Leading Change Through Subtraction

Many changes in modern schools are driven by the imperative to introduce new technologies. However, not all improvements are made by adding. What does change look like when we consider the subtraction of technology from a school? One of the most thoughtful organizational changes I have read about recently was an article by Ross Parker (2020) regarding the evolving technology policy at International College Hong Kong (ICHK). In “Can We Stop Software From Eating School?,” Parker expresses a growing concern over device use in schools, and the decision to reclaim “some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology” (para. 14). His article builds a narrative of why ICHK decided to restrict the use of devices on campus, and how leading this scale of change took careful consideration and planning.

Subtracting technology from modern schools is not an easy change, and it “swims upstream” from the prevailing trend. At ICHK, leadership “asked [them]selves how [they] could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites” (Parker, 2020, para. 13). Applying Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) taxonomy, the change in technology policy at ICHK represents a large-scale long-term change, which required internal alignment of the change type and change methods employed. Although it’s not apparent if a specific change method was used, it is evident that this change was made through a holistic approach. Leadership spent “9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement” (Parker, 2020, para. 13), which is congruent with Kotter’s focus on Leading Change through a shared vision and strategy (Kotter, 1996, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). The result was a conscientious cultural change in the school that focused on subtraction.

Organizations that see change as addition without subtraction may end up with a soup of educational technology, seasoned with policies and chunky add-ons. This soup is the is the exact situation that many digital learning platforms end up in. Feldstein (2017) shares a cautionary narrative of adding, adding, and adding features to educational apps. Particularly adding features that are redundant and overlap with other systems. He terms this effect “Feldstein’s Law: Any educational app that is actively developed for long enough and has a large enough user base will become indistinguishable from a badly designed LMS” (para. 19). As a software developer working with educational technology, I have seen this runaway addition of features in several projects. Faced with a “a sense of urgency as emerging technical practices … challenge the traditional academic processes” (Udas, 2008, para. 2) the response is often to continue adding one new idea to the next.

Change is not just addition. It can—and vitally, should—include subtraction. The direction of a change should be considered along side Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) change types of scale and duration. Leaders looking to make change in their organizations can make equally powerful impacts by subtracting rather than adding: perhaps phasing out a technology, scaling back on an initiative, or pruning an unwieldy policy.

References

Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215

Feldstein, M. (2017). A flexible, interoperable digital learning platform: Are we there yet? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eliterate.us/flexible-interoperable-digital-learning-platform-yet

Parker, R. (February 10, 2020). Can we stop software from eating school? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@rossdotparker/can-we-stop-software-from-eating-school-640a0e05ec4c

Udas, K. (June 30, 2018). Distributed learning environments and OER: The change management challenge. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20160309200155

Attribution

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2 thoughts on “Leading Change Through Subtraction

  1. Hi Sandra,

    I enjoyed reading your perspective about change!

    You reminded me of the re-branding initiative we did for InterContinental Hotel. Although the change didn’t involve technology, however, subtracting a set of company values and service behaviours from the company culture and replacing it with a new set required a lot of leadership effort. You made a good point when you mentioned that adding change is like subtracting it and therefore it requires planning and commitment.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Cheers,
    Tala

  2. Hi Sandra,

    A very interesting and thought-provoking post! Your analogy of “a soup of educational technology, seasoned with policies and chunky add-ons” is priceless, and so relevant in many schools or boards. A colleague of mine recently shared that he feels that school boards need to say NO more often to funding– IF it is too little funding to invest in larger, meaningful initiatives, versus add-on smaller initiatives — just because ‘some’ funding has been offered.

    Much like the skill of being able to research and curate the content on the Internet for our use, teachers often need to do the same to navigate the plethora of large and small applications and resources that populate learning platforms. One doesn’t often read about “subtracting technology,” but more is not better, and quite frankly ‘more’ is less effective sometimes in making its way to the classroom when teachers become overwhelmed with choice and “the next greatest” tool or application.

    I appreciated being led to the Parker’s (2020) article on ICHK’s process of change in creating a new ICT policy to ‘subtract some of the technology” at their school that was detracting from other uses of “school-centered technology.” There is of course, much debate surrounding the use of cell phones in schools here in Ontario. The government even went so far as to try to implement a “no cell-phone policy” last November (Brown, 2019). Many teachers felt relieved, some felt that not that much would change, and others strongly argued against this policy, claiming that cellphones are a useful tool in classrooms and that as teachers, we needed to be teaching students how to use their phones responsibly. I felt that I had enough to do in my high school classes without having to teach a losing battle of responsible cellphone use to adolescents — when I had regularly ensured that we had 1:1 laptops available in class for when we wanted to integrate tech.

    You shared that you felt that ICHK’s approach to this change ICT policy at their school was congruent with Kotter’s Eight-Step Process (Kotter, 1996, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). Part of what you referred to was the holistic nature of the approach that ICHK took to this process. I wonder how different this process might have looked, and the ensuing policy, if students had been consulted in the process, as stakeholders? It doesn’t seem like the school had much trouble with student compliance, but I am curious, nonetheless. I am also thinking about this based in a North American context, and I realize that the student population in Hong Kong, even at an international school, is a much different culture of learning. A sense of ‘entitlement’ seems to have a stronger place in school here in Toronto, than my experience in Thailand or Japan.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Leigh

    References

    Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215

    Brown, Desmond (2019, November 3). Cellphone ban starts in Ontario classrooms today. CBC. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/cellphone-ban-ontario-classrooms-1.5346207

    Parker, R. (February 10, 2020). Can we stop software from eating school? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@rossdotparker/can-we-stop-software-from-eating-school-640a0e05ec4c

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