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How Large-Scale Change Really Happens - Working With Emergence

Margaret Wheatley Ed.D. and Deborah Frieze ©2006
The School Administrator Spring 2007

In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time.  It changes as networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.  This is good news for those of us who want to change public education.  We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits.

This is why networks are so important.  But networks aren’t the whole story.  They need to evolve into intentional working relationships where new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment can develop, such as happens in Communities of Practice. From these relationships, emergence becomes possible.  Emergence is the process by which all large-scale change happens on this planet.   Separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies.  What emerges as these become stronger is a system of influence,  a powerful cultural shift that then greatly influences behaviors and defines accepted practices.

Can public education be changed?

For decades, educators, theorists and citizens have struggled with the question of how to change public education to serve the needs of our society.  Think about how many different reform efforts you’ve seen in your career.   Yet how many of them achieved the intended results? By now, most educational leaders are frustrated and exhausted, fearing they’ll never find the means to change public education.

Yet the great irony is that we have just witnessed and experienced first-hand perhaps the most profound change in education in American history.  This change is the rapid appearance of what we’re calling here a Culture of High-Stakes Testing.  As an administrator, can you even remember what you were doing before No Child Left Behind?

There is no question that No Child Left Behind has accomplished unprecedented changes not only in public schools but also in society.  We’re not commenting here on whether those are positive or negative changes; we only want to note the scope of NCLB’s reach and influence. NCLB determines most decisions, methods and behaviors in schools.  Its demands have transformed teacher preparation programs, curriculum design, textbooks, parent expectations and relationships with schools, and student expectations about learning.  Its rankings of schools even affect real-estate values.   By any method of evaluation, NCLB has been a powerful force for change in 21st century America.

But has it accomplished its intent?  The official legislation for NCLB states it would “close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”  In his first days in office, President Bush stated that: “These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America....too many of our neediest children are being left behind."

NCLB planned to accomplish this by focusing on four elements:

  1. Stronger Accountability for Results
  2. More Freedom for States and Communities
  3. Encouraging Proven Education Methods
  4. More Choices for Parents

The intent of NCLB, then, was to create a Culture of Achievement for All (our term) by focusing on freedom, choice, reliability of methods and better results.  To accomplish these ambitions, traditional change theory was applied.  This change theory includes several sequential steps.  You create a vision, develop a strategy, write a policy, design an implementation plan,  structure a timeline of activities and desired outcomes, design assessment and evaluation tools, then parcel out the work.  In terms of relationships, you seek allies and change champions from senior leaders, use policies and legislation to enforce the new behaviors, develop rewards and enticements to achieve buy-in, punish those who don’t buy it, and develop a communication strategy to create good press.  This should sound familiar, because it has been and remains the primary way we do change in education (and in all types of organizations). (Educator Stephanie Pace Marshall describes this as “the old story” in The Power to Transform, Jossey-Bass, 2005) 

This theory of change has several embedded assumptions:
  • change is top-down and requires top-level support
  • change requires careful planning and good controls
  • change happens step-by-step in a neat, incremental fashion
  • behavior can be mandated
  • rewards and punishment motivate people to change
  • large-scale changes require large-scale efforts

NCLB and its implementation plans embodied this theory perfectly.  If this approach to change was ever going to work, it would have been here.  Yet most would agree it has failed to achieve its intentions. The intent was to create a Culture of Achievement for All (our term), but what has emerged is a Culture of High Stakes Testing (also our term) which acts to subvert achievement and learning.  NCLB has also had a wearying and demoralizing effect on educators.  Australian teachers visiting U.S. classrooms described teachers as “panicked.”  One teacher renamed NCLB, “No Teacher Left Standing.”

How could this have happened?  How  could such profound changes occur, creating results opposite to what was intended. To answer this question, we need to shift our lens and notice how change really happens on this planet.

Change Happens Through Emergence
In all living systems (which includes us humans), change always happens through emergence.  Large-scale changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high.  Instead, they begin as small, local actions.  While they remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond their locale.  However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system.  This sudden appearance, known as an emergent phenomenon, always brings new levels of capacity.  Three things are guaranteed with emergent phenomena. Their power and influence will far exceed any sum of the separate efforts. They will exhibit skills and capacities that were not present in the local efforts.  And their appearance always surprises us.

A simple way to understand emergence is to look at the phenomenon of the “Perfect Storm.”  Meteorologists can never predict the sudden appearance of these super-powerful storms.  Their power is a result of a number of discrete and often invisible factors converging in perfect synchrony.  If any one of the elements were not present at that very moment, the storm could not emerge.  It is the “perfection” of their convergence that creates such overwhelming power.  This power cannot be predicted by assessing the strength of  individual forces or by summing their combined power.  It is the simultaneity of their convergence, that they all come together in the moment, that creates their power.

NCLB activated unseen dynamics in the atmosphere of America to create education’s Perfect Storm.  Many local changes that had little significance in isolation converged with other changes to create a force no one can ignore.  No one could possibly have predicted what emerged: educators hanging on to life rafts, struggling to maintain a focus on achievement, learning, the whole student, the arts and so forth, as they react to the gale force demands of high stakes tests.

This Culture of High-Stakes Testing is an emergent phenomena, what we name as a “System of Influence”  In human organizations and societies.  A System of Influence determines accepted practices and patterns of behavior; it sets the criteria for what’s important and what’s not.  Over time, those who fail to conform to these requirements get labeled as deviant and pushed to the fringes.  A System of Influence, like a culture, sets the values, norms, expectations, beliefs and assumptions.  It determines where resources go, what practices to use, which behaviors to reward.  To understand how these powerful, determining systems of influence arise, we have to look into the dynamics of emergence.  Once we understand these dynamics, we can work with emergence to create a new system of influence that better serves our intentions.

The Emergence of the Culture of High-Stakes Testing

What were the invisible and discrete forces that converged to create this Culture of High-Stakes Testing?  While we describe them here separately, it is how they interacted and converged, their dynamic interplay, that gave rise to this Perfect Storm. Here are just a few—we encourage you to think of others.
  • Overwhelming diversity of needs, cultures, problems in the classroom
  • A loss of confidence in public education and its professionals
  • Realization that America is falling behind other nations in the global economy
  • Students failing to achieve
  • Employers complaining that graduates lack basic skills
  • Hegemony of the corporate model: command and control leadership; focus on results; motivation through fear and rewards; only numbers count
  • Increasing use of simple metrics to describe complex phenomena
  • Development of computerized testing
  • Increasing reliance on testing to sort students
  • A culture that has difficulty with ambiguity and diversity
  • A culture that wants easy answers, quick fixes and silver bullets

None of these changes, beliefs, or dynamics by themselves are sufficient to create the level of system-wide change we have just experienced in education. NCLB provoked these and made them visible.  They converged in unanticipated ways to emerge as this Culture of High-Stakes Testing.   Now this culture dominates and influences everything we do in education.  This is the nature of emergent phenomena.

Working with Emergence to Foster Change

This is how we got here.  Now, how do we change it?  How do we create  a society where no child is left behind, how do we succeed in creating schools where teachers can focus on learning, where all children can achieve?  Although the dynamics of emergence can seem distressingly complex, there is a simple change theory embedded here that provides hope, opportunity and a clear map of what we need to do as leaders.

Emergence is a description of large-scale change.  These Systems of Influence have broad reach and affect behaviors throughout the system.  Yet emergence doesn’t start big.  It  begins with small local actions.  Large-scale change emerges from connections among these local efforts, from the exchanges of learning and the forging of relationships.  

Even though we might experience this Culture of High-Stakes Testing as permanent and immovable, it can be changed.  But not through looking for fixes or applying our old theory of change.  You can never “fix” an emergent phenomenon.  It’s not possible to work backwards.  Even if you could change all the discrete elements, you could never replicate how they converged. What we can do is much easier and more straightforward.  We begin to create system-wide change by  working locally.  It is locally that we learn how to be the change we want to see in the world. (Ghandhi was right.)  At the start, these small efforts seem impotent, puny in the face of the dominating culture.  And by themselves, they are insufficient. 

These initial local experiments not only teach us how to make the future come alive in the present.  At a more subtle level, they activate supportive beliefs that have been suppressed by the current culture.   For example, if you design a program for students that results in high levels of achievement for economically-poor students, you activate those in the community who still believe in the American ideal of opportunity for all.   Many such supportive dynamics and beliefs are invisible now, but they appear as we do our work.

The work of educational leaders is to encourage local experiments, to watch for and nourish supportive beliefs and dynamics, and to sponsor faculty and staff to connect with all the kindred spirits now working in isolation. This is how we intentionally work with emergence to create the future we desire.

Intentionally working with emergence

Emergence has a life cycle. In each stage, connections become stronger  and interactions more numerous and diverse.  It begins with networking, connecting people who are often so busily engaged in their own efforts that they have no idea what’s happening outside their building or district.  Often, simply discovering you’re not alone offers a huge boost to morale. 

Yet networking is only the beginning.  The second stage is when people realize that they can create more benefit by working together.  Relationships shift from casual exchanges to a commitment to work together in some way.  Personal needs expand to include a desire to support others and improve professional practices.  Although there are many ways these connections can manifest, one widespread example in both corporate and education is Communities of Practice (CofPs). The Ball Foundation in Chicago defines the CofPs they fund as, “a group of practitioners dedicated to learning with and from one another in pursuit of promising instructional, organizational and leadership practices that support increased student achievement.”

Communities of Practice have become a common process in schools and districts.  Many educational foundations are extending the theory and practice of CofPs. (See, for example, IDEA Partnership, www.ideapartnership.org.)  Formed within buildings, districts, or across states, they connect teachers, administrators, and professionals who are advancing their field of practice or solving specific problems.  Topics can range from improving reading skills of third graders in a school  to developing new models for teacher preparation across campuses nationwide.

Although CofPs are now an accepted practice in public education, do we fully appreciate the role they can play in creating the conditions for a new System of Influence to emerge?  The theory of change through emergence that we’re describing here only happens through a strengthening of connections and a linking together of disparate efforts.  CofPs provide a powerful means to do this.


How CofPs are changing learning in the U.S. Army
by Margaret Wheatley

In 1993-94, I spent enough time with the Army to appreciate how much it focused on learning.  As one Colonel said: “We figured out that it’s better to learn than be dead.”  But until recently, learning occurred within a culture of command and control. The Army has several well-established, structured approaches to learning, including Army Lessons Learned and After Action Reviews.  Unfortunately, the outcome of this highly structured approach has been the opposite of what was intended. According to a 2005 article in the New Yorker, officer training had become so bureaucratic that it was encouraging “reactive instead of proactive thought, compliance instead of creativity, and adherence instead of audacity.”

Then came Iraq, where we face an enemy who constantly changes tactics and creates deadly innovations that catch soldiers by surprise.  In this volatile environment, traditional processes for capturing lessons learned are too slow.  Soldiers need instant access to what just happened, what another soldier just experienced across Faluja or Baghdad.   To save their lives and to support their buddies, junior officers began to turn to one another for real-time learning.  Because they have electronic access everywhere, it became possible to create virtual CofPs where soldiers could share knowledge instantly, in the midst of battle even, rather than waiting for answers from the chain of command.  As a result, tactics and responses now come not from Army doctrine, but from immediate first-hand experiences. 

The preeminent virtual CofP is CompanyCommand.com, launched in 2000 by Nate Allen and Tony Burgess, company commanders based in Hawaii who spent evenings on the porch sharing stories and lessons learned. It began as an informal web site to extend these conversations to other company commanders. By 2004, their membership exceeded ten thousand, and the Army, realizing the value of this CofP, brought the site in-house.  They chose to support it rather than to shut it down, even though it meant relinquishing control and ignoring training protocol. In January ’07, I asked a group of company commanders how many of them used CompanyCommand.  Every single one of them did, and they told me of new CofPs springing up focused on specific weaponry or needs. 

In Iraq, the capacity for generating real-time, collective intelligence has been essential for survival; it has also changed the nature of learning and battle tactics in a large hierarchical system.  CompanyCommand is a brilliant example of how a small, local effort that catalyzes connections and demonstrates real results emerges as a new System of Influence focused on learning rather than command and control.  This accomplishment offers hope and  inspiration to anyone working within a large. controlling hierarchy.  Educators, please take hope.

In many years of organizational work, we authors have learned that for any issue, the solutions we need are already here.  If you’re looking to solve a problem, look inside the organization or system and you’ll find someone who’s already worked out a solution or created the needed new process.  It seems to us that CofPs are just that—the solution we need, already here.  What’s lacking is the realization that they are a major means to create the changes we yearn for.  Our old theories of change didn’t allow us to appreciate their power.  We believed that large-scale changes require large-scale efforts.  With that lens, we scarcely notice CofPs; they’re too small, too localized.  But with emergence, it’s not critical mass we have to achieve.  It’s critical connections.  Anything that strengthens connections is important.  CofPs aren’t the only means to do this, but they are a tried and tested process for developing connections, promoting learning, and evolving practices that work. And they are already available to us.

What if, as educational leaders, we could understand that Communities of Practice are a powerful route to large-scale change?  We would no longer view them as a fad or an interesting diversion from traditional processes. Instead, we would invest in them more seriously.  If they weren’t working well, we wouldn’t dismiss them, abandon them or stop funding them.  Instead, we would make it a priority to figure out how to make them successful.  We would invest whatever it took in time and resources to ensure their viability and vitality. 

As leaders seeking to refocus schools on achievement and learning, we would identify a new role for ourselves: weaving a stronger, more diverse web, making and strengthening connections.  In this new role, there are many things to do:
  • We would focus institutional resources in support of those efforts that developed more connections. 
  • We would bring staff together more frequently to think together and to discern what we’re learning. 
  • We would seek difference--both people and ideas that offer new perspectives.
  • We would keep expanding the web, including new and different people in all activities. 
  • We would support more local efforts and innovations, then insist that staff and faculty take them out into the world and connect with others.
  • We would offer financial support for practitioner gatherings that provided opportunities for real exchanges.

We would also focus on how we could activate or strengthen dynamics that presently are invisible in this high-stakes testing culture.  These include: people’s natural desire to work in community; our human need to seek supportive relationships; the fact that learning is social and flourishes in relationship.  And we could activate ideals that live deep in the American psyche: that all children deserve education; that education is the route out of poverty; that we want fairness, justice and equality; that America is the land of opportunity where anyone can succeed if they try.

If, as leaders, we do our work at innovating at the local level, if we work hard to strengthen connections, and if we embody these societal ideals in our own work, then we will be doing all we can to work towards the emergence of a new System of Influence that makes it possible to fulfill these desires and ideals. If we can look thoughtfully at how we got into this testing culture that no one wanted, we will understand how change really happens on this beautiful planet.  And a new map  will reveal itself for how we can work with emergence to create an educational system that truly leaves no child behind.


Communities of Practice in Schools

The IDEA Partnership reports that over 33 states now participate in Communities of Practice at some level. At the state level, “CoPs provide a way to learn from and with those closest to the work.  Stakeholders have expertise that cannot be known by those in other roles.  By uniting decision makers, practitioners and consumers, the state agency has a powerful new lens through which to view challenges and opportunities.  As well, stakeholders bring well established networks into the CoP that permit information sharing that is faster and deeper. Most importantly, organizational networks help build the deep understanding and ongoing connections necessary to create sustainable change.” (www.ideapartnership.org)

In 2004, Myron Rogers and Joann Ricci of The Ball Foundation worked with Chula Vista Elementary Schools to form a CofP focused on independent reading as a component of a comprehensive literacy program. Chula Vista is the largest K-6 elementary district in California, with over 23,000 students. More than ten schools (out of 39) had joined the CofP in its first year. This CofP provides school staff with an opportunity to share instructional practices, solve problems, create new knowledge and innovate around learning and teaching.
 (see www.ballfoundation.org, for detailed descriptions of the work of these CofPs.)

CofPs among administrators are more difficult to organize, but have been used in several places, including West Clermont, Ohio, San Diego, and Washington State district teams.  Both Ohio and Washington have had groups of principals regularly view videos of teaching and then discuss what is effective instruction.  San Diego uses school walk-throughs followed by in-depth conversation for the same purpose. See article at http://www.schoolchange.org/content/view/25/3/1/1/



Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.

Deborah Frieze is Co-President of The Berkana Institute, a non-profit organization that connects and supports pioneering, life-affirming leaders around the world who strengthen their communities by working with the wisdom and wealth already present in its people, traditions and environment. She also works with The Mastery Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to peace and reconciliation in such divided communities as Northern Ireland and Israel. www.berkana.org


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