chapter 2

Adaptive CHange

We use fearless inquiry to continually interrogate and shed embedded practice that does not amplify and inspire profound learning throughout our school communities.  






The Principle of Adaptive Change is best understood by acknowledging that change is not easy. As humans, we are most comfortable with what is known, understood, and expected. Any change to our routine is often perceived as threatening, and this makes the change process a difficult, but ultimately, a rewarding journey. 

Change is an essential component of any new school of the future. The United States Army War College was considered the first to use the acronym VUCA to describe the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of our world. Regardless of industry, leaders highlight that change is a constant and therefore, should be anticipated and embraced in order for organizations to remain relevant. Although change is essential, there are significant challenges associated with leading change within an organization. 

For true transformation to happen, change must be deep, extensive, broad, and dynamic. Any change process must be undertaken with an appreciation for the journey. Movement from a current state to a future state is rarely linear; rather, it follows a route that has deviations and tangents that contribute to the change. These deviations must be embraced because change is an iterative process that reveals opportunities for further growth. 

Change also requires courage. In describing adaptive change, the phrase fearless inquiry is used to encourage school communities to resist the pull of the familiar, to be bold in their assessments around what is working well and what needs to change. With any change there is loss, and leaders are encouraged to create mechanisms for people to identify and grieve the losses associated with a particular change. At the beginning of any change, there will be people, the early adopters, who will eagerly embrace the change and will demonstrate the path forward for the majority.  Others, the dissenters, will likely never embrace the particular change and will either reject the change or will reluctantly move forward and may provide resistance at every step of the way. The vast majority will fall somewhere in between these two groups. Leaders are encouraged to consider in advance how to support, guide, and encourage both the early adopters and the dissenters throughout the change process. Thinking strategically about these two groups will facilitate a quicker and more effective change process for everyone.

Henrick Oprea - School of the Nations, Brazil

Principle in Action

What does this principle look like in action? The following quotes represent examples for how this principle is manifested in a school.


Last year we had a required course that we all hated. It was called Community in Action, and all we did was listen to the teachers talk about how the middle school was one big family. This year is better. We still have the Community in Action period once a week, but now students decide what projects we want to do and then we figure out how to do them and then we do them.”



Our faculty meetings have really changed. At each meeting we spend a few minutes discussing one of the questions from the book: The 9 Big Questions. For example, in our last meeting we discussed the question Why do we have an advisory period only once a week? This question generated great discussion about our weekly schedule, and as a result we decided to give up a study period to add in some additional advisory time each week.”



Our course offerings have been the same for years. While we have proposed different courses to be approved by our Instructional Planning Committee, we have not looked at our Program of Studies to see if it is updated and relevant for our current global situation and our students. Next year we are going to add this to our leadership goals as part of our Strategic Plan.”



We used to meet with the Head of School once a month and discuss topics that had little or no impact on our children. Lately, she has asked us to generate topics that would enable parents and students to offer more input into the decisions, like scheduling and assessment.”





There are three subcategories related to the principle of adaptive change: change management, eliminating programs, and definitions for profound learning. Understanding the change process is essential to living this principle. We need to develop our muscle and appetite for eliminating programs. Each school should be encouraged to develop their own mission, culture, and school-specific definition for profound learning. 

"Complex adaptive systems live dynamically on the edge of chaos, where new possibilities emerge from the variety and creativity of the system. These give it life and sustain it." Maverick and Boutique Complex Adaptive Systems
Dr. Ronald Heifetz is a renowned expert on the topic of adaptive change. He has been instrumental in guiding leaders and boards to an appreciation for the complexity of challenges that face organizations and schools. Dr. Heifetz states, “Adaptive challenges require ongoing experimentation, ongoing efforts and ongoing behavioral and attitudinal change amongst a whole host of people over time….leadership then requires keeping people in the game over time through a sustained period of disequilibrium...keeping people operating in a productive zone of disturbance or discomfort with compassion for the disturbance you are causing people so that you are operating within their capacity to learn and think creatively.” From Dr. Ronald Heifetz, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University video Adaptive vs. Technical - Dr. Ronald Heifetz

Adaptive change is part of the fabric of the universe. As in the system of life, adaptive change occurs, and so must our systems of learning adapt as our environments shift. We must be prepared to examine and reexamine practices in systems continuously in order to thrive in an ever-changing environment. We must use fearless inquiry to question our practices allowing us to endeavor to shift, let go, and provide what is necessary in the moment. It is within the present moment that the future is determined. We have to be prepared to shift and pivot as necessary when there are environmental, systemic, and global shifts such as the pandemic which require us to rethink the work that we are doing within our learning, local and global communities. 



Provocations are intended to be tools to use within a school community to get people thinking creatively and in a generative way about the elements of each of the Principles. As reflective leaders in the change process, we must use fearless inquiry to step out of our comfort zone, examine our current practices, and design approaches for the future. The following questions are designed to prompt conversations within your school community. Your answers to these questions should challenge the status quo. If you are fearful of your answers, it is an indication that you are exploring this principle at a deep level.

  • How committed are we as individuals, departments, divisions, and as a whole community to ensuring that we are changing and evolving to meet the demands of our volatile, complex, ambiguous, and uncertain future?
  • Are there curricular approaches, disciplines, topics that no longer serve our needs? 
  • How can we use data to determine what existing practices should be shed from our program? 
  • What significant changes have we made as a school over the last ten years? Were these changes technical or adaptive in nature?How did we make these shifts, individually and as a collective?  How can we use our past experiences to guide our future decisions around shedding embedded practices?
  • What are the powers and privileges that might be barriers and obstacles to this principle?  Whose voices are being heard and whose voices should be amplified in this process?
  • What habits, behaviors, and dispositions are required in order to fully and effectively implement changes on an institutional level?

The link below provides a wealth of guidance and tools to support the principle of adaptive change. The articles, videos, and podcasts in the link below provide a foundation for deep exploration of this principle, and can be used in faculty meetings, board meetings, leadership retreats, etc.

Guidance and Tools for Adaptive Change



For each of our NEW SCHOOL Principles, we provide a Pathway that attempts to tell the story of a school on a journey towards putting that principle into practice. These narratives are only approximations, because every school is different and change is not as linear as this represents. It is messy, imperfect, and iterative. To apply the metaphor of a ‘pathway’, it is often one step forward and several steps in reverse. The spirit of this pathway is simply to provide ‘a portrait of possibility’. It offers a picture of what progress might look like, as it can be easier to imagine something if a possible model is provided.

We offer four stages along this journey, for schools to reflect on their current reality and imagine what might be next:

  • Thinking about it...What might it look like when your school is “thinking about” the adaptive change principle? 
  • Working on it...What might it look like when your school is “working on” the adaptive change principle?
  • Living it...What might it look like when your school is “living” the adaptive change principle? 
  • Transforming it...If you get this far along the continuum, what would a transformation of your school’s relationship with the adaptive change principle look like in practice? How would you tell that story?

Adaptive Change Pathway




ADAPTIVE CHANGE is a fundamental part of being involved in the AAIE New School Project. Being aware of a community’s place and space in time is an essential first step in order to envision the future and work to bring it to life. Outlining the journey from point A to point B is paramount, and ensuring that there is broad involvement in the co-creation from all stakeholders in the COMMUNITY is essential. This commitment to our shared principles requires us to challenge our assumptions around DEEP LEARNING and consider how to use elements of the change process to ensure we make forward progress. As in any change process, an inclusive approach is important, and we commit to ensuring that EQUITY is part of the EVIDENCE we will use to measure our success. This process of adaptive change is challenging, and when done correctly, it will unearth existing tensions while also exposing new assumptions. Throughout all stages of the change process, we commit to centering the WELL-BEING of everyone involved. Our desire for change is strong, and we will develop the CAPACITY for growth and improvement along the way.