Kim Gibbons
Associate Director
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)

On behalf of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), welcome back to the start of another school year! Whether you are just beginning your career as a school administrator or are a seasoned veteran, the start of a new school year is always an exciting time filled with new opportunities and challenges. I’d like to kick off the start of the school year by talking about system change and the challenges to sustaining change and outcomes over time. I’m sure we can all identify a program or practice which resulted in some immediate positive outcomes, but then those outcomes were not maintained. Why does this happen? In their book, The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman (2016) make the distinction between technical and adaptive change. Technical change involves fixing an ordinary problem without changing the system. Adaptive change involves fixing a problem by disrupting the system. In the medical field, if high blood pressure is the problem, taking blood pressure medication is an example of technical change. On the other hand, changing diet and lifestyle is an example of adaptive change

In education, both types of change are needed. Technical challenges differ from adaptive ones in that problems and solutions are easy to identify, can sometimes be solved by mandates, and rarely involve looking at the underlying root causes of problems. Adaptive changes require a systems view, may involve changes in values, are difficult to identify, require ownership of the problem by the people closest to it, and require experimental thinking. Let’s think about the same problem from these two lenses. Suppose a district notices that many students are below proficiency on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. One school decides to provide interventions to students who are just below the desired proficiency (often referred to as students on the “bubble) while a second school decides to concentrate on improving literacy for all students by focusing on improving universal instructional practices. The first school may see some positive results in the first year, but the second school will most likely have more dramatic and long-term results three years later. The first school treated an adaptive challenge as a technical one and got quick but non-stainable change. The second school treated the problem as an adaptive challenge by taking a system’s approach and trying to understand the root cause of the problem.

Districts that take an adaptive approach to change understand the principles of system change. First, they understand that more data do not lead to better predictions. We have all heard the phrase “data rich but information poor.” Having a plethora of data without the infrastructure for staff to dialogue and try to understand root causes will likely not lead to lasting change. Second, adaptive change also rests on the principle that everything influences everything else. In schools, the school culture and climate in a building impact how adults feel about their work, the energy they invest, and the outcomes achieved by students.   Third, tiny events can create major disturbances. Consider a Professional Learning Community (PLC) where a trained facilitator is skilled at paraphrasing and inquiry. These facilitators are able to open up the thinking of others and have deeper and more meaningful conversations.   Finally, adaptive change leaders understand that you don’t have to touch everyone in the system to make a difference.

Adaptive change requires us to ask who we are, why we are doing things, and why we are doing things in a certain way. All too often, tradition and habit drive many school practices. A classic story summarizes this point. A little girl was watching her mother prepare a ham and wanted to know why her mom was cutting the end of the ham off before putting it in the pan. The mother told her daughter that she didn’t know why she cut the end off the ham but that is what her mother taught her to do. So, the little girl went to see her grandmother and asked the same question. The grandmother replied that her mother did it that way but she didn’t know why. The little girl went to see her great-grandmother and asked her why she cut the end of the ham off before putting it in the roasting pan. Her great-grandmother replied, “I grew up in a prairie in a little sod house, and our hams were very big. The oven was not large enough for the ham, so we had to cut the ends off to fit it in the oven.” Some would argue that many systems, including education, continue to cut the end off the ham long after the original rationale has passed. Our educational structure is founded on “hams and scraps” from earlier eras. Unquestioned assumptions become the ovens that we cook in.

CAREI wants to help districts with the adaptive change process so that results are sustained over time and improvement is seen throughout the entire system. To that end, we have several exciting professional learning opportunities that will be offered this school year that are aimed at facilitating adaptive change! In December, we will be facilitating Networked Improvement Communities (NIC’s) aimed at grouping districts together that are trying to solve similar problems of practice. CAREI will provide data support to these districts and help identify root causes and evaluate the impact of solutions! Check out the CAREI Website at for a list of professional learning opportunities and registration information. You should also consider becoming a CAREI member so that you can stay current on cutting-edge research and obtain access to resources to help your system with adaptive change. CAREI members receive a 20% discount on all professional learning opportunities. Please feel free to contact me at with any questions you may have!

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Rowman & Littlefield.

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