DAILY INSIGHT: The Roots of Meaningful School Change

How can we reveal the hidden biases that affect our decision making?
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By Rob Mancabelli, CIO Advisor

Around the world schools are experiencing massive changes. In an era of severe budgetary cuts, remarkable technological advances and dizzying demographic shifts, educational leaders must decide which programs to adopt, discontinue, or modify. It’s a hard choice. And our natural inclinations make it even harder because biases in our decision making often point the way to the wrong solutions.

In my previous post, I highlighted one such bias—the Fundamental Attribution Error. That’s the tendency to blame people for bad situations rather than systems. Researchers have found that we’re much more likely to assume that the root cause of a problem is unmotivated or underperforming people, rather than a broken system sabotaging their success. It’s a powerful predisposition, and many people have asked me how to overcome it.

There’s no secret sauce. But there are questions you can ask yourself to reveal the hidden biases that affect your decision making. The next time you run into a problem, ask yourself:

1. What’s the change I want?

2. What’s the gap between the current reality and that goal?

3. What’s the root cause of that gap? (This question is critically important! A hint—it’s probably not “the people.”)

4. What’s the system we could implement to close the gap (and ensure it doesn’t return)?

Let’s work through an example. Say you run the technology at a school, and you’re overwhelmed by daily requests for tech support. In fact, there are so many small questions that it’s difficult to get to them all, let alone engage in work that would really change the classroom. What’s the answer to the problem? The Fundamental Attribution Error tempts us to point to the people. We might conclude that the users are particularly bad at technology. They’ll never learn, and, for that reason, we need more staff (which, given most budgets, we probably can’t get). However, if we walk through the questions above, we might reach a different conclusion.

1. The Change: To have more time to work on meaningful conversations about teaching and learning.

2. The Gap: Not enough time because too many simple requests from users.

3. The Root Cause: Ok, so it’s time for some self-reflection. Think of someone who is good at solving tech issues (maybe you!). What do they have that other users don’t? Online help manuals, an understanding of how to Google common problems, confidence in their technical ability, an online network of support, practice answering lots of issues…? All of these probably contribute to the endless emails and phone calls.

4. The Systems: OK, now we’re ready for some answers. We could label all of the equipment with easy to use instructions, teach a class after school on how to use Google for support, create an online FAQ site or resolve to use a more Socratic approach (Q&A) to providing support. Any (or all) would be a good start.

I know; those solutions are a lot of work. But so is running around putting out a million fires with no end in sight. Although they take more time, systemic solutions like these create an environment that breeds success and builds capacity across the organization. You may have to work extra hard to get these started, but, once they’ve begun, they pay back dividends tenfold.

Rob Mancabelli is the co-author of Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education. Let him know if you liked this post by going to www.mancabelli.com/category/blog/.