is an enormous body of knowledge around how organizations effectively change. But schools are not Microsoft or General Motors, so we have to translate the tools of change into the very real, specific life and language of education.

Why do some schools change and others do not?  Why do some schools change quickly, while others take decades?  Having visited and worked with more than 200 schools and districts in the last seven years, I am convinced it is not a function of demographics, school type, geography, or socio-economics. The key, I have found, is that some school communities create the conditions where change can thrive, while others, facing the exact same challenges and obstacles to change, do not.

Since the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2006), we understand that people and organizations reach a moment when progressing along an arc of change becomes vastly more likely than reversing course.  In schools, I have found that tipping points can be both subtle and fragile, but if we can identify those points and can create the conditions for them to arise, school stakeholders can overcome the default fear that changing the direction of a school is like changing the course of an aircraft carrier.

In Thrive, I walk through some of the big, effective tools of organizational change and how they work in schools, but here I want to highlight one simple tool that any school community can create and leverage in just a few minutes. I have found that getting school stakeholders to adopt just three mindsets creates the conditions in which change has a real chance to succeed:

The Three Tipping Points for School Change

  • The Desire to Change: “We want something different from what we have.” By asking stakeholders to use a single word or phrase to describe what they really wish their school delivered, we can quickly understand the aspirations of the community. And then, we can compare those aspirations with what actually takes place every day. I have done this hundreds of times, and there is always a significant gap between the two.  I then merely pose a simple question to the community: “Are you willing to do what is needed to achieve that vision, or not? Are you going to become, to the extent that you can control, the best version of yourselves, or are you willing to settle for less?”  I find that the large majority, at this point, want to move forward, which is the first element of passing the tipping point.
  • A Dedication to Challenge and Taking Risks: “We ask our students to get outside of their comfort zones and take risks.” We know that people and organizations can’t change without taking some risks. Schools have always been places where failure, by both students and adults, has had a larger downside than upside. With that prevailing attitude, schools will never change in a significant way. So, I simply ask the adults to reflect on how they lead their own students to learn. I ask how many have read and try to embody the tenets of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset (almost all of us, it seems!). And then I remind the adults that their students look to them as role models; that if they will allow themselves to be vulnerable, to visibly take some risks in their own professional work, and share that vulnerability with their colleagues and students, the school will develop a culture that is welcoming, not fearful, of change or risks.
  • A Strengths-Based Approach: “We can’t control everything, but we are going to totally own what we can control.” All accredited schools are subject to some standards and regulations beyond their control. Schools are increasingly subject to market forces that have increased the competitive landscape, and to shifting demographic, political, and economic pressures that are beyond the control of school stakeholders. So be it.  I urge school communities to surface those constraints, recognize them for what they are, and then stick them into a “parking lot” and move on to everything else.  The fact is that there are many hundreds of schools around the country and the world that are subject to the same forces, that find ways to transform anyway.  They stop wringing their hands over what they can’t control, and make a bold decision to fully grab ownership of everything else.

Once school stakeholders adopt these three simple statements, they are much more likely to move past the tipping point of change, shifting from fear of the unknown to excitement about the possibilities that real change holds. I have also found that school teams can adopt all of these, in principle, after just a few minutes or hours of collaborative work.  It is then the role of leadership to continue to provide the nutrients and conditions that ensure that the tipping point of dynamic transformation becomes irreversible.

Written by

Grant Lichtman is an internationally recognized thought leader in the drive to transform K-12 education. Based on two decades of work as a senior administrator, teacher, and trustee in K-12 education, he speaks, writes, and works with school and community teams to build capacity and comfort with innovation in response to a rapidly changing world. He shares his numerous articles, speeches, and resources at, and is the author of four books: Thrive: How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution; Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education; #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, and The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School.

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