It is clear that the challenge lies in the transition zone. This is a risky space. It can be chaotic and confusing with so many different ideas competing for attention. And it can feel an uncomfortable and under-valued place for many professionals.
.G. Leicester, D. Stewart, K. Bloomer & J. Ewing Transforming education requires strategic conversation in navigating the tensions that exist in the transition zone of change. In Transformative Innovation in Education: a playbook for pragmatic visionaries, the authors distinguish between three systems: the current dominant system, incremental innovation and transformative innovation. They liken it to universal mass education, personalized education and open access education. Or think of it as: business as usual, pockets of innovation, and radical innovation on the fringe of the system. Most innovation is the simple continuous improvement of existing structures. For truly transformative innovation to take place, the authors believe that we need to move beyond incremental or pockets of innovation. When we look at the school system, the old and the transformative new are often expressed as clear-cut dichotomies. These are the tensions we sometimes fail to acknowledge that exist. In order to sustain innovation and move to radical transformation, these frictions must be navigated.
Tensions in the Landscape
(adapted from Transformative Innovation in Education)
You need to find the sweet spot where you “combine the best of both values.” This is the thinking of Charles Hampden-Turner, a systems theorist that believed “you can have your cake and eat it too. ”When we look at these tensions we often think either/or. Sometimes we fail to recognize that two opposing systems can have great value in and of themselves. There is inherent rigidity in the polarity that exists within organizations that are navigating change. “We need to think both/and. That requires a less familiar style of thinking—wrestling with dilemmas.”
He generally describes the dilemma as an immovable “hard” rock value on one end and the irresistible force of the “soft” whirlpool on the other end. The trick is not to hang on to one exclusively but to create a dilemma dance between them. In Transforming Education they describe it, “like tacking a sailing boat against the wind.” You may need to turn from one to the other in order to get to your destination. As you sail your boat or engage in the dance, however, you need to be mindful of five possible end points.
Stick to the rock and you become a dinosaur and die out. Stick to the whirlpool and you come a mythical unicorn. Compromise and you are like the ostrich with your head in the sand. Worse yet, “If you get stuck in the zone of conflict you end up as Dr. Doolittle’s push-me-pull-you.” The goal is to dance to the resolution space in order to soar like an eagle. This is the creative learning and development that happens “outside the box.”
Whether the transformative innovation is changing the traditional report cards, implementing new cutting-edge curriculum, or shifting the inherent nature of teaching and learning—a strategic dance through the complexity of the layered dilemmas is required. The authors encourage educators to ask themselves: Who does this impact the most? What is the worst thing that can happen? Wondering aloud together frees educators to think, feel and act differently in response to the apprehension associated with change. These are strategic conversations that help manage risk.
How can pragmatic visionaries avoid becoming permanently mired in the schism? In the book, the authors suggest avoiding the tension as a simple choice (yes/no) and treat it like a dilemma. To help wrestle with the tension ask the questions:
• What is the solid and unshakeable value in the current system?
• What is the core value central to the new system?
• Identify some typical compromises that sweep the tension between these values under the carpet.
• Articulate the tensions that can break out into conflict between the rock and the whirlpool.
• “Seek creative resolution:
a) What can the rock offer the whirlpool without compromise?
b) What can the whirlpool offer the rock without compromise?”
Engaging in a conversation about the dilemma between the rock (control and standards) and the whirlpool (freedom of choice) can ensure innovation is grounded in effective practice. Wrestling the tension using the dilemma of the dance metaphor allows us to ask the question: “What ideas do we have to get the very best of both worlds (values)?” Pragmatic visionaries recognize deep conflict and search for ways to navigate through the zones. Whether teaching in the classroom, leading in the schoolhouse or supporting through central office, transformative innovation in education requires us to do just that: this is where 1 + 1 = 3.
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Note: Review of Transformative Innovation in Education: a playbook for pragmatic visionaries written by Graham Leicester, Denis Stewart, Keir Bloomer, and Jim Ewing. The authors write about the framework for transformative innovation they have used with schools in Scotland. Guiding educators and schools through thoughtful reflection and careful conversations has empowered these schools to engage in transformative innovation.