How To Start A Revolution At Your School

If our schools continue to educate in the ways of the past,
we will forfeit the future of our children

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 56
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

So you know your school has problems, and you think you know how to fix them. What do you do? Guest editor Linda MacRae-Campbell, Director of New Horizons for Learning (NHFL), the author of six books on global education, and a school-restructuring consultant, offers this primer on how to be a constructive – and successful – revolutionary. Linda also coordinates a new teacher certification program at Antioch University in Seattle that incorporates holistic teaching methods and effective change agentry. And take note: many of the insights gathered here can be applied in virtually any organizational setting, not just schools. Contact Linda at NHFL, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98103, Tel. 206/547-7936; or Antioch University, 2607 2nd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121.

Sometimes it is necessary to start a revolution. For children to become effective participants in an information society and an increasingly interdependent world, schools must assume new roles and approaches. Unfortunately, education has managed to stand still in the midst of fundamental changes in politics, technology, the environment, social demographics, economics, and breakthroughs in cognitive research and other fields. Clinging to an outdated industrial age model, our schools remain much as they were 150 years ago.

While we educate children in the ways of the past, we forfeit preparing them for their futures.

Many schools across the country have accepted the challenge of updating and upgrading their services. They have transformed their educational missions and goals, organizational structures, academic programs, instructional methods, the roles of administrators, teachers, staff, students, parents and community members and have established new relationships with local and global communities. However, most schools – doing the business of schooling as they always have – shun innovation and avoid serious dialogue about how to become effective learning communities.

The national outcry for improving our schools is echoed by politicians, the corporate sector, parents, the media, and innovative educators. Unfortunately, crying out won’t get the job done. Courageous individuals, working both within and outside of the schools, will midwife the transformation of our educational system by changing each school, one at a time. These individuals will instill a revolution of rising expectations as schools perceive new roles and methods appropriate for the emergent global learning society of the 21st century.

Individuals who are willing to serve as instigators of change will encounter formidable resistance as they work in the trenches. Their efforts must be well strategized and coordinated. Such "change agents" should be well informed, basing their game plans upon recent knowledge of educational change projects. Armed with the "how to" of restructuring, school transformers can skillfully "challenge the regularities of school life" (Sizer, 1989). Such information is not readily available; but once secured, it is a powerful force in toppling the entrenched traditions dominating the nation’s educational institutions. For those ready to take on the challenge, some guidelines follow.


Step One: Identify a need for reform within the school. Whether working for change from within or outside of the school, it is important to target a high-profile need or concern. For example, significant restructuring projects can be initiated by first addressing serious concerns such as drop-out rates, lack of parental involvement, excessive curricular add-ons, or other problem areas.

A starting point for many schools is writing a new mission statement that specifies the school’s philosophy, goals and values. Once this new mission is clearly articulated, school programs, curricula, teaching methods and, most importantly, staffing, all should reflect the school’s stated purpose in operation. If not, adjustments will have to be made to achieve internal integrity.

One of the primary responsibilities of a school’s change agent is to initiate honest dialogue at the school. This is no easy feat, since many teachers and administrators will be outright resistant or afraid to speak truthfully, or they will opt to maintain a "collegial" atmosphere. Change agents will necessarily have to engage individuals, small groups and full faculty meetings in repeated conversations about restructuring.

Step Two: Seek supporters for change. Strong advocates for the change project – from both within and outside of the school – should be identified and their support actively sought. It is unrealistic to expect any change effort to be undertaken with full consensus. It is also highly unlikely that a majority of those involved will embrace innovation.

However, consensus and majority favor are not necessary to initiate change. The number of people who must be convinced of a new concept or approach is approximately 15 to 20% of a school’s population. This percentage is significant enough for a shift to take place (Stern, 1985). Of course, some change projects have begun with as few as two supporters; but in such cases, the restructuring project usually takes longer to implement.

Another source of support for educational innovation can be found in the knowledge base of the cognitive sciences. In the last twenty to thirty years, there has been an explosion of information about how to optimize learning throughout the lifespan. Frequently, providing rationales for change efforts based upon solid research helps to diffuse many naysayers.

Step 3: Create and communicate an action plan for the change effort. To reduce the rampant skepticism abundant among most school staffs, the restructuring project should be well organized and coordinated. A written and/or visual model of the change effort should be developed and communicated, including timelines, activities, and task force members and responsibilities. It is important to devise ways to measure the results of the innovation, as well as how to provide appropriate recognition for those involved. It’s often wise to begin with small projects that gain visibility and success within the first three to four months. For major restructuring efforts, plan a minimum of three to five years before the project will be fully implemented.

Step 4: Secure the needed resources. Identify and secure human resources as well as material needs. These might include consultants, training programs, financial resources, or curriculum materials.

Usually, the most important resource is additional time for staff involved in restructuring. Many schools have altered their daily schedules to provide additional meeting time for staff members. Some sites begin school five minutes earlier each day to "buy" two half days of release time each month. Teachers’ schedules can be coordinated to enable the same planning time, additional salary for teacher work days beyond the school calendar can be generated, and substitutes can be hired. Offering teachers college credit for their efforts can also be helpful. To secure additional time, enlist the support of any or all of the following: the local teachers’ association, central administration, parent groups, community members, building principals and anyone who can devise creative approaches to time management.

Step 5: Acknowledge the emotional reaction to change. The school change agent should anticipate his or her own personal reactions to change, as well as the responses of others. An emotional cycle in the change process has been identified (Kelly & Connor, 1979) and includes five stages: (1) Uninformed optimism is the honeymoon phase of the project and provides the energy and enthusiasm to begin the restructuring effort. (2) Informed pessimism ensues when unexpected problems are encountered, the resistance of others rears up, and morale drops. This is a dangerous stage of the emotional cycle, and many change efforts are abandoned during this phase. For those projects that continue, the three remaining stages include (3) hopeful realism, when it is evident that some efforts will succeed in spite of the obstacles; (4) informed optimism, which emerges when confidence is restored as things move ahead; and finally, (5) rewarding completion, which is experienced by those involved in the change effort as they see concrete results of their work.

Another emotional phenomenon encountered in restructuring is the "Implementation Dip" (Fullan, 1982). When people agree to implement a new procedure or policy, a decline in their performance or work quality is experienced during their initial attempts. This can be humiliating and frustrating, and feelings of awkwardness and guilt often emerge. However, it is important to note that the decline in skills is only temporary. Once the dip has been reached, performance usually reorganizes at a higher level than before.

Any individual attempting to initiate change within a school must also realize that others will openly, verbally resist the change. Occasionally, the resistance takes the form of professional or personal attacks. Emotional fortitude, a sense of humor, and a personal support system are usually necessary to sustain the commitment of any change agent. Since the emotional rollercoaster ride of educational innovation appears inevitable, being forewarned of the ups and downs can – intellectually, at least – make the ride more bearable.

Step 6: Anticipate restructuring problems and identify problem-solving skills. Taking a proactive approach to many common restructuring problems serves to streamline and accelerate change efforts at a school. Common problems include, in order of importance: attitude and emotional issues; program process factors such as lack of coordination, planning or communication; and a lack of resources. Other predictable problems are unanticipated crises, competing demands, physical setting and low control (Miles et al., 1988). Change facilitators may want to plan how to handle such problems before they arise.

Active problem-solving methods are extremely important if a project is to be successful. Passive avoidance, procrastination, doing things the usual way, and shuffling people from task to task are weak strategies (Miles et al., 1988). Effective problem-solving strategies include vision-building and sharing, monitoring progress and revising plans accordingly, securing outside assistance, re-staffing if necessary, team-building, increasing resource control, and redesigning the school organization (Miles et al., 1988).

Since every attempt at revolution will undoubtedly be fraught with problems, it is crucial to use myriad coping skills. Sensing what is appropriate for any situation is an important intuitive skill to develop. At times, postponement and procrastination may, in fact, be the best approach. However, empowering school staff, establishing new roles and groups, monitoring and adjusting efforts often reduce restructuring problems.

Step 7: Share the leadership. For widespread change to become firmly implanted, it is necessary to share control of the project and work collaboratively with others. Securing both input and follow-through from diverse groups such as teachers, administrators, classified staff, students, parents, consultants, school board and community members will effectively broaden the support base. Sustained communication channels are necessary and can occur through weekly meetings, newsletters, bulletin items, phone trees, or other means.

Step 8: Anchor the innovation as quickly as possible to classroom practice. Change efforts that are quickly linked to the classroom are perceived as relevant and important. But a word of caution is in order here: as schools move towards shared decision-making policies, teachers are frequently inundated with trivial decision-making responsibilities. Ideally, issues that involve improving the learning of children and the teaching of teachers should be the primary focus of site-based management practices.

For new classroom practices to be implemented, a combination of support and pressure is required. Technical assistance should be provided. On-going staff development is necessary for schools to keep abreast of recent breakthroughs in learning, technology, and human development research. Rewards and recognition provide valuable encouragement for innovators at a school site.

Step 9: Embed the innovation into organizational practice. Once implemented, measured and refined, innovations then become part of organizational life. The restructuring effort becomes embedded in many aspects of school life including the philosophy, budget, policies and practices of the administration. Competing priorities are eliminated to better focus the change efforts, and increasing numbers of personnel will make use of the change at this stage.


Educational innovation is a process that can be understood, managed and valued as positive results are achieved. It is also a process that must become a regular feature of school life, enabling the continual initiation, implementation and institutionalization of change within each school.

Restructuring does not happen overnight and cannot be initiated by the faint of heart. The task may appear daunting, and the co-conspirators few in number. But we can take heart from Margaret Mead’s reminder, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

We can also anticipate personal satisfaction from dedicating our efforts to the single most important field of human endeavor: education. Perhaps the self-acknowledged revolutionaries will look back on their attempts to awaken schools from their Rip Van Winkle sleep and glean the greatest rewards not from what was achieved, but rather from what they became by starting a revolution in their school. Learning, the gift that life bestows on those who accept challenges and reflect upon them, is guaranteed for all involved.

Our children are waiting for us to act. Their human capacities yearn to be fully developed, engaged and freed. The students of our nation’s schools must be prepared to walk into their futures, not dwell in our pasts. It is futile to wait for others to change the structure and services of our educational institutions. The change must occur at each school one by one. The time is now for any one of us – a parent, teacher, community member, administrator, or student – to demand that our school improves and then see to it that it does.


Fullan, M. (1982). The Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Kelly, D., Conner, D.B. (1979). "The Emotional Cycle of Change." The 1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators. Fairfax, VA: University Associates.

Miles, M. B., Louis, K.S., Rosenblum, S., Cipollone A., Farrar, E. (1988). Lessons for Managing Implementation. Center for Survey Research: University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA.

Sizer, Theodore. (1989). "Diverse Practice, Shared Ideas: The Essential School". In H.J. Walberg & J.J. Lane (Eds.) Organizing For Learning Toward The 21st Century. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Prinicpals.

Stern, E. (1985, March). "How An Idea Spreads." Address to Spirit of Peace Conference, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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