Learning to Change (Part 1)

Alberta’s high schools are changing. From structure to improved student engagement, the goal is a system rooted in pedagogically sound organizational structure, quality teaching and optimum learning for students, teachers, and administrators.

How this change is coordinated, while staying true to fundamental principles and roots, is best explained by talking about complex adaptive systems.

An eye on the whole, while managing the moving parts:

Complexity theory focuses on understanding interactions. An understanding of an entire system is developed from understanding relationships between the smaller parts.

In schools with high adaptive capacity, attention is given to how the school becomes a coherent learning system. (Timperley, 2011). Adapting to changing environments while demonstrating the ability to self-organize and self-maintain, are hallmarks of an effective knowledge-building system where learning is ongoing. The stakeholders are students, teachers, parents and administrators, and the system is greater than the sum of its parts. During a study of adaptive learning systems in Alberta high schools, researchers observed a collective strength in schools meeting that description.

Key attributes of complex and adaptive systems (such as self-organization, interaction and flexibility to change) can serve as examples for principals and teachers involved in successful high school redesign (Antonacopoulou & Chiva, 2005; Davis & Sumara, 2005; Wang, Han, & Yang, 2015).

Researchers used this thinking to frame their study of seven Alberta high schools undergoing redesign initiatives. Their work, Highly Adaptive Learning Systems: Research in Seven Redesigned High Schools in Alberta, has influenced the province’s current high school redesign efforts. The examination of each school’s culture, leadership, pedagogy, structures and relationships uncovered the conditions necessary for adaptive capacity at the school and system level.

Moving Forward with High School Redesign in Alberta provides a strategic framework for a theory of action for change. This strategic framework focuses on school culture, school leadership, school pedagogy and school structures. The foundational principles guiding this theory of action for change are: mastery learning, rigorous and relevant curriculum, personalization, flexible learning environments, educator roles and professional development, meaningful relationships, home and community involvement, assessment, and welcoming, caring, respectful and safe.

What did researchers find?

(the 11 findings from this study will be discussed over the next series of blogs)

The following findings pertain to research question 1: What conditions exist within the school that allow for the scalability of the high school success undertaken by the school?

Finding 1: Removing the Carnegie Unit

Changing structures, such as removing a strict adherence to time required by the Carnegie Unit (25 hour per credit requirement) was a catalyst for creating flexible, learner-focused approaches that develop a trusting learning system that supports student learning, growth and student success.

Participants noted that they were surprised and mostly unaware that so many programmatic structures, practices, and decisions and so many organizational structures, practices and decisions within a high school were connected to the Carnegie Unit.

“It’s not just changing the Carnegie Unit but, it changed everything.”

Participants in this study found that unlocking one piece of the high school fabric started to unravel many other threads such as assessment, attendance and completion. Schwartz, Bransford and Sears (2005) discuss how a sense of disequilibrium is needed to prompt changes in a learning system. Removing the Carnegie Unit provided the right amount of instability or disequilibrium needed for high schools to begin questioning taken-for-granted processes and structures and redesigning schools for the learners.

In assessing whether the changes being implemented were working, teachers and administrators focused their attention on the students in their respective schools and looked to each other and others in the high school redesign initiative for guidance. Administrators and teachers in these seven schools looked to the students–what they were saying and data from outcomes-based formative assessments–to guide decision making and determine next steps. All decisions were guided by student learning instead of expected time in a classroom. As one principal noted, “the real energies have to be in the classroom personalizing and adapting for kids.”

The first finding in this section suggests learning systems need to remove structures such as a 25-hour per credit requirement for all learners; however, the data in this study indicate the removal of a time structure, such as the Carnegie Unit, is necessary, it is not sufficient. Schools within this study used the removal of the 25-hour per credit requirement as an opportunity to revisit and change everything: structures, pedagogies and relationships.

Finding 2: Developing a highly connected and trusting learning community

A relentless focus, growth-orientation, risk-taking attitudes and actions, and value for trusting, cohesive and collaborative relations (i.e., student success grouping) built upon a theory of action for change fostered a highly connected and trusting learning community.

A condition that allows for sustainability and scalability of success initiatives in high schools is the community. When the community as a learning system is persistent in building a strength-based culture of growth with high expectations and with a sharp focus on emotional, social and academic growth for all students, all learners benefit. This collective disposition, or in complexity terms, ethos, was noted by principals and teachers in all seven high schools (D’Amour, Davis & Sumara, 2012). Participants shared examples of a relentless focus on student engagement, achievement, and well-being. Students are viewed as fully capable learners who can achieve high standards and all changes are in support of student learning. For example, participants in our study described changes directed to building a positive, highly connected collaborative learning environment where student voice is present, changes to assessment strategies with a relentless focus on gathering evidence of student learning and an emphasis on building school communities in which students experience a strong sense of belonging.

For a full discussion of Finding 2, please consult the full report of the study.


Antonacopoulou, E., & Chiva, R. (2005). Social complex evolving systems: Implications for organizational learning. Paper presented at OKLC 2005 Conference, Boston

D’Amour, L., Davis, Brent., Sumara, Dennis. (2012). Understanding school districts as learning systems: Some lessons from three cases of complex transformation. Journal of Educational Change, 13(3), 373-399. doi: 10.1007/s10833-012-9183-4

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2005). Complexity science and educational action research: toward a pragmatics of transformation. Educational Action Research, 13(3), 453-465. doi: 10.1080/09650790500200291

Schwartz, D. L., Bransford, J. D., & Sears, D. (2005). Efficiency and innovation in transfer. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/~danls/Efficiency%20and%20Innovation%204_2004.pdf

Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the power of professional learning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Wang, Y., Han, X., & Yang, J. (2015). Revisiting the blended learning literature: Using a complex adaptive systems framework. Educational Technology and Society, 18(2), 380-393.

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