Changing the Minds of Others

Effective leaders will encourage rather than ignore or squash disagreement among school district staff because they recognize that when managed well, disagreements provide an opportunity to draw out assumptions, build shared knowledge, clarify priorities and find common ground.

Effective leaders also recognize more than one way exists to solve any given problem and they remain open to exploring alternative strategies or timelines for implementation.

On the other hand, they hold firm to the core principle that professionals have an obligation to seek out and implement the best practices for achieving the purpose and priorities of the school and district. Toward that end, they are willing to use every strategy that Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, has identified for changing someone’s mind.

In his 2006 book Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds, he offers these strategies (the words are not Gardner’s but the categories are):

  • Reasoning and rationale thinking. “Doesn’t it make sense that we can accomplish more by working together collaboratively rather than in isolation, by checking for student understanding through formative assessments rather than waiting for the results of summative assessments, by creating timely schoolwide systematic interventions when students experience difficulty rather than expecting each teacher to try to figure out how to respond?”

  • Research. “I have shared the research with you that supports this initiative. I found it compelling. Do you interpret it another way? Do you have any research refuting it we could look at together?”

  • Resonance. “I know you believe in equity and fairness. Wouldn’t it be more equitable and fair if we could assure students they would have access to the same guaranteed curriculum no matter who their teacher is, that their work would be assessed according to the same criteria, that we have a consistent way of responding when they struggle to understand?”

  • Representational re-description. “I have presented you with the data regarding the fact that large numbers of our students are not being successful. But let me put those numbers in human terms. Let me tell you some stories of the impact their failure is having on their lives.”

  • Rewards and resources. “I acknowledge this will be difficult. That is why I ask your help in identifying the resources you will need to be successful — time, training, materials support, etc. Let’s work together to identify them and I pledge I will do everything in my power to make them available.”

  • Real-world events. “I understand you have misgivings and predict negative consequences if we implement this initiative. But let’s visit some schools and districts that have done it successfully. You will hear the enthusiasm of the teachers as they explain how they and their students have benefited.”

  • Require. “I understand you remain unconvinced, but this is the direction in which we are going, and this is what you must do to help us get us there. My hope is that, as you work through the process it will be a positive experience, and you will come to have a more positive disposition toward it.”

Effective leaders must recognize that school improvement cannot wait for everyone in the organization to have a favorable attitude toward the proposed change. There is abundant evidence in the fields of psychology, organizational development and education that changes in attitudes follow rather than precede changes in behavior. When work is designed to require people to act in new ways, the possibility of new experiences are created for them. If those new experiences are positive, they can lead to new attitudes and assumptions over time.

Richard DuFour