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.
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.