School Leader as Social Architect

Most schools approach change from a top-down perspective.  School leaders construct a vision statement, set goals and objectives, structure the changes, devise an evaluation system, and reward those that support the change.  School strategies for change also largely follow an engineer-economist model with an emphasis on control and cost.   However, as Peter Block points out, if an organization wishes to be truly successful the leader must become an architect who blends social skills with those of the engineer and economist.

As Block writes in The Answer to How is Yes, leaders typically adopt an engineering-economist framework that defines how they approach change. And in many ways an engineering-economist partnership makes perfect sense. After all, an engineer is pragmatic and strives to measure, control, predict, and automate an environment. The engineer wants to know how things work in a tangible way and desires concrete solutions to problems. Thus, the engineer-as-leader focuses on control and predictability, such as “What tangible steps can I take to get my staff to do what I want them to do?”

The economist defines change in economic terms: How much does it cost? How long will it take? What will we get for it?  The economist believes that money, tangible or tangible rewards and incentives lead us to act in a certain way. In a school setting, these economist questions can manifest themselves in discussing what technology to purchase or the number of staff to be hired.  Cost and productivity are defining issues from an economist’s perspective.

Yet, in contrast to the engineer and economist, an architect does not focus exclusively on the practicalities of change, but also assesses the subjective and artistic aspects of the environment. A social architect stresses the importance of emotions and sentiments. The social architect assesses change through the lens of human experience and feelings and brings artistry to the impersonal approach of the engineer-economist. As Robert Evans points out in The Human Side of School Change, change threatens people’s sense of security, frustrating their wish to feel effective and valuable. Change can shake one’s confidence and make teachers doubt their abilities, especially their ability to adapt to the new environment. The school leader as social architect understands that with change comes doubt, frustration, alienation, surprise, and discovery.

Traditional school planning for change is command-and-control, a concrete example of the engineer-economist model with its focus on structure, tasks, rules, and costs. As a result, school-leader approaches to innovation have been largely top-down. Moreover, the top-down approach has traditionally dominated thinking about professional development in schools and manifests itself in how-to programs aimed at changing teacher actions and behavior. 

Yet, the top-down, engineer-economist model ignores how people actually react to change. It fails to encourage reflection into the real world of people and their emotions, institutions and change. In schools, therefore, the role and mindset of the school leader must be that of a social architect who first reflects on the psychological ramifications of change before constructing change it from an engineer-economist perspective. The school leader’s way of thinking should be focused on how change will impact how people feel, react, and respond in a living, breathing, emotional system. 

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