Can People Change?

A Reflection After Fourteen Years as a School Principal

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Summers are a transition for many educators. It is a time to reflect, recharge, and (hopefully) renew.

For myself, I am embarking on my fifteenth year as a principal. This includes ten years as an elementary principal and four years as a junior high assistant principal and athletic director. My first year was as a dean of students on a teaching contract, but since I was essentially doing the same work, I am counting it because I can 😊.

A question recently surfaced: Can people change? It was a question I found during a writing retreat I attended as a Choice Literacy contributor.

The easier answer is: Yes, people can change. There is evidence that at any age someone can renew to become a better version of themselves. (I am operating from the position of positive cognitive change.)

For example, Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey found that people can reach more complex levels of understanding of the world.1 They mentally move from relying on right or wrong thinking (instrumental) or only adhering to external values set by others (socialized), to developing a set of beliefs about how they operate in the world (self-authoring).

A small percentage of individuals even reach a stage of cognition referred to as self-transforming. This level of cognition involves being able to consider different sets of belief systems while maintaining their own. Self-transforming individuals also can alter their beliefs when new and better information is presented. They are less attached to what they currently believe as they are aware that they hold a limited amount of knowledge about the world. (A side note: people typically do not reach the self-transforming stage until at least their 40s.)

Being able to consider multiple perspectives and to think critically about their own belief systems, and not just others, seems like an important capacity to develop in our increasingly complex world. How does one achieve this change? Educators in every position are confronted daily with this complexity. For example, to engage thoughtfully in the constant debate around “best practices” almost requires us to become more flexible and adaptive of mind.

To experience change, I have noticed that three elements need to be in place:

  1. A positive purpose to change for the better.

  2. Negative consequences if one does not change.

  3. Conditions for growth that support a person’s capacity to change.

I do not believe this is new information. But it feels important to revisit these ideas, especially coming off such a unique year. Next are my thoughts on each element for fostering change and renewal, in others and within ourselves.

A Positive Purpose

I have always enjoyed sports, but I have not always appreciated the practice and the exercise that went into making any athletic experience as successful as possible. When I was younger, I could get away with it. Now that I am in my 40s, I have realized that to continue to engage in downhill skiing, basketball, etc., I need to be more physically fit. That means going to the wellness center from time to time to increase my strength and endurance.

What is the positive purpose in our work? Of course, the kids…but it must be more specific. What about our students’ learning experience could be improved through our own improvement? So much research about instruction, as well as in adjacent areas such as neuroscience2, are highlighting ways that teaching and leading could be changed for the better.

For example, I learned in an article for The Reading Teacher that the gradual release of responsibility does not necessarily have to start with the teacher modeling a writing skill or a reading strategy.3 We could instead allow for the kids to immediately engage in independent practice if we believe they may already have the capacity for success. Thinking about how much time I might save as a teacher by allowing students to try an activity, and then to respond to only the students who need my support, is motivating for me.

Negative Consequences

What if what we are doing is inhibiting our own growth or the improvement of others? My lack of working out regularly was not allowing me to engage in basketball, as an example. I could not keep up with those younger guys on the court!

With evaluating instructional practices, the evidence is not always so “evident”. It might seem like our kids are benefiting from our decision-making: maybe they are compliant during a lesson or seem to be making gains in response to an intervention. Yet research can contradict our perceived experiences. For instance, consider:

  • Graham and Sandmel (2011) found that the workshop model by itself may not have the effect on writers that we would like (only a 0.34 effect size, less than the 0.4 hinge point you want to see with a practice). More concerning is the researchers found virtual no positive effect of the workshop model for students with specific learning disabilities.4

  • Stevens and colleagues (2021) conducted a meta-analysis of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions. The overall effect of O-G interventions is positive but not significantly significant. In other words, they may not help a student make at least one year’s worth of growth within one school year (what you don’t want to see with a reading intervention).5

So, to forge ahead with business as usual with these practices would require not just a disregard for the research but to also suspend reason in favor of preserving our own beliefs. Thankfully, the shifts are manageable for making the change that would lead to improved outcomes. For example, a little more support and structure within the workshop model for specific students might be just what is needed for them to be successful.

Conditions for Growth

Of the three elements, this is where literacy leaders of all stripes earn their paychecks. We don’t need to be the most knowledgeable about the research to lead change, but we do need to be able to cultivate the environments that allow all professionals to grow.

Dr. Gabriele Oettingen has studied self-improvement.6 She created the acronym “W.O.O.P.” as a routine to set up the conditions for growth for others or ourselves.  

  • Wish: What do I hope for in the future?

  • Outcome: How will I know if I am successful?

  • Obstacles: What is standing in my way?

  • Plan: How will I go about this learning or project?

This process can be used for strategic plans, for self-improvement efforts, and even when students are engaged in personalized learning projects (i.e. Genius Hour/20% time). I would humbly add one more step to this process: “So What?” (WOOPS?) That being, what did you learn from this experience, and what value was added to your life?

The Most Important Factor

These three elements seem to be critical if we seek change. The one factor that would be a thread through all three and seems most important is: does a person desire to change? That is beyond our control as leaders. All we can do is help create the best situation in which is most likely to occur and encourage everyone to engage in the process at some level.

Join us next month for our annual summer book study. We are reading Cultivating Genius by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. Read along with us while several educators will offer their contributions to the text on this site. And if you are not yet subscribed, sign up below.

1

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to Change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

2

Rick Hanson, a psychologist, has shared in his writings that our minds can actually make create physical change in our brains. For example, the consistent implementation of mindfulness practices can increase the size of certain areas of our brain associated with awareness and concentration.

3

Webb, S., Massey, D., Goggans, M., & Flajole, K. (2019). Thirty‐five years of the gradual release of responsibility: scaffolding toward complex and responsive teaching. The Reading Teacher, 73(1), 75-83.

4

Graham, S., & Sandmel, K. (2011). The process writing approach: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Educational Research, 104(6), 396-407.

5

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 0014402921993406.

6

Oettingen, G. (2015). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. Current.

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