Embracing Change

Future-focused thought leader talks about how schools will win the education revolution

Grant Lichtman is an internationally recognized thought leader in the drive to transform K-12 education. He has worked with more than 225 schools and districts. Lichtman speaks, writes, and works with school and community teams to build capacity and comfort with innovation in response to a rapidly changing world. His most recent book is “Thrive: How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution.” 

Education was already ripe for transformation. How has the pandemic changed or accelerated that change?

We are seeing nationwide demand for major changes in how we educate the current and future generations of young people. Changes that address the inequities of the current system, raise student voices, make access to technology universal, make experiential learning the norm, create authentic assessment frameworks, put an end to over-testing, shift away from teacher-centric lectures, and more.

I wonder, however, if we will actually use this unique moment—as we recover from the global pandemic crisis—to apply the profound lessons we have been ignoring for decades and change what hasn’t worked in the past, and is especially not working now. Until the pandemic hit, there was little evidence that education had the capacity for the kind of system-wide changes that would be needed to align learning goals and outcomes with the exponentially changing challenges that have become distressingly apparent in the first quintile of the 21st century. Based on what we have been through in the last year, that capacity may be closer at hand.

The pandemic crisis has brought into focus a profound prediction made by Eric Teller in Thomas Friedman’s novel “Thank You For Being Late”—that most individuals and human organizations simply cannot adapt to changes that happen as rapidly as those we are experiencing now across technology, the economy, global alliances, political systems, and, of course, our health and wellbeing. And yet, it is a key role of education to prepare young people to meet this challenge; we just don’t know how to do it.

For decades, education has largely ignored the rate at which a rapidly changing world has shaped the environment within and beyond schools’ walls. With the spread of COVID-19, we now have a shared experience in just how dramatic “exponential” change can be. We have to readjust our frame of reference and timelines for making changes to school that better reflect the challenges our students, teachers, and families face now and in the future.

What roles do strategy and leadership play in the post-COVID K-12 environment?

Particularly in times of crisis, good leaders don’t relive their mistakes. They learn from their experiences in as close to real-time as possible, and they create conditions for their organizations to improve. 

The inequities we encounter have been present for so long that many leaders feel they have real or tacit permission to focus their energy elsewhere. As long as test scores remain high or are rising (regardless if they measure anything that matters), taking the road well-traveled will always be enticing. But, good leaders prepare for the next battle before the current battle is won. We now have a degree of certainty that the COVID-19 crisis will wane, and the most important thing is to retain and learn from the lessons of the last year: that students can learn well in a range of physical and virtual environments; that student and adult wellness are critical to long-term academic performance; that changing schools is not like turning an aircraft carrier; that equity remains our number one challenge to great learning for all children; and that COVID-19 won’t be the last such crisis we face. Perhaps most importantly, leaders must get their schools and districts to accelerate out of the curve as the pandemic wanes, rather than keeping a foot on the brake, which will lead to a default back to comfortable norms.

Can you speak to how a school should be thinking about the value proposition in the new landscape?

Over the last three decades, at least in the United States, we have undergone a radical differentiation in the K-12 education market. Families have a wide range of options for their children’s education, which means that each school must offer a strong enough differentiated value proposition to ensure continued student demand. If not, the school will weaken over time, and eventually close. This was the harsh evolutionary reality before the pandemic, and the last year has only increased these pressures. New learning options like “learning pods,” and the inability of some school systems to provide adequate virtual learning during 2020-2021 mean that families will continue to exercise their choices which will favor some schools and negatively impact others.

The antidote is for school leaders to deeply engage with their community of stakeholders. As I wrote in “Thrive,” all school leaders should be searching for that sweet spot in a three-circle Venn overlap between the standards we are required to meet, what we know as professionals are the keys to great learning, and what our community stakeholders want and need. It is not an easy needle to thread, but that is the challenge of defining and implementing a strong value proposition in a differentiated and rapidly evolving marketplace.

The staff has been under great strain. Any advice on how to pull them together in order to embrace change?

Despite some remarkable progress in the last decade, the majority of K-12 educators in America have never seen (and often never heard about) what a student-centered, inquiry-based learning experience looks and feels like. And, as I wrote in “Thrive,” most educators are uncomfortable with the processes of change; they did not wake up one day when they were younger shouting, “I love uncertainty and volatility; I think I will become a teacher!” 

At a recent virtual workshop a school leader shared the profound observation that, “Our faculty feel like they are being bullied, and COVID-19 is the bully that takes control of our lives; that is what bullies do. What our people want most is to get that control back.” Nothing could be more true. 

We know that before the pandemic, at many schools, many stakeholders were eager to transform their schools. They had great ideas and passion for a learning experience that is more relevant and responsive to the times and challenges we all face. They were thinking about both “what will we do tomorrow” as well as the long-term challenges of education. 

We need to create the conditions where re-taking ownership in that desire for transformation builds on the remarkable ability to change that so many educators showed last spring when, over a weekend or a period of a couple of weeks, they found a way to completely transform how learning might take place in virtual environments. 

Empowered leaders will rise to the occasion and relish the opportunity to be more strategic about designing a better future for their school, as we enter the post-COVID world. Great edu-leaders have been doing two things at once during this crisis year: taking care of the day-to-day struggle and keeping track of lessons learned in near-real time in order to craft better long-term outcomes. If we fail at either, the crisis will have been wasted.

Finally, we need to reverse engineer future solutions. Our school system was constructed by social engineers in the mid-19th century to solve problems that are not the same as those we face today. Before defaulting back to comfortable norms, let’s build a foundation that supports great learning in today’s environment, with tomorrow in mind, and throw out the baggage that no longer is most effective for the students we serve. Over the last year, an earthquake just shook our house down; don’t rebuild the same house!

Why are you bullish on the future of education and what advice do you have for the K-12 community?

I am bullish on the future of education, for those leaders and school systems that recognize this evolutionary moment and rise to the challenge. Evolution does not occur gradually over long periods of time; it takes place relatively rapidly during short bursts brought on by stress and crisis. This is one of those moments when some systems will thrive and others will become less relevant up to the point they just fail to attract sufficient demand to keep the doors open. Evolution is not necessarily pretty; it just is. I am bearish on those who fail to heed the call of this moment and this opportunity.

The pandemic brought one huge advantage to many, many educators: the power of networked connectivity. Suddenly, a future that we thought was science fiction, in which we were connecting in real time with peers and knowledge-sharers who we never would have otherwise met, became an overnight reality. We now know we have the power to thrive across networks that willingly share that which helps all of us to be better at creating great learning experiences. All education stakeholders should maintain, and in fact accelerate, this flow of knowledge across what I have termed the “cognitosphere” in which many more of us are now active. Schools, districts, and individual educator stakeholders have an historic opportunity right now, and those who continuously and sustainably boost highly distributed, multi-directional knowledge flow will be the influencing agents of innovative school transformation.

Innovation in schools has largely stagnated relative to the rest of the world because deviating from what we know is just too uncomfortable. There is a dangerous likelihood that many schools will default back to their pre-pandemic comfort zones because stakeholders are worn out by discomfort. Making this decision would compound the negative consequences of the pandemic without gaining from any of the positive lessons learned. Education leaders should accept that their comfort zones were probably always a myth, and they certainly are now.

Most school systems fail to incentivize, support, and reward bold, forward-looking leaders. We learned last spring that these very leaders are the ones who were first to test, adopt, and share what worked and what did not—accelerating the transition to virtual and hybrid learning for the rest. We have to permanently re-draw responsibilities and decision-making processes to empower those who lean into generating creative solutions to disruptive challenges.