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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

The Complexity of 'Managing' Change in Schools

Last week I was fortunate to spend some time in Bergen in western Norway, working with the NHH Norwegian School of Economics and their headteacher development programme. The focus of the three-day residential - the seventh of eight such meetings for the 40 participants - was on managing change. I had been asked to spend a day with them outlining my doctoral thesis on complexity and school leadership and what this means for change processes for a headteacher and, of course, for them in their context.


In the first session of the day, we looked at Norwegian and English vocabulary about change, drilling into the various definitions of change (to become different, to make different, to exchange, and to replace), the synonyms for change (from transform to modify to evolve), the etymology of change (replacement is relatively modern in comparison to evolution) and finally to its usage over time (relatively stable for 'change' but massively increased for 'change management' in recent decades). In this session, the delegates also shared narratives of a change process that had gone well and one that had gone poorly.


In the second session, we explored how such varied ideas of change have been simplified in leadership literature over time and the challenges this places on school leaders. Looking at Transformational Leadership literature generally, and the literature on Distributed Leadership and Relational Trust specifically, we picked apart the assumptions that underpin these approaches as a critique rather than as outright criticism. I outlined how these theories collectively rely upon metaphors of the leader as visionary or missionary, as farmer or cultivator, and as crusader or warrior. The delegates then looked back at their narratives of change to think about the assumptions underpinning their 'theory of change' and how these have impacted upon them and upon those whose work they manage.


In the final session of the day, I outlined the three deconstructive and reconstructive elements of my thesis, again with a focus on their narratives of change. The first of these is that leadership literature relies heavily on a 'myth' that 'enduring harmony' is possible within school leadership with others when, in reality, plural views of the good are inescapable in organisational life and this brings with it conflict as often as it does harmony. The second part of the thesis is that transformational approaches to change enable a 'myth' of the headteacher's 'positional authority' when the lived experience of leading schools is that responsibility for action in schools is relationally co-constructed by all those working together to make sense of competing goods. The final part of the thesis is that the dominant leadership literature fosters the 'myth' of 'complexity reduction' when the reality of leading in schools shows that the complex is always there and that the uncertainty this brings is most likely to be reduced by negotiating together in a community of inquiry.


When I was planning the session, I was prepared for disagreement and even hostility towards my thesis. Partly this was because I was aware that these insights involved, for me, the challenging of some profoundly important theories of leading change as a headteacher (hence a critique rather than criticism - these theories still mean a lot to me). But my main worries were that Norwegian headteachers (and those aspiring to the role) may not be as anxious, stressed and burned out as their British counterparts appear to be. I retain the idea that Scandinavian systems are somehow gentler than Anglo-Saxon systems.


What became apparent, though, was that the transformational theories that have been dominant in education leadership discourse in the UK are just as prevalent in Norway. And, from there, it also became apparent that trying to manage the complexity of change within such a complex occupational domain as education is as practically and emotionally challenging in the Norwegian context as it is in the UK. The delegates' narratives contained just as much joy and pain, as much positivity and negativity, as much pride and shame, as could be expected from narratives by school leaders here. Managing change is a tough old business wherever you do it and my only surprise is that I was suprised at that.


My arguments concluded with an insight from Hannah Arendt. She argues that acting with others in a plurality in the public realm means that what we say or do has two key qualities: it is unpredictable and it is irreversible. The only things we know for certain about managing change with others is that we can't guarantee outcomes and we cannot undo what we have done or unsay what we have said. In such a situation, Arendt says that we need to hold two things in mind. Firstly, because plural action is unpredictable we need to develop our capacity to make promises and try to keep them. Secondly, because plural action is irreversible, we also need to develop our capacity to forgive and seek forgiveness.


Arendt challenges the notion that "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs" as applied to humanity (as one might expect from a Jewish-German woman who narrowly escaped the Nazis on two occasions). She prefers instead the view that "the affair of one is the affair of all", meaning that we do still have a collective responsibility for what we do even if it is unpredictable and irreversible. School leaders must still manage, and be responsible for, change and they cannot take a postmodern or relativistic attitude that anything goes. But, to avoid a slide towards totalising views of the good, other people and other ideas matter and matter a lot. If I were to capture - in the nutshell of a single Arendt quote - the essence of what she has to offer school leaders in managing change, it is this:


"What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing."


School leadership is a contingent process: we are always engaged with others in the act of changing things and selves. School leadership is also a fallible process: however well we plan, we will make mistakes along the way or things will turn out differently than planned. Often, taking the time to "think what we are doing" can seem like a luxury. It isn't.


Mind Your Head is here to help school leaders navigating their way through such plurality and uncertainty. We can offer external eyes on the work of improvement and change. We can offer reflective supervision for those leading the improvements and changes. And we can help you and your colleagues make sense of the complexity of the paradoxes of your brilliantly-maddening and maddeningly-brilliant work together. Have a look at the other pages of this website and do get in touch if you want to talk about how we can help.






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