Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Human Side of Changing Education

    How to Lead Change with Clarity, Conviction, and Courage

    Julie M. Wilson, foreword by Arthur Levine

    Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2018. 152 pp. $34.95 (paper).

    There is a problem that persists in the US education sector. As a nation, we have approached education by providing standard instruction to all students in a way similar to the assembly line concept: all students learn the same thing in the same way every day. For many of us, this model was successful in helping us become college and career ready, but as digital technologies are becoming more prevalent, this approach is proving not to be useful in helping students meet societal demands.

    In the last decade, the burden on district and campus leaders to help students meet societal demands has increased significantly. Our education system is challenged in its transition from an industrial model (for which America’s schools were created) toward outcomes supported by information technologies. Research has suggested that in order for district and campus leaders to be effective in changing the current structure of US schools, they must exhibit a range of targeted skills that support significant improvements in teaching and learning, including, but not limited to, being a visionary, being a community builder, and being attentive to personal and collective emotional intelligences (Aguilar, 2014; Lytle, Lytle, Johanek, & Rho, 2018; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). Yet, some district and school leaders are challenged when it comes to identifying and applying the tools and strategies necessary to meet these criteria of leadership.

    In The Human Side of Changing Education, Julie Wilson highlights what it takes for twenty-first-century education leaders to create and lead the kind of change that will help steer schools away from the industrial model of education toward one that best serves the needs of students in this digital age. The purpose of this book is to equip education leaders with a practical framework and human-centered tools and resources to lead meaningful, sustainable change. It is valuable to district and campus leadership, current and future education practitioners, policy makers, researchers, and entrepreneurs who are interested in designing, leading, and/or participating in meaningful change that supports students in learning the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that will prepare them for an unknowable future. It is centered on the premise that when we stakeholders ask schools to change, we are really asking human beings to change, and this requires special tools and a tailored approach. This book is not for leaders who are merely interested in helping students pass high-stakes tests or meet benchmark requirements. It is a guide on how education leaders can lead themselves, district and schools, and the communities they serve in transitioning to learning models that better serve a digital economy.

    Wilson acknowledges that any type of change in US K–12 schools can be difficult because “there is currently no singular intervention that will change the system from a century-plus-old bureaucracy to a flexible, individualized system that unleashes human potential” (p. 7). Despite the challenges associated with changing a long-standing system, she contends that impactful and scalable change can be manifested. The book begins with a query to readers: “What’s Worth Learning?” In exploring this question, she encourages readers to identify a “North Star,” a student-oriented goal that will direct the work of a district or school as it embarks on its journey of change. In other words, districts and schools are encouraged to identify the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind students should possess when they graduate high school.

    Wilson suggests eight specific skills and habits of mind that can serve as a starting point for leaders and which, based on her professional experiences, she identifies as critical to leading and implementing changes in education: (1) self-directed learning; (2) creativity and innovation; (3) planning, adaptability, and agility; (4) strengths awareness and application; (5) self-efficacy; (6) global citizenship; (7) relationship building; and (8) critical thinking and problem solving. The implementation of these skills can move district and school change in a human-centered direction and away from an industrial model of education. Each of these skills are elucidated to help readers consider what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate high school. Yet, Wilson points out that these skills are not solely for student learning. Students cannot learn these skills if adults are not given opportunities to learn them as well. Hence, education leaders must focus on developing students and adults alike when navigating change.

    Once leaders determine what skills are important for students (and adults) to know, the next question to consider is how these skills can best be facilitated. Wilson advocates redesigning the existing education approach in schools so that the pedagogy reflects the outcomes sought by the leaders. “Districts and school structures generally take the form of the industrial-era hierarchy, where decision-making is consolidated at the top of the organization, with reduced autonomy regarding outcomes as they get closer to the classroom” (p. 33). However, Wilson contends that if districts and schools want students to be active and innovative participants and to work in partnership with others, they must “transition from traditional methods to mastery-based assessment of skills.” (pp. 34–35). She notes that doing so “requires that all teachers are given the autonomy, support and professional development required to assess student mastery across multiple content areas, multiple audiences, multiple demonstrations of student performance, and have a shared understanding of what different levels of mastery look like” (p. 35). In other words, for inherent change to take place, decision-making should be at the classroom level.

    Wilson invites leaders to consider where their district or school may currently be positioned on a continuum of change, pointedly asking, “Where the district/school is today and where would you like it to be in the future?” (p. 34). In answering these queries, she offers three change strategies (directed, planned, and iterative) that leaders may consider in directing school change. Each strategy is different in scope and explained thoroughly to readers so that they may begin to consider which strategy works best with their North Star and why.
    With clarity around outcomes and the type of strategy a district and/or school wants to lead (directed, planned, iterative), Wilson identifies five success factors that can support organizational change: (1) sustaining leadership and a visionary school board, (2) sharing a vision of the change, (3) unleashing talent and building teams, (4) rethinking the use of space and time, and (5) overhauling the assessment structure of learning and school performance. Building on Kegan’s (2003) three stages of adult development, Wilson asserts that if education leaders “want an education system that helps students to design and build, then we must also help the adults build the agency, self-direction, and creative problem solving alongside the students” (p. 59).

    In support of this, she includes an example of a school principal who wanted to redesign the school’s math curriculum to bring more critical thinking and self-direction to student work. In presenting this idea to the teachers and staff and encouraging them to take the lead in the design effort, the principal was met with resistance because the teachers and staff wanted to be given direction. They had never been exposed to an autonomous structure in their practice. Even the principal’s supervisor challenged him for not being direct with his staff and telling them what needed to be done to accomplish the goal. The principal decided not to give in to resistance and implemented strategies to help lay the groundwork for the teachers and staff to assume the challenges of the curriculum redesign and also to play an active role in the creation and implementation of school change.

    Following the exploration of the five success factors, Wilson offers eight strategies that education leaders can implement in districts and schools which she complements with real-life examples of how school leaders are guiding stakeholders through the process of change. An example of one strategy is the 4Ps (problem, picture, plan, and part). The 4Ps (Bridges & Bridges, 2017) is a tool that can help articulate where a school is going with a change, the necessity for the change, the plan on how to get there, and how the community may support it. Wilson writes about one principal in New York who used the 4Ps as she led a schoolwide initiative to redesign the report card. Following the framework, the principal and her team were able to make significant progress in just nine months. What made this strategy stand out was its capacity to yield results within one year’s time. This is an important consideration for leaders who need to realize results for stakeholders sooner rather than later. Wilson supplements these strategies with resources to help leaders contextualize some of the concepts that are discussed. Leaders are then urged to consider the suggested tools and strategies that resonate with them and reflect on the approaches that can be implemented in their current environments for maximum results.

    The final chapter expands the target audience. Rather than focusing on leaders in formal positions of power, Wilson addresses all stakeholders that have a vision to move education systems from an industrial model to a human-centered model. She notes that while leadership is fundamental in changing education systems, it does require the work of “hundreds of thousands of change agents, working both inside and outside of the system” (p. 101). Perhaps Wilson’s goal in expanding the audience at this point in the book is to allow readers to see themselves in the suggestions, strategies, and stories and then commit to and develop a plan for leading transformative change in our nation’s schools.

    This book is for education leaders who want to craft a meaningful vision for students and adults and who need the tools to support change implementation and navigate the challenges that come with moving their organizations away from an industrial model of education. This book will help education leaders to understand what it really takes to change current systems to help students lead enriching lives supported by education. In surmising the implications, Wilson notes that the recommendations and strategies should not be interpreted as “magic bullets,” as there are no overnight solutions to changing the structures of our nation’s schools. She also makes clear that one leader cannot single-handedly change our education system from a centuries-old bureaucracy to a flexible, individualized system that unleashes human potential. Also, change takes time. Leaders (and stakeholders) should be prepared to invest several years implementing a major change effort in districts and schools. Finally, and importantly, Wilson reminds us that the process of change has to invite adults to learn and master the same skills as students if we are going to realize sustainable and meaningful change in the education sector in the next decade and beyond.

    In a possible future edition, I encourage the author to consider how leaders can implement impactful and sustainable change beyond their tenures. Wilson notes more than once that “change can take anywhere from five to seven years, depending on the district or school’s starting point in the process” (p. 35). In many cases, district and/or school leaders are not in their roles for this length of time, so how can they encourage proactive change in their organizations that extends beyond their time of service?

    Nevertheless, The Human Side of Changing Education offers hope on how education leaders may transform US schools to prepare students for the demands of an unpredictable future. By seriously considering (and implementing) the recommendations in this book, district and school leaders, and other stakeholders, can begin moving from complaining about what needs to change in our nation’s public schools to actually doing something about it.

    André S. Morgan

    Aguilar, E. (2014). What makes a great school leader? Retrieved from https://www.edutopia

    Bridges, W. & Bridges, S. (2017). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. London: Nicholas Brealey.
    Kegan, R. (2003). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Lytle, J. H., Lytle, S. L., Johanek, M. C., & Rho, K. J. (2018). Repositioning educational leadership: Practitioners leading from an inquiry stance. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). The 21 responsibilities of the school leader: School leadership that works from research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved from http://www.nysed.gov/common/nysed/files/principal-project-marzanos-21responsibilities-of-the-school.pdf
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