Nothing endures but change – Heraclitus
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read, see, or hear someone expressing concern about primary, secondary, or higher education at the local, state/provincial, national, or even global level. In different quarters responses to these concerns are being framed and/or implemented. This will inevitably lead to change.
Although there are numerous models of how change happens, I find the one developed by the family therapist Virginia Satir the most useful. She says that change takes place in four major stages.
The first stage is called the Old Status Quo. This is when a system has been in operation for some period of time and people have developed a set of expectations and predictions about it. There is a certain level of comfort in the Old Status Quo – everything is familiar and in balance. Systems will stay in the Old Status Quo until something negative or disruptive happens that the people in the system can no longer ignore or deny. Virginia Satir calls this something the foreign element.
As the system responds to the foreign element the system may become disarranged and enter the second, or Chaos stage. Here the old predictions no longer work and expectations are not fulfilled. In a chaotic organization awareness and effectiveness may oscillate between high and practically nil.
When people start to move out of the Chaos stage new possibilities emerge. These often coalesce around what Satir calls the transforming idea, an understanding that can change everything. During this stage, Integration & Practice, new things are practiced and good ideas are refined, bad ones are discarded. But even with the excitement of newfound energy and movement, moments of clarity may be clouded by feelings of doubt. Some people misconstrue the “Aha!” of the transforming idea as the change. It is not.
If the integration and practice lead to new patterns and practices, the system enters the fourth stage, New Status Quo. Unfamiliar things become familiar. New expectations are framed. There is a sense of balance and accomplishment and renewal. One caution, though: one reason that change is so difficult is that everything is connected to everything else. So a transforming idea in one area may become a foreign element in another area.
Virginia Satir also points out that another impediment to change is that many systems try to expel the foreign element and return to Old Status Quo because, “Familiarity is always more powerful than comfort.”
William Bridges alerted me to another important facet of change. The Satir model aptly depicts the flow from old way to new way. Bridges points out that there is another, more personal level to the process, and that we often confuse change with transition. A change is a shift in the world around us. A transition is an internal process we go through in response to that shift. Changes are events and situations; transitions are experiences. Regardless of the change that triggers it, a transition has a predictable form. Whereas changes have two stages, the old way and the new way, transitions have three, overlapping phases:
First there is an Ending, during which you disengage from “the way things were.”
Next there is a Neutral Zone, when you are between two ways of doing and being, having lost the old and not yet having the new.
Finally there is a New Beginning, after which you feel at home and productive in “the way things are.”
Too often we experience foreign elements, plan our responses, and agree to changes with little or no thought to the ensuing transitions. We assume that if people understand the change outcome and accept it as necessity they will adjust to change. In my experience people are less inclined to resist change than they are to resist transition. It requires a significant culture change to build the awareness and skills to help people through transitions.
As we journey through various attempts at improving our education systems we do well bearing in mind the wisdom of Thorstein Veblen: “There is no change, no matter how awful, that won’t benefit some people, and no change, no matter how good, that won’t hurt some.”