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Educational Change - Phases of Educational Change, Emerging Theories of Educational Change

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Education is generally thought to promote social, economic, and cultural transformation during times of fundamental national and global changes. Indeed, educational change has become a common theme in many education systems and in plans for the development of schools. According to Seymour Sarason, the history of educational reform is replete with failure and disappointment in respect to achieving intended goals and implementing new ideas. Since the 1960s, however, thinking about educational change has undergone several phases of development. In the early twenty-first century much more is known about change strategies that typically lead to successful educational reforms.

Phases of Educational Change

The first phase of educational changes was in the 1960s when educational reforms in most Western countries were based on externally mandated largescale changes that focused on renewing curricula and instruction. The second phase, in the 1970s, was a period of increasing dissatisfaction of the public and government officials with public education and the performance of schools, decreasing financing of change initiatives, and shrinking attention to fundamental reforms. Consequently, in the 1980s the third phase shifted toward granting decision-making power to, and emphasizing the accountability of, local school systems and schools. Educational change gradually became an issue to be managed equally by school authorities and by the local community, including school principals and teachers. The fourth phase started in the 1990s when it became evident that accountability and self-management, in and of themselves, were insufficient to make successful changes in education.

Furthermore, educational change began to place more emphasis on organizational learning, systemic reforms, and large-scale change initiatives rather than restructuring isolated fields of education. In brief, educators' understanding of educational change has developed from linear approaches to nonlinear systems approaches that emphasize the complexity of reform processes, according to Shlomo Sharan and his colleagues. Similarly, the focus of change has shifted from restructuring single components of educational systems towards transforming the organizational cultures that prevail in given schools or school systems, as well as towards transforming large sections of a given school or system rather than distinct components of schooling.

Emerging Theories of Educational Change

In the early twenty-first century it is generally acknowledged that significant educational change cannot be achieved by a linear "recipe-like" process. The consensus among theorists and practitioners is growing that traditional models of thinking about educational change no longer provide sufficient conceptual tools for responding to multidimensional needs and politically contested environments. The major challenge of educational change is how to understand and cope with rapid change in an unpredictably turbulent world. Emerging new theories of educational change are beginning to employ concepts and ideas derived from the sciences of chaos and complexity. The main characteristics of these new theories are nonlinearity of processes, thinking about education as an open system, the interdependency of the various components of the system, and the influence of context on the change process itself.

Although educational change occurs everywhere, it is still not discussed systematically or analyzed by researchers and educators worldwide. Particularly in countries undergoing political and economic transition, educational change remains a political agenda rather than a well-designed engine of social reform. The heart of successful educational change is learning, both at the individual and at the community levels.


FULLAN, MICHAEL. 1998. "The Meaning of Educational Change." In The International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. Andy Hargreaves, Michael Fullan, Ann Lieberman, and David Hopkins. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

FULLAN, MICHAEL. 2000. "The Return of Large-Scale Reform." Journal of Educational Change 1:5–28.

HARGREAVES, ANDY, ed. 1997. Rethinking Educational Change with Heart and Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

HARGREAVES, ANDY. 2000. "Representing Educational Change." Journal of Educational Change 1:1–3.

SARASON, SEYMOUR B. 1990. The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It's Too Late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

SHARAN, SHLOMO, et al. 1999. The Innovative School: Organization and Instruction. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.


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