Monday / April 22

When Faced with Complexity and Uncertainty in Your School, Choose One Thing to Do and Do It Well

Innovation and transformation have always been part of education. Changing lives and making a difference are part of our work. We want things to be different, better, improved for our learners and society. However, innovation and transformation are often the ‘icing on the cake’ activities that we turn our minds to when we’ve done the basics. And up until now they’ve been a choice.

The global pandemic is an innovator and a transformer. The pandemic has pushed us to make change, transform our practice, relate to each other in new ways, and think differently about what it means to learn and how learning happens. For many, this has been painful, frightening, and exhausting. As leaders under these conditions, we struggle to maintain our schools’ equilibrium and continue serving our learners. At our workplace, the common refrain has been ‘this is an emergency, not an opportunity’. We meant that this was a time for surviving rather than for making changes. Tempting as it was to advance some of our long-term agendas around digital learning, we felt the pandemic should not be used as a context for requiring teachers to change or create beyond providing essential learning services. However, as time has passed, we have begun to accept that uncertainty is the new normal. And in fact, uncertainty was always present, but we could avoid it before. Now we can see our task for what it really is: a hugely complex, high-stakes enterprise, characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability. As school leaders, how can we respond?

First, we need a way to think about the situation. In our work we have found the distinction between complicated (where there are lots of moving parts, but you can separate them out and work on them piece by piece) and complex (where everything is interdependent and impacts are unpredictable) to be helpful. At times the pandemic has tipped organizations further, from complexity into chaos. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework helps here: when you are in a complex situation you look for patterns and then act; when you are in chaos you act first and then look for effects. In chaos it is not possible to move forward until some order is restored. So our first step is to determine whether our school is in a place of chaos or a complex ‘pandemic normal’ within which we can see patterns emerging and begin to heal our school system.

Second, as leaders we need to provide some certainty and some hope. To find our footing again we return to the center of our work:  the  wellbeing and learning of our students. Alongside this we need to consider the wellbeing and learning of our staff. By centering these learners, we can begin to build back from emergency mode to learning and growing as a school. How? When we look at our learners we probably see overwhelming needs: for security, for safety, for catching up, for connection. Where do we start?

When we are faced with multiple issues we often seek to deal with them all at once, through multiple initiatives, or we look for one total “silver bullet” fix that will solve them all. Counter-intuitively we have found that when faced with a huge array of demands in a complex system, the best thing to do is to pick one thing, and do it well. Take a breath, look at the learners, choose one thing that you can see needs the attention of your staff, and begin to do that as well as you can.

We’ll explain why.

Doing one thing well will impact your school by:

  • bringing people together and making them feel purposeful and ‘back on track’
  • providing some certainty and focus, lifting people’s thoughts from their muddle and confusion
  • positively impacting other areas of school life in unexpected ways

Purpose and focus are central to effective leadership in schools, especially when uncertainty and overwhelm prevail. In our work we use the metaphor of a tree to explain ways to facilitate professional learning. One branch of that tree is ‘purpose and focus’, and we suggest four leadership actions that build purpose and focus in schools.

‘Clarifying purpose’ is one such action that can help you think about how to move forward within the context of your school or district. Engaging with this resource is a deliberate act of facilitation that invites us to become ‘keepers of the purpose’ – to name and share our purpose as frequently as we can, helping those who are lost in busy-ness to remain connected to the reasons behind our work and our commitment to centering learners. In the pandemic context, we are suggesting that you sharpen your purpose and focus and use this clarity to help heal and restore your school.

Download ‘Clarifying Purpose’

We have written about adaptive expertise, the kind of expertise that is needed when complexity is high and situations demand tailored rather than formulaic solutions. If there was ever a time for adaptive expertise, it is now. When people think about adaptive expertise they often think about ‘in the moment’ adaptation and flexibility, about improvising from a knowledge base,  actively generating multiple solutions, and choosing amongst them. But adaptive expertise contains another, critically important, strand: Standing back, taking time and thinking evaluatively. It is these elements of adaptive expertise that we need in times of rapid change and uncertainty. Resist the temptation to zig and zag from one problem and solution to another, or to respond instantly in crisis mode. Stand back, take time to look at the learners’ strengths and needs, and choose one thing to do, and do it well. Let that be enough. It will be more than you think.

Written by

Dr. Deidre Le Fevreis a Senior Lecturer and Head of Graduate Programs in Educational Leadership at the University of Auckland. She began her career as an elementary school teacher in New Zealand and the U.K before completing her PhD (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and moving into research and teaching at Washington State University. On return to New Zealand she has lead large-scale research projects investigating effective leadership and professional learning practices for educational change and improvement. Her research publications focus on practices that support leaders and facilitators improve their interpersonal effectiveness and solve complex problems. She brings knowledge and skills in understanding organizational change, the development of professional capability and effective leadership. She has published Leading Powerful Professional Learning with Corwin.

Dr. Helen Timperley is Professor Emeritus of Education at The University of Auckland. Her extensive research experience has focused on how to promote professional and leadership learning in schools in ways that make a difference to outcomes for those student learners who are currently underserved by the system. She has numerous research articles in both these areas published in international journals, has spoken at a range of invited seminars and undertaken consultancies in Europe, Canada and Australia. She has written six books on her specialty research areas with many translated into a range of languages. Most of her published and consultancy work has focused on school and system change through professional learning, professional conversations with impact and evaluative thinking in educational innovation.

Dr. Kaye Twyford is an experienced school leader and teacher and more recently, researcher. She is a lecturer at the University of Auckland. She also works as a consultant supporting Communities of Learning to build collaborative practice to raise student outcomes. Kaye completed her PhD in Education (2016) investigating teachers’ engagement in professional learning through a risk lens focused on uncertainty and vulnerability. Her work identifies the importance of reframing teacher resistance as perceptions of risk and highlights implications for mitigating risks in change. She brings knowledge and skills in project management, leading change and collaborative inquiry.

Dr. Fiona Ell is an Associate Professor and Head of Teacher Education at the University of Auckland. She has a background in elementary teaching and remains a registered teacher. Fiona’s research centers on mathematics education and teacher professional learning, both before certification and afterwards. She has worked in Australia and New Zealand on schooling improvement projects, helping schools use the Spiral of Inquiry to improve the learning and wellbeing of their students. Fiona is interested in how teachers learn about the impact of their practice from considering the responses of their learners, especially when they work with marginalized communities.

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