In a variety of workshops, whether around school climate, youth/student engagement, or even broader community work, I reference the following change model out of Harvard, which I actually discovered through the Forum for Youth Investment:
Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x Plan
Why is this simple model so powerful? At the simplest level, what happens when you have a zero for any of these elements?
It’s basic multiplication, but profound in that so many of our traditional change efforts are built on addition strategies. If we do this and then we get that then it will add up to change. If we add this resource…If we add this position…If we add this new frame for our work…
Addition alone doesn’t generate real change.
Change is multiplicative. The elements necessary for change are interdependent and exponential magnifiers of each other.
So, why can’t we pull this simple multiplication together on a critical, and fairly universally concerning, issue like education reform? It shouldn’t be that hard, and, candidly, a lot of folks have been working really hard on it!
We have built countless strategic and organizational plans focused on education from district-level reforms down to teacher evaluation and curriculum. We have crafted mission and vision statements for our community organizations and community collaborations to align around our schools’ vision and plans. We’ve brought in trainers, consultants, data wonks, and various other experts from out of town. We have invested billions of dollars in re-visioning high schools. We have paid millions to develop, implement, and evaluate new data-driven models. The list goes on and on.
So, why do we rarely generate real change?
Using the Harvard Change Model, we are left to reflect on our dissatisfaction.
Now, it may seem ludicrous with the current outcries and the previously mentioned investments in education and education reform to wonder if we are really dissatisfied. With every media outlet in the country full of ideas, opinions, and impassioned rants about education, our dissatisfaction is obvious. Given the increased role of state and federal governments (not to mention the business sector) and the position of education reform in our local and national agendas, surely our collective dissatisfaction with the status quo is clear. At the individual level, I suspect all of us would describe ourselves as frustrated, sad, angry, and myriad other descriptors of dissatisfaction with the state of education in our communities and in this country.
Surely, dissatisfaction isn’t the problem.
But is it?
In expressing our dissatisfaction, we too often focus on the work of others: teachers, principals, counselors, students, unions, community organizations, business, and policymakers (we all are focusing our dissatisfaction on each other). We point outward from our position and proclaim our righteous indignation at someone else’s inability to change, at their role in maintaining the status quo. We all join the chorus saying “something’s gotta change” with an implicit “but it’s not me”.
I believe we are all part of the education system (as community system) in some form or fashion. So, if a critical mass is not truly dissatisfied with our own work (and not just the work of others) then there is not the real dissatisfaction required to generate change. There is only blame and subsequent defensiveness (and a lot of failed visions and plans).
If all of us who claim dissatisfaction, inside the education system and out, actually changed our own practices, I wonder if it might add up to something?
Anderson Williams currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network and is a Partner in Cascade Educational Consultants. He began his education work as a youth organizer with Community IMPACT! Nashville where his work with students on college access was recognized in 2006 as a finalist for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. In addition to regional, national, and international training and consulting work, Anderson co-authored “The Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change” and “Youth Organizing for Educational Change” with the Forum for Youth Investment and his writing was published in a special issue of the international Journal of Community Psychology on “Youth and Democracy.”
Anderson is currently working on his Master of Business Administration at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management, holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and received his B.A. from Wake Forest University. Email Anderson Williams.