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Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools

reviewed by Michael Parr - October 04, 2006

coverTitle: Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools
Author(s): Tony Wagner, Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Richard W. Lemons, Jude Garnier, Deborah Helsing, Annie Howell, and Harriette Thurber Rasmussen
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787977551 , Pages: 296, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a Practical Guide to Transforming our Schools, Change Leadership provides the reader with stimulating and relevant exercises both for concept development and practical application for those positioned in leadership roles. Being developed from the practical experiences of leaders, Change Leadership is a result of five years of interdisciplinary team work from the Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. The CLG, with the financial support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, sought to develop and disseminate practical knowledge that was to be of immediate use to school leaders working at achieving system-wide improvement.

The founders of the Change Leadership Group, the authors of the book Change Leadership, begin with the recognition that our economy has transitioned from one in which most members earned their living with skilled hands, to one in which all employees need to be intellectually skilled as well if they hope to make more than minimum wage. They note that the realities of todays economy demand not only a new set of skills for a few, but that new skills sets be acquired by all students hoping to secure meaningful and gainful employment in the years to come. Those that do not develop such skills, or do not graduate from school and possess key competencies needed by workers in todays new economy, are effectively being sentenced to a lifetime of marginal employment and second-class citizenship according to the projections of the authors. To prevent this, the authors contend that the educational enterprise itself must undergo significant transformation in order to rise to the challenges in appropriately educating students for the 21st century. This book, Change Leadership, guides educational leaders in their quest for individual and system transformation of this nature.

The authors suggest that educators have before us a type of challenge for which the necessary knowledge to solve the problem does not yet exist. Acknowledging that the present day factory model of educating and sorting students does not meet societys needs any longer, we are faced with the challenge of not knowing what to replace it with or how to implement the changes on the scale required. This necessitates the development of new and novel solutions rather than simply an application and retrofitting of existing measures such as accountability reforms and the like. This challenge requires adaptive solutions; solutions that will in and of themselves transform the very systems in which they are being applied, in such a fashion that the system will be something quite different from when the change process was first initiated. Peter Senge (1994) points out that such a transformation of organizations to meet adaptive challenges, on such a scale as required, calls for knowledge-generating, rather than merely knowledge-using organizations. Formation of such learning organizations as Senge refers to them, necessitates that they as individuals, and as organizations, may have to change in order to lead with the necessary organizational changes.

This book is about such change. It is a workbook of sorts containing concepts, tools, and exercises outlining and demonstrating how individuals can transform the system through changes they themselves are called upon to make. It further challenges readers to review many of the fundamental assumptions and behaviors we hold about the nature of school, the nature of learning, and the nature of leading itself, as a precursor to setting the stage for professional growth and development.

This book challenges educators to move beyond getting along, calls upon leaders in the educational system to be creative noncompliers when appropriate, and asks others to develop a leadership practice community wherein leaders commit to helping one another solve problems of practice related to the districts teaching and learning challenges. To do this, through adaptive change, calls for a reinvention that will necessitate leaders who look both inward and outward, challenging others to do the same within their learning communities, working on two very different but related kinds of transformationthat is their own, as well as that of their schools or districts.

In exploring this adaptive change, the Change Leadership Group has been working with a diverse cross-section of U.S. school and district leaders since 2000 to describe successful leadership of transformational improvement processes. Change Leadership quite aptly refers to the development of leadership capacities for transforming schools; in essence, a process of capacity building that in turn may set the stage for successful leadership of transformational improvement processes in schools and districts. These capacities are developed throughout the book by means of a variety of interactive Learning Labs that are designed to walk individuals and teams through novel experiences that will individually and collectively develop ways and means to set and accomplish their identified improvement goals. Employing the metaphor of a fitness center, the authors suggest that the learning labs are like school improvement fitness centers in that they offer a series of machines (tools for development) through which one can develop capacities (fitness) over time. Combining the conceptual with the practical, readers are invited throughout the book to take the practical concepts presented and think about them by doing and then in their own setting, to do by thinking of the concepts that they are developing through the learning labs.

Recognizing that the challenge before directors, superintendents, and school leaders is to run the system we have while leading the creation of the system we need (p. xiii), the authors employ the metaphor of rebuilding an airplane, while you are flying it, as a fitting analogy to change leadership. The goal of the change process, and the goal of the book, is to help school leaders and school teams better understand and develop the capacities needed to succeed at their second job of rebuilding the school system while it operates.

To bring about this rebuilding of the system, the authors offer what they suggest is a new systems change framework for education and a rather comprehensive set of tools for leaders. Asserting that this book is not a cookbook, the authors present the concepts and challenges that facilitate reflective practice as a framework of pointed exercises and questions that educators should ask themselves about their work. The authors suggest that to bring about system improvement, there is a necessary progression that leaders and systems will transverse; that is, preparing for change by exploring and answering the question why change; building the system capacity for improvement through the inclusion of others; and thirdly, most importantly, improving instruction. As the authors point out, the heart of the issue is teaching for learning, and this must remain the focus with the ultimate goal of improving instruction. Maintaining this as the sense of purpose, educational leaders will have the momentum of engagement and improvement required to bring about the degree and magnitude of change to usher in a new educational enterprise in whatever form this will take.

Although reading this book on your own and applying what it has to offer to your own professional practice would undoubtedly be beneficial, the authors assert that educational partners need each other and must work together in fundamentally new ways in order to maximize opportunities for transformative change. A central idea that runs throughout the book is that leadership teams may need to reorganize the way in which they operate in order to better reflect the features of successful professional learning communities. Such communities are those that are focused not only on their own learning, but on the transformation of the larger system, the school, or the district, through the formation of communities of practice bound together by shared expertise and shared passion for a joint enterprise (p. xxii); in this case, improved learning communities and enhanced student learning. This book, through the exercises and learning labs, assists educational leaders in doing just that; bringing about the changes required to move the focus from the immediate and personal to the wider school and district community, from the micro to the macro as it were.

With a strong emphasis on the need for educators to significantly improve their skills as teachers and instructional leaders, the authors call for school communities to dedicate their practice to continued improvement, and offer Seven Disciplines for strengthening instruction that might form the basis of a schools commitment to improvements. In brief, these seven disciplines are: instructional improvement using real data; shared vision of good teaching; meetings about the work; shared vision of student results; effective supervision; professional development; and diagnostic data with accountable collaboration. These seven disciplines are not intended to be a recipe or a blueprint for student success; rather, they an outline of a system of processes and intermediate goals that contribute to the overall improvement of teaching and instructional leadership through which enhancements in student achievement may be obtained. The authors suggest that this represents an independent systems approach to improvements in instruction, each ultimately affecting and supporting the other to culminate in overall enhancements in learning.

The majority of the book focuses on exercises and applications that address these seven disciplines through practical as well as conceptual means. The various chapters and exercises are dedicated to committing to the challenge ahead, setting a vision, generating momentum for change, resistance, overcoming immunities to change, systems thinking, understanding the ecology of change, and the like. All are filled with practical ideas for individual and collective exploration, examination of assumptions and goals, and logical next steps for assimilating and applying new growth and development, both on an individual professional level as well as a school or system level. Educational leaders in every capacity will find these exercises easily adaptable and relevant to whatever position they find themselves in.

One of the overall strengths of this book is its practicality. It is filled with exercises which are clearly marked with icons depicting tools for individual use, many of which are identified and modified in the books appendix for suitable application for group use. To assist in this regard, there is a companion web site listed that allows the reader to download full page templates of each exercise to use as required. Those exercises that are especially challenging or not recommended for the first time user, are clearly marked with a cautionary icon, allowing for appropriate selection of any activity or exercise for use in group learning labs you may have formed in your schools or leadership groups. Leaders in a wide variety of positions and capacities should have little difficulty in selecting the exercises that are most appropriate and useful to them in consideration of the context and current milieu in which they work.

I was especially impressed with a citation made relatively early on in the book wherein the authors identified that the most important element in motivating students to achieve high standards: [is] the quality of relationships with their teachers (p. 42). This relationship, the authors suggest, remains the most important element in motivating students to want to achieve at high standards. If I were to find a shortcoming of the book, I would have to note that despite identifying this teacher/student relationship as central to achieving high standards, very little of the book was devoted to defining, exploring, developing, and recognizing this need for the formation of such teacher/student relationships. This remains the case despite the fact the authors indicate that in their focus groups with students, all students report that the one thing that makes the greatest difference in their learning is the quality of the relationship with their teachers (p. 42).

Although the intent of the book is to focus on the nature of relationships between teachers and school leaders, of the 26 pages cited in the index under Relationships, only three pages are directly devoted to teacher/student relationships. Given that the teacher/student relationship is so heavily influenced by school climate, school culture, and the many other elements of school life that are directly influenced by the actions (or inactions) of school leaders, the authors could have made a stronger link between how leaders ensure that the modeling they are providing in developing learning communities is transposed to the relationships and learning communities that teachers should be building with each of their students. I would suggest that the principles and practices that apply to leaders and teachers working collaboratively together toward transforming education apply equally to teachers and students working together toward transforming student lives and the nature of learning in the classrooms. Although the groundwork is laid in this regard, the application from one learning community to the next remains relatively unaddressed and obscure.

When this transposition can be madefrom leader/teacher relationships to teacher/student relationships, with such collaborative and supportive relationships embedded throughout the intrapersonal aspects of all schoolsstudents will be best positioned to capitalize on all of the opportunities that Change Leadership will undoubtedly bring about at the district, system, school, classroom, and intrapersonal level. A sequel to this book, which would certainly be welcomed from the Change Leadership Group, will undoubtedly focus on this teacher/student relationship and the myriad ways in which this can be enhanced as the transformation of the educational enterprise comes to fruition as we enter the new millennium.


Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12772, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 1:09:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Parr
    Nipissing University
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL PARR currently teaches in the Faculty of Education at Nipissing University and brings with him considerable experience working with students ‘at risk’ as well as those students identified as having specific emotional and behavioural disorders. His wide variety of teaching experiences in both segregated and regular classroom settings, as well as his experiences as an administrator, have been instrumental in serving as a springboard into his research investigating the needs of students ‘at risk’. Other research interests center around teacher education, and educational leadership & change with emphasis placed on practices that foster Inclusive schools.
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