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Understanding Change

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

The ultimate aim of change is to move from a current state to a more desirable future state. Within a school context, this ultimately relates to improving student learning, either through direct changes to teaching and learning or through improving the effectiveness of school structures and systems to support learning. The change could be proactive (a deliberate, self-initiated action) or reactive (responding to a stimulus).

Change can be a challenging process for both the leader(s) and participant(s) involved, as people may be worried about the consequences. And, it is your responsibility as the school leader to guide them through the change process.

Change is driven by internal drivers and/or external drivers.

External drivers include changes in government policy, law, boards of affiliation, etc. External drivers are sometimes widely anticipated and there have been preparations to accommodate them; at other times they are more sudden. Some require immediate action; for others the change will be more gradual.

Externally initiated change is often referred to as the deterministic view, because it sees leaders and their staff as targets of a change that is determined by external forces (economics, technology, globalisation, culture shift, etc.). Many teachers and school leaders say that they often experience this kind of change where the requirement to change is demanded or enforced.

Internal drivers include the needs and interests of your students that drive you and your teachers to make small or medium-sized changes to your school. The internal drivers depend heavily on the context you are working in and the resources available to you as a school leader. Even if your school has minimal resources and large classes, you can still initiate and lead considerable changes that will have a positive impact on learning.

For internally driven changes, all students, teachers and administration staff are potential change agents who, through their work, are able to initiate and implement change (mainly owing to the need to improve on quality and standards). This is often described as the voluntarist view, because the emphasis is on how the voluntary (or self-initiated) actions of leaders and other change agents bring about change within the school.


Top-down or Bottom-up

Regardless of whether it is internally or externally driven, there are two ways of looking at how change is actually initiated within a school.

Top-down change can be seen as relatively easy and straightforward to put into practice across the school, provided it is negotiated and agreed by staff and SMC members – which is not always the case. It usually takes a school-wide approach, and so has the advantage of promoting a consistent, systematic approach to the change at hand.

Top-down change usually involves some degree of consultation with those implementing the change; however, particularly in times of crisis, top-down change can be imposed in a directive and coercive way without staff consultation. This may have severe consequences for motivation and morale, but if organisational survival is at stake, school staff may well accept the need for rapid and drastic action without a consultation process.

Bottom-up change, on the other hand, has the advantage of being designed by the school community itself. This is mandated by the RtE, wherein SMCs are to develop, implement and monitor plans, and then promote it across the school. Bottom-up change may also be suggested by anyone in the school, but then implemented by senior staff who have the authority to influence and drive it through.

However, it often requires a high degree of negotiation, and all stakeholders may not readily agree on a change; so it raises other challenging issues. For this reason, bottom-up change is sometimes considered to be unpredictable and it takes time for it to be adopted across the organisation.

To minimise problems in any change initiative, some school leaders implement their change in one area of the school as a pilot scheme to try out new ways of working, assess problems and issues that arise, and make any necessary adjustments before rolling it out across the whole school. This means that any major weaknesses can be sorted before introducing the change on a larger scale.


Some Theories Behind Change

There are three theories of change that are relevant to the work of school leaders. These theories are not recipes for change, but provide a way of thinking about change. The leader cannot change what has happened in the past but has considerable scope to influence how individuals respond to change in the future, and their commitment to it.

Theory 1: Change as a Series of Steps

Knoster et al. (2000) saw five dimensions of change and showed that if any one of these dimensions was missing, the change was likely to be unsuccessful.

The table shows the outcomes if one of the dimensions of change is missing.

Theory 2: Change Formula

Gleicher’s change formula (quoted in Beckhard, 1975) is another theory that can be helpful when embarking on the change process. The formula charts the necessary qualities that the change needs to contain if it is to become embedded in your school.

The formula is:

D × V × F > R


  • ‘D’ is the need for change already being registered by people’s dissatisfaction with the reality today.

  • ‘V’ is the vision for change being sufficiently compelling that most people are able to visualise what is possible.

  • ‘F’ represents the first steps towards implementing the change being valued by the whole community.

  • If the previous three are in place, then it is likely that together their impact will be greater than the inevitable and understandable resistance (‘R’) that there will be to the change.

The challenge for a school leader is to persuade teachers that they are ‘dissatisfied’ with the thing that you want to change. There are a number of things that you can do to motivate your teachers and persuade them to make the sorts of changes that you desire.

Theory 3: Force Field Analysis

Another theory of change is ‘force field analysis’. This approach to change encourages you to focus on the conditions that are already in place that will firstly support the change and secondly identify the likely sources of resistance.

Figure: Force field analysis.

How to do a force field analysis:

  1. State clearly the change that is wanted.

  2. Draw a vertical line from the statement of change down a large piece of paper (or on a board or computer screen).

  3. Draw the driving forces on the right-hand side of the line and the restraining forces on the left.

  4. For each force the length of the arrow (from 0–5) reflects the extent of the factor, with being the most powerful.

  5. The thickness of each arrow represents the relative importance of the force.

By first listing and categorising the issues, and then giving them weight, you can prioritise your efforts to tackle the restraining forces and make the most of the driving forces. It is easy to lose sight of what is important and what drives change. Such graphic representations can help you to organise your findings and share them with others.


About the Author

Dr. Atul Nischal is the Founder of the International Council for School Leadership (ICSL) and serves as the Program Director of ReSET, the 3 week online certificate program for educators.


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1 Comment

Unknown member
Dec 18, 2019

Enhancing and comprehensive discussion

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