Tony Gurr

“Herding Cats” and Change 3.0 (Part 1)

In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, The Paradigm Debate on 06/11/2011 at 12:07 pm

As a young teacher I never really liked the metaphor “herding cats” (you have to watch this video BTW) – perhaps I just did not relish the idea that I was being seen as a “feline” that needed to be “managed” or “broken. I think much of this came from the fact that I always felt that I “ate change for breakfast” – and sometimes for dinner, too!

Perhaps, I am just more of a “dog kinda person”!


Anyways, one day (many, many moons ago) I was fortunate enough to get the chance to chat to one of my first “bosses” at lunch (we did not see him a great deal and I did not really know him that well – besides he was a bit “scary”). We got chatting about “change” and the large number of “change initiatives” the school was introducing – and he used “the phrase”!

I outlined my feelings about the notion of “herding” (very diplomatically). He thought for a minute and said:

Tony (he knew my name, cool) – we are “failing” as a school. Half of our department heads “haven’t got a clue”…probably more than half of our teachers do not really want to be here…and most of our kids are not learning. What would you do in my position?

OK – so my first thought was “Are his numbers correct”? My second thought was about the “staff meeting” a couple of weeks before – a staff meeting in which we’d been told that we were a “great bunch of teachers” working with an “even greater bunch of young people” (!)

But, I did not feel brave enough to mention either and simply said maybe we should just “ask the kids first…” – I remember he said something about “herding kids” being even more difficult than “herding teachers” – and I think he took his pudding away with him to his office.

We didn’t have lunch again and nothing much changedhe left at the end of the year (probably as disappointed as all the teachers were about the fact that we were not making the difference we all wanted to make). Sad really…


A few years later, when I had “grown up” enough to take on a “supervisory” role myself, I did start to see that the problem (in an organisational context) is that not all change is “internal” (stuff that we decide to do ourselves, for ourselves and our own learners) – much of it, sadly, needs to be “external” (introduced and “managed” by others, for us and our learners – but not always by “bosses”) and this is really where the “fit hits the shan”… It was also around this time that I heard around 75% of organisational change initiatives “fail” – and still fail even today…

Maybe, I should have stayed in banking afterall – a mortgage rate of 2.25% wasn’t too shabby and I would have got used to “selling my soul” over the 25 years it would have taken me to pay it off!


Of all the issues and challenges we face in education, “change” is the one that gets most of us worked up – most of the time.

We are LEARNing professionals, we know what’s best for our “kids”……and no buggar should tell us how to run our classrooms! 

Isn’t that how it goes?


But, and hear me out, what about “improvement” at an organisational level. We all know that most of us can only see as far as our own experience and we all have room for improvement. Our schools, colleges and universities might have have some of the best teachers in the world in some of our classrooms.

But what about the moral (and collective) responsibility we all have to ensure that every student in every classroom, gets to become as good as they can be?

This is what change in education is really about (or should be) – and, not all of this can come about through the individual efforts of individual teachers working in individual classrooms.

Good leadership is as critical to effective TEACHing and LEARNing as it is to effective curriculum, effective assessment – and effective improvement.

The problem, however, is how “change” is conceptualised – and, perhaps more importantly, implemented. This is especially the case if we have let things go for a while – and need to address a wide range of issues at a more “systemic” level


Change 1.0 

The “boss” I told you about earlier operated with this approach to change. Although, he wasn’t entirely from the “my-way-or-the-highway school of change management”, he operated with a top-down model of “improvement” – often referred to as the “command-and-control model”. This normally involves an “all-knowing expert” who formulates change initiatives and hands them down to his or her “subordinates” (hate this word) to be “implemented”.

A lot has been written about this approach to change (so, I won’t say too much). What I will say is that the conceptual model behind this approach is frequently the “unfreeze-change-freeze” thinking – a type of thinking that seeks to change how the organisation “does business” and, more often than not, views such initiatives as an “event”. We “unfreeze” the institution, insert the “change” – and give ourselves a pat on the back while we “freeze” the new system or process into the new way of doing business. Mission accomplished!

The problem? 

The “cats” nod their heads, clap at the end of the general staff meeting…and go on doing exactly what they have always done!


Change 2.0

Seeing the weaknesses of this model of change, many educational managers (borrowing from allthingsbusiness) upgraded to Change 2.0 – they LEARNed new stuff.

Change 2.0 recognises that change is a “process” (not an “event”) – and a process that requires a number of “motivators”. This makes “total sense” because we all know that effective change needs:

…and because:

…as well as:

…don’t forget this:

…this, too:

…and, let’s remind ourselves of this one (something you might all “recognize”):

When we take a quick look at these, is it that difficult to understand why 75% of our change projects fall flat on their faces? If we take a closer look – we also see that most of the “gremlins” that get in the way of effective change are, in fact, PEOPLE


Change 2.0, then, was built on a decepively simple idea: we need to align our change initiatives with the holy trinity of motivation, planning and management. This, in many cases, got us results – especially when educational leaders looked to best practices and funded the various motivators.

These things actually loaded the dice in favour of changes we wanted to see…

The problem?

It ain’t worked! A lot of the challenges in education remain challenges – we haven’t even scratched the surface (in practice)…sometimes it seems that even more than 75% of our initiatives have bitten the dust.


So, why is this?

Why has Change 2.0 not taken us to the promised land? Why are so many of us talking about…

And, what the bloody hell is it?


I did say this was…Part 1. More later…

  1. Tony, I have stumbled upon this site by accident. My lucky day!! I cannot believe there are no comments to this post! As a relative newcomer to teaching, ‘the system’ has always been an issue for me. Why do intelligent, dedicated long-serving (and suffering)professionals struggle within it? Your post has provided me with what I consider to be the most sense I have heard since day 1. In my opinion, the educational system in my country is in turmoil, and it’s time for the professionals to take charge. Your quote re how can we put pupils first when we put teachers last is an absolute diamond! Thank you:)

  2. […] While I am putting in my order, I would also like a list of those responsible for all this chaos piling up in my life. It seems the more I try to get things in order, the more random things become. I keep thinking about the cartoon I saw once with the man trying to herd cats. […]

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