School evolution: A common global phenomenon

It is becoming increasingly apparent that schools operating on a digital base, like all other such organisations, will continually evolve, transform and adapt to a higher form.

Moreover, they will do so in a remarkably common way, displaying at each stage of their evolutionary journey remarkably similar attributes.

So similar are the developments globally that one can now posit that all schools sit at a point on an indicative international evolutionary stages continuum, and that schools and their communities have in the continuum a simple scale on which to quickly position themselves and better understand the likely road ahead.

Studies, by myself and in conjunction with colleagues, of over 70 pathfinder (early adopter) schools from the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia, that have or nearly have normalised the whole school use of the student’s own digital technology in all facets of their operations, provide a telling insight into what happens with schools as organisations when they move from their traditional paper to a digital operational base (Lee & Finger, 2010), (Lee & Levins, 2012), (Lee & Ward, 2013), (Lee & Broadie, 2014), (

It appears to matter not where schools are located, or where they sit on the socio-economic scale. Whether small or large, primary or secondary, state, Catholic or independent, according to Lee and Gaffney (2008) in Leading a Digital School, once they succeed in having teachers use digital technology in their everyday teaching and have an astute principal willing to lead, they will experience ‘digital take off’, leave the constancy and continuity of the traditional paper-based school, and move into a world of ongoing change and evolution.

So far, we have only known one form of schooling, the traditional ‘stand alone’ paper-based school that operates behind its walls in a similar manner year after year. This is rapidly changing.

The combination of evermore sophisticated digital technology, ever rising expectations and ever greater appreciation of the opportunities availed by technology, ensures that the schools that move to a digital operational base will experience significant natural growth and, when under the leadership of an astute head, will continually transform their operations.

In examining the evolution of the pathfinder schools, Lee and his colleagues were struck by the remarkable similarity of their experiences. In their journey, all had addressed bear on 50 common key variables. All had also moved through a series of key evolutionary stages and at each stage demonstrated a suite of common attributes. Significantly, all the schools believed they needed to move through each of the stages before progressing to the next.

What was pertinent was that these pathfinders had taken 15 to 20 years of concerted astute effort to reach their current position, with many beginning with the launch of the Mosaic web browser in 1993.

The telling point is that it takes years, not months, to fundamentally change school cultures and to normalise the whole school community use of digital technologies. While later adopter schools should not take as many years, the simple ‘overnight’ change projected by governments and the technology industry is a myth.

Stages to whole-school digitisation

In positing what to many will be a novel concept of there being the common global evolution of schools, it is recognised that while the idea is new to educators, it has been core to business organisational change literature for over 20 years. Peters, as far back as 1987, wrote of 'Thriving on Chaos', while Lipnack and Stamps in1994 wrote on the evolution of networked organisations, as did Thorp (1998), Bar et al. (2000) and Pascale, Millemann and Gioja (2000).

Presently, there six major evolutionary stages. The theory suggests that a new school, with the right principal, apposite staff and infrastructure could soon progress to the digital normalisation stage. However, the reality is that schools have to work with what they have; the staff, culture and context. Thus, in the vast majority of situations, each will need to move through each of the stages before being able to move to the next.

At the paper-based stage (the traditional school) the majority of the teachers have yet to use the digital technology in their everyday teaching and still rely on the pen, paper and teaching board.

At the early digital stage a critical mass of the teachers, in the region of 70 per cent plus, are using the digital in their everyday teaching and the pressure is on the remaining staff to make the shift.

By the digital stage almost all teachers are using digital technology in their everyday teaching, but the focus of the teaching is still primarily on what happens within the school walls. Vitally, when the school’s main operation – its teaching – goes digital, and is coupled to a largely digital administration, the school moves to a digital operational base.

At the early networked stage the school begins to recognise the educational benefits of social networking in its widest sense, to reach out beyond the school walls and begin genuinely collaborating with the community.

By the networked stage the school walls are coming down and the school is beginning to collaborate with homes and the community in the year-round teaching of the students.

The digital normalisation stage sees the school having normalised the use of the children’s own choice of digital technologies in every facet of its operations and has evolved a tightly integrated school ecology fundamentally different and largely antithetical to that of the traditional school.

For further information on each stage visit


In assessing the likelihood of the digital stimulating ongoing school evolution one need but look at the transformation occurring with every other digitally-based organisation.

The idea that schools globally will universally evolve through common stages, displaying at each stage remarkably similar traits, and that one can employ a common evolutionary measure, might initially appear ‘way out’. However, reflect for a moment on how young people have evolved in their use of the internet or the similarity of the organisational evolution in other industries and you’ll begin to appreciate why in an increasingly digital and networked world, schools, as complex organisations, will evolve globally in a similar manner.


Bar, F., Kane, N., & Simard, C. (2000). Digital networks and Organizational Change. The Evolutionary deployment of Corporate Information Infrastructure. Paper presented at the International Sunbelt Social Network Conference, Vancouver

Lee, M., & Broadie, R. (2013, June 19) The Evolutionary Stages of Schooling and Stage Indicators. Retrieved from

Lee, M., & Broadie, R. (2014) A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages. Retrieved from

Lee, M., & Finger, G. (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community. Melbourne: ACER Press

Lee, M., & Gaffney, M. (eds), (2008) Leading a Digital School. Melbourne: ACER Press

Lee, M., & Levins, M. (2012) Bring Your Own Technology. Melbourne: ACER Press

Lee, M., & Ward, L. (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls. Melbourne: ACER Press

Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (1994) The age of the network: Organizing principles for the 21st century. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Pascale, R.T., Millemann, M., & Gioja, L. (2000) Surfing at the Edge of Chaos. New York: Three Rivers Press

Peters, T. (1987) Thriving on Chaos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Thorpe, J. (1998) The Information Paradox. Toronto: McGraw-Hill

Where does your school sit on this continuum?

Do you, your colleagues and your community believe that, in time, your school will need to normalise the use of the digital to provide the education you want?

If so, what is the likely path ahead for your school and how long will likely be the journey?