Voices in Education

Effective Principals Are Leaders of Organizational Change
When you walk into a school that is truly embracing personalized and digital learning, you almost immediately feel the difference. It is not showy or fancy, but there is a core difference in the culture and what you see in and around the classrooms and with students. In our experiences, we are often greeted quickly by students eager to share their school. We walk into classrooms where finding the teacher can take a few minutes because she is among the students, and there is a low, consistent buzz of communication. Teachers and students seem very comfortable as the principal and guests walk into the classroom, and students are able to share what they are learning, why they are learning it, and where they are going with their work. Students are rarely doing the same thing at the same time in the same way, but instead there is some choice, opportunities to work at your own pace, and small-group and one-on-one opportunities for students to work with the teacher. In some ways, it is magical. In others, it simply makes sense if we are trying to meet the needs and understand the learning strengths and differences of each student.
People often ask us, what makes a difference in these schools? Why are some schools further along the path of shifting instruction to personalized learning? Why is the culture in some schools one in which teachers and students are willing to try new things to improve learning? Many things are important in these schools, but leadership is at the core.
In education, excellent teachers are often tapped to become administrators because of their strengths in teaching and learning, their ability to connect with others in the building, and their overall passion for kids and improving student learning. Principals are asked, however, to do much more than guide teachers in teaching and learning. They are asked to lead and manage large organizations with many stakeholders. They are asked to help the stakeholders who are used to schooling happening in a very traditional way to transition to more personalized and digital learning. They are asked to understand and help staff in the school meet the needs of very diverse populations.
When we are working with principals, we often ask them, How many of you were aware that you signed up to lead organizational change? Few principals have had extensive experience or even training in this critical aspect of leading a school through a transition to personalized and digital learning. While the critical tenets of leadership hold true, we discovered some unique aspects of leading today with personalized and digital learning. After working with hundreds of principals across the country and the nine master leaders highlighted in our book, Leading Personalized and Digital Learning: A Framework for Implementing School Change (Harvard Education Press, 2017), we identified three key differences of leading schools today compared to even ten or fifteen years ago. Principals who are successful in transitioning to learning that is more personalized, focused on individual strengths and differences, and designed to empower learning do the following:
  • Model. Principals have always had the opportunity to model in some way, but in making the transition from teacher-centered to student-centered learning, principals need to model their own use of digital learning tools to personalize their work with individual teachers in using data and building personal learning networks (PLNs) with others inside and outside the school community.
  •  Adapt to the pace of change. The pace of change in education has been slow. It is almost clichéd to discuss how education and schools have looked the same for the past hundred years or more. However, the near constant arrival of new technologies and digital learning has dramatically altered this situation and the pace of change is now greatly accelerated. Schools need to change; it is no longer possible for them to remain stagnant. Principals moving toward personalized and digital learning must develop new strategies and be prepared for the sometimes fast and furious pace of change in a system designed to maintain the status quo.
  • Articulate a shared vision. How can principals lead a vision for personalized and digital learning when rich examples are themselves nascent? Schools and districts that are making tremendous progress may not be nearby and may or may not match the context of your school. Principals must guide their stakeholders in thinking about what they want teaching and learning to be for their students and arrange for them to see, either in person or virtually, examples of their vision (Wolf, Bobst, Mangum, 2017).
These differences are not easy, but principals do not need to tackle them alone. Distributed leadership is one of the primary components of our framework for this transition, and it allows the principal to grow other leaders and have a team working toward the same vision. The role of leadership in a school can seem obvious, but the capacity of our leaders is also often assumed. Principals do not necessarily have the opportunity to grow or practice their approaches to change management. It is important to remember that leadership is second, only behind teacher quality, for school-related factors that affect student achievement (Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom, 2004).
Principals must make their learning a priority. District leaders and school boards can support them by understanding the complexity of the principal role and how important it is to build the capacity of school leaders and to lead organizational change in this transition to personalized and digital learning. Every student and teacher should have the opportunity to be in a school where students are at the center and a culture that supports creative and collaborative approaches to personalizing learning is evident from the moment they enter the school.

About the Author: Mary Ann Wolf is the director of Digital Learning Programs for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University’s College of Education. Elizabeth Bobst is a writer, editor, and educator focusing on ESL and international education. Nancy Mangum is the associate director of the Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University’s College of Education. They are the authors of Leading Personalized and Digital Learning: A Framework for Implementing School Change (Harvard Education Press, 2017).