How to Transform a System from 2.9 to 3.0

Chapter 4 of Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold describes the following strategies, principles, and open questions for transforming existing schools or designing new ones.


Strategies for paradigm change include transforming existing schools and designing new schools. Three approaches are available for each of these two strategies based on the scale of the effort:

  • Small scale: Charter schools have freedom to be a different paradigm. This approach is quickest and easiest, making it ideal to move the paradigm up its S-curve.

  • Medium scale: School districts have more freedom than individual schools within the district. Small districts should transform the whole district, whereas large districts should charter a district – comprised of a single high school and all the schools that feed students into it – to operate independently of the rest of the district.

  • Large scale: State-level change is brought about through a transformational dialogue among state leaders. It produces a semi-autonomous “transformation” unit to help school districts that are ready to transform.


Fundamental principles of paradigm change must be addressed for successful transformation. Here are the principles that matter most:

  • Mindset change. The process must place top priority on helping teachers, students, administrators, parents, and other community members to evolve their mental models about education.

  • Consensus. Decisions in the change process need to be made by building consensus through learning together and not by a win-or-lose vote system.

  • Stakeholder ownership. The process must facilitate broad stakeholder ownership in order to engender true commitment, reduce resistance, and enhance sustainability.

  • Invention. The process must include creating innovative school designs. Invention should consider and build upon what pioneering educators have already created elsewhere.

  • Ideal design. The process must help stakeholders to think in the ideal about their new educational system.

  • Leadership and political support. The process must have support and leadership from all formal and informal leaders in the district. The autocratic paradigm of leadership must be replaced by servant leadership, which builds a shared vision and supports all stakeholders in pursuit of it.

  • Readiness, capacity, and culture. A culture of empowerment, inclusion, consensus-building, collaboration, systems thinking, trust, disclosure, and no blame is necessary for the transformation process. Other aspects of readiness include knowing how to think about systems, engage in ideal design, make consensus-based decisions, operate as part of a group process, and understand the concepts of continuous improvement and sustainability.

  • Systemic leverage. The most impactful structural changes should be made first and then allow the remaining changes to emerge naturally over time.

  • Change process expertise. An experienced and impartial facilitator must guide the change process, and the role of this facilitator gradually transitions from facilitator to advisor.

  • Time and money. Individuals need to be available to participate in activities and discussions that help them to shift their mindsets, invent a new system, and implement the changes. And time is money.

  • Technology. Hardware and software are needed to support customization of student instruction and empower students and teachers to become more autonomous and self-directed.

More Resources

Banathy, B. H. (1991)

Systems design of education: A journey to create the future.

Duffy, F. M. & Reigeluth C. M. (2008)

The school system transformation (SST) protocol.

Jenlink, P. M. et al. (1998) 

Guidelines for facilitating systemic change in school districts.

Joseph, R. & Reigeluth C. M. (2010) 

The systemic change process in education: A conceptual framework. 

Reigeluth, C. M. (1993)

Principles of educational systems design

Open questions
  • Q: Which should change first: beliefs or behaviors?

A: It depends on the situation; but working on them simultaneously might be the best approach.

  • Q: Should stakeholders develop or just buy into the ideal vision?

A: The answer to how many and which stakeholders should be involved in developing the ideal vision depends on a variety of factors related to the school district.

  • Q: Should the entire school (or district) change at once or in phases?

A: The phased (or parallel systems) approach might be best for a large school district, one with divisiveness or polarization, and one with a high urgency for some (but not all) schools to change.

  • Q: Should you import a model or invent your own?

A: Over the next few years, more models need to be invented than imported; but eventually most models can be imported and little invented.

  • Q: How much of your new school should be pre-designed?

A: Find a reasonable middle point in the continuum between pre-design and emergent design. The exact right spot depends to some extent on whether you import a model or invent your own.


© 2015 by The Systemic Change Research Group at Indiana University

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