Taking charge of your school's evolution

If you want your school to grow, the school and its community needs to take charge of that growth.

Every pathfinder school operating at the ‘Networked’ or ‘Digital Normalisation’ stage of the school evolutionary stages continuum discussed in the first article of this series - School evolution: A common global phenomenon - had taken charge of its own evolution. While a few have had some astute support from their education authority, the majority embarked on their evolutionary quest 15 to 20 years ago, and, throughout their journey, have recognised the importance of being proactive.

Those schools have fashioned a developmental strategy appropriate to their unique situation and are in the position they are today because they have taken control of their future. They understand that every school is unique with its own particular context, aspirations, mix of staff, resources, style of leadership, community and – vitally – position on the evolutionary continuum.

They appreciated that the professionals within the school were best positioned to understand the finer workings of the school and to identify the path ahead. While appreciative of external support, they took charge, took the calculated risks, and identified a path through uncharted waters.

While the initial inclination might be to view these early adopters and their leaders as ‘mavericks’, the research on organisational evolution and complexity theory, undertaken with both industry and schools (Lee, in press) is increasingly revealing the importance of evolving, digitally-based, tightly integrated and complex organisations – be they hospitals, universities or schools – taking operational responsibility for their own growth.

The traditional top-down, bureaucratic, ‘one-size-fits-all’, micro-managed approach favoured by governments has not only never facilitated substantial organisational growth, but is struggling to accommodate rapidly evolving, digitally-based organisations, where much of the growth is often uncertain, messy, seemingly chaotic, and non-linear in nature.

Lipnack and Stamps as far back as 1994 observed of bureaucracies and the rapidly evolving networked organisations, remarking that: ‘today’s complexity outruns bureaucracy’s ability to organise it.’

Commenting recently on the profound global impact of the veritable explosion in computer power, big data, and computer systems in organisations, Helbring (2014) contended that top-down governance could no longer work and that control had to be with the operational unit, arguing that: ‘…complexity theory [tells] us that it is actually feasible to create resilient social and economic order by means of self-organisation, self-regulation, and self-governance.’

Governments across the developed world, and Australia, are becoming more aware of the importance of schools having the autonomy to make their own decisions.

The telling observation is made in the organisational evolution literature. Pascale, Milleman and Gioja’s 2000 book Surfing on the Edge of Chaos states that: ‘Equilibrium is the precursor to death. When a living system is in the state of equilibrium it is less responsive to changes occurring around it. This places it at maximum risk.’

Schools in equilibrium should be rightly fearful of their continued existence.

Shaping your school’s evolution

Across Australia you will find all manner of schools taking charge of their own growth and evolution. In many situations the schools are like the pathfinders, doing so of their own volition, some doing so with the encouragement and support of their educational authority.

Critical to that to the desired evolution, as indicated in the precursor to this article, is the movement of the school from a paper to a digital operational base, and the school’s quest to normalise the use of digital technology in all of its operations. This was mentioned in Part A of Lee's 2014 article. While Lee and Broadie’s 2014 research identifies 46 key variables, what was vital to pathfinder schools successfully reaching ‘Digital Normalisation’ and the digital operational base, was their willingness to collaborate with homes in the teaching of the young, as well as to trust, respect and empower all within the school community and to distribute control of teaching and learning.

Organisationally, schools can’t hope to evolve in the manner and at the pace of the pathfinders until all the teachers are using digital technology in their everyday teaching, and until, according to Lee and Gaffney (2008), the school achieves digital takeoff and adopts a digital base and moves through the key evolutionary stages. It is not enough to have 30 per cent, 50 per cent or even 70 per cent of teachers move in time to the ‘Digital Normalisation’ stage. Rather it requires all teachers to use the technology naturally and astutely in their teaching and administration. If a school has achieved this and has the leadership of an astute principal, then the school is well on the way to shaping the desired growth and evolution.

If you believe your school has yet to genuinely take charge of its evolution and is falling ever further behind, exercise your professionalism and speak out. Whether you are a classroom teacher, a member of the professional support team, an executive, or a parent or school council member, it is important to express your concerns.

Locate your school on the evolutionary stages continuum discussed in the previous article, identify why the pathfinders have succeeded, share your concerns with your colleagues, and take your case forward.

The lead role of the principal

Lee’s 2014 study found that an astute principal with the desire and wherewithal to lead was critical to the evolution of every one of the pathfinder schools.

Ultimately, if your school is to grow and evolve in the desired manner the principal has to be willing and able to orchestrate that growth.

This is a challenging and complex task. The chief educational architect of a digital school needs to have the acumen and understanding to lead such schools. If the current principal lacks the digital acumen to lead such a school, the research, not surprisingly, suggests that even if the school has a deputy and teachers with the means, the school will struggle to grow.

External education agencies: support or impediment?

Traditionally school growth was deemed only possible when handled from above and applied simultaneously system-wide. As indicated, that approach to school has in practice and in theory passed its use by date.

The astute, prescient education authorities globally, and in many parts of Australia, understand the individual school has to be the prime unit of growth. As such their role ought to be to support and help each school shape its own future.

That said, the experience of the pathfinder schools, and those worked with in workshops, reveal that at this stage in the history of schooling the majority of educational bureaucracies are still a significant impediment to school evolution. Ironically, often the central and very costly ICT units are the greatest barriers to school digital normalisation. However, certifying authorities persisting with dated paper-based exams come in a close second.

Expensive external education support agencies that don’t add value to apposite teaching in a digitally-based world can, as has happened globally, be dispensed with.


While a marked departure from the traditional approach, in a digital and networked world it is becoming that much more important that every school takes charge of its own evolution and seeks to provide an education befitting that world.


Helbing, D. (2014). 'What the digital revolution means to us'. Science Business. Retrieved from http://bulletin.sciencebusiness.net/news/76591/What-the-digital-revolution-means-for-us

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

Lee, M., & Broadie, R (2014). A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages. Broulee Australia. Retrieved from http://www.schoolevolutionarystages.net

Lee, M. (2014a). ‘The Imperative of Digital Operational Base’, Educational Technology Solutions. No.60

Lee, M. (2014b). ‘Leading a Digital School’, Educational Technology Solutions. No. 58

Lee, M. (in press) Digital Normalisation and School Transformation.

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

Is your school taking charge of it's own growth and evolution?

Where does your school sit on the evolutionary stages continuum?