Stealing project management language for change in education

I’m starting out a new role here in Prince Edward Island. I’ve always been interested in the way that educational systems work, they way they were formed, how their systems match their goals. It seems that I’m now going to get the opportunity to work inside another system and see if I can be of any help with the aligning of goals and strategies, and the refinement of objectives and tasks. I find this change process endlessly fascinating, but, as with anyone who spends too much time with a given topic, my language gets lazy and I tend to not explain ourselves very well. I thought it might be useful to take some time at the start of this work to redefine my own framework for turning the input that people give me into reality.

For many of you this is just your day to day. It took me several years to come to terms with how I felt about this language and to believe it was important. I have now come to believe that great ideas only become reality if you can turn them into a plan. Hard to believe I ever had to ‘come to believe’ that in the first place…

I should also say that I am sensitive to how this can be see to support the corporatization of education. This is certainly not my intent. I believe that learning is a complex system that needs to be dealt with outside of a structure that counts ‘winning and losing’ in the same way it counts money. That being said… we need a way to organize our work so that we can get it done. I like to think of myself as having stolen something useful from the other team rather than having gone over and joined them 🙂

Establishing a common language
Half of the misunderstandings (yes, exactly half :P) that people have are because they don’t mean the same things by the words they are using. In the first two days that I’ve been working here I’ve asked questions like “what do you mean by curriculum?” or “when you say learning what do you mean in this context?” a bunch of times. I think it’s necessary to make this negotiation a constant presence in any change discussion.

For today I want to go through how I feel about four different words: Goal, Objective, Strategy and tasks. I’m in no way claiming that these are the ‘true’ definitions of these words but, rather, this is the story that I attach to them.

Why do we need to categorize these things anyway?
I’m going to be working with people from across the sector on projects. Today I’ve spoken to two teachers (one in an administrative role, one not) one person from the strategy end of the department and one curriculum consultant. Each of them is critical to an effective education system, but they all work in very different environments. As I (as one teacher said) get a sense of their ‘day in the life’ I’ll be listening to their stories and seeing where they might fit with the stories being told by others. Some of those stories might be around goals for the system “we need students to be more independent” or objectives “we need more students to be doing unsupervised work”. One of those things is a measurement of the other… maybe. But we don’t want our goals to be restricted by a single measurement – “hey, we have 10% more students doing unsupervised work” does not mean that we suddenly have independent students.

Goals
Goals (IMO and you can insert that IMO in the rest of what I’m going to say here) are the vision that we have for ourselves. It is the conceptual change we are looking to make. They are hard to create, and are better if everyone involved in the process contributed to their creation and is on board. People need to ‘believe’ in goals. They aren’t things that are true, necessarily, but rather something that we all think represents a valuable direction. They are by their nature nebulous, and, because of this, they need help.

Objectives
Objectives are the change that happens that contributes to a goal. As illustrated above, an objective may or may not ACTUALLY contribute to a goal, and alignment and realignment is critical in any change process. It’s usually good to have several objectives (whether simultaneous or sequential) in order to cross reference success. Objectives are often (though not always) things that can be observed in the world. Countable objectives are nice “10% more students are submitting independent projects” but sometimes we are interested in non-counting nouns – “students are happier in class”. In the latter case, some kind of qualitative collection mechanism is required, but I’m as likely to trust a collection of teacher stories as I am a number like 9.7%.

Strategies
This is the plan part of project plan. What are we going to go about doing to try and make that change. This involves a heavy bit of historical research – the change you’re trying to make has probably been tried before. Find out what happened, what the successes were, what pieces of it are left over? From there you need to include all the players in the conversation. What kinds of things have you been trying, do you have pilots that have worked, what kinds of obstacles are in your way?

Strategies are the heavy lifting of any project, but they are worse than useless if they don’t map up to objectives and goals. Every strategy you propose is going to have an ‘opportunity cost’. If you try this opportunity, you aren’t going to be able to do something else. You are going to be taking valuable people not only away from what they do everyday, but you are crowding out other ideas that could better serve your goals. Also, even if your strategy is perfectly executed, if you don’t have a mechanism for showing people how this change is actually happening (achieved objectives) your project will. not. last.

I hate a project that doesn’t last. Unless it’s not supposed to.

Tasks
Tasks have people and they have due dates. If you have a strategy that doesn’t have people attached to it, with time allotted in their schedule to finish the work by a given date – it is destined to live on a shelf. It might be beautiful. It might align perfectly. And there certainly is a place in the world for pieces of art like this… but they will not make change happen. I lied earlier, this is the actual heavy lifting on a project. This is where the project manager comes in. Someone has to wake up in the morning wondering if the tasks that were assigned to everyone have been completed.

Tasks should not be complex… they require more resilience and time allocation than deep thinking. Without them, though, you will be destined to be in meetings where people say things like “yeah, we should really get around to doing that”. I do not like those meetings.

How does all this help?
I’m going to use this simple PM framework throughout the first steps on my new role to keep track of the ideas and challenges that I’m hearing from people. People always believe that some change needs to happen to any education system – and that’s great. I’m very happy that people are passionate about education. The challenges identified by some people require task level solutions, some are entire goals all by themselves. As I bring them all together, I’m going to try and see where they fit with each other, where overlaps and possibilities exist. This kind of framework helps keep me honest. And, more importantly, it allows me to take what I’ve been collecting and show it to the next person. To keep the conversation growing.

A final word on 1% (marginal) change
I like to keep a separate list while I’m doing this kind of work of “things we could just fix”. Every system contains pieces that are important to the members at a local level, but don’t really have a mechanism for improvement. It might not be a big enough problem by itself to make it to a senior table so the problem persists. What I have found is that if you can collect several of these problems together, you can bring those to a senior table and have them looked at. If you bring ten and get approval to fix six of them, you’ve made important change at a local level in six places.

These things add up. A little fix here, another fix there, and soon the whole system is getting better. It’s the change version of take care of your pennies because the dollars take care of themselves.

Looking ahead
I’m not committed to ‘change’ as a ‘good in the world’. I just happen to like helping to fix the things we’ve agreed can get better. I’m more than happy to look at something and say “that’s awesome just the way it is”. As often as not when you categorize stuff in this way, that just what you find… things are actually ok. And, if they aren’t ok, you are halfway to solving the problem already 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site… among other things.

One thought on “Stealing project management language for change in education”

  1. Hi Dave,
    I was one of the teachers that worked on the Living Archives project with you in 2007-2008. I have used the website several times since that time. It has been a couple of years since I looked at it though. I was in the stages of planning an activity this year using the site and I noticed that it is no longer accessible. Just wondering what happened to it? More for curiosity than anything. It is a good example of primary sources to use in the classroom plus I used the kids videos as well. I don’t need access; I was just curious. Hard to believe those students are almost finished university!!

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday.
    Marilyn MacDonald
    KISH

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