Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact

We are taking on so many big challenges in education, such as closing achievement gaps, integrating technology and addressing the increasing complexity of our students needs, that we can easily become overwhelmed and believe that a big challenge requires a big change.  Too often schools take on big changes and instantly recognize how unwieldy and problematic the big change has become.  Too often we see these attempts at big change in schools and too often we hear from veteran staff members that if they wait out the change long enough it will just go away.

 John Kotter was one of the foundational authors during my training to become a school leader.  In the program we spoke endlessly about transformative change and making big changes permanent--2nd order change.  Kotter focused on the leader's role in leading these big changes, including creating a vision and gaining buy in from staff.  Recently I have more questions about  Kotter's ideas about transformation and wonder if small shifts can lead to more sustainable transformation than a large overwhelming change.  Where large changes require a major overhaul of culture and practice, small changes all for teachers to focus and take their time as they make sense of the change.  Ultimately, this small shift allows educators time to adapt to the change and implement the change in their classrooms.  Small changes helps staff build energy to take on other small changes.

A few months a go, president Obama was interviewed on Mark Maron's "WTF", in which he compared change to a boat making a 1 degree turn.  With the analogy he described that while you may not see the immediate impact of the change as you move further out into see you will realize that you landed in a different place because of that turn.  Granted, the U.S. government is much larger and more complex than a school.  However, with our complexity this analogy may hold true for schools as well.

Questions I'm still pondering--

Can small changes make big impacts?
Are a lot of small changes more significant than one large change in a school?
If we focused on making small changes in our practice would we be able to address the needs of more students?
If we focused on making small changes in our practice would we feel more empowered to take risks with our teaching practice?


  1. Thought-provoking blog post on Masscue-eve. Big changes are risky especially when they are driven top-down. If teachers and students feel that change is being enforced upon them, resistance can rise organically. Big change has to be organized by some common vision that inspires everyone if it is to be effective.

    I think that the impact of small change may rely on the existence of a common vision as well so that a relatively minor change can have a ripple effect. If a minor change is backed by a common vision in such a way that teachers and students understand what the change actually means - beyond its particular change in policy - it will provoke complementary changes in practices and beliefs, which may have a significant impact.

    The question of permanence is also important. If a broad change is implemented as a pilot - with a small group of people and a limited time frame, there is the potential to generate beliefs and momentum - to inspire more permanent change.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response Adam. Your point about vision is right on in that regardless of the changes, we need to know where we are heading. With big changes we worry so much about implementation of the change, that we lose sight of the impact. With smaller changes we have a greater ability to monitor the impact and make improvements along the way. The work getting the smaller change implemented may be as much as much as implementing a big change, but at least we know what issues to focus on with a small change.

    Look forward to seeing you at MassCUE.