My View

The Problem With Big Ideas
By REBECCA A. ZELIS/School Administrator, August 2019


A “big idea” proposes positive change over time. Because many students and their families may not be around to see the fruition of a big idea implemented during their time at school, it is important to include them in the change process, communicate why change is necessary, show personal commitment as an organizational leader and give sincere attention to the immediate needs of all learners, parents and educators.

Dealing effectively with a big idea in education requires communication, substance, attention to small details and commitment.

COMMUNICATION. One school district I’ve worked with promotes “The Four C’s” — character, competence, creativity and community — while a nearby district heralds “The Four P’s” — path, pace, people and place (based on a blended learning model). To some parents, these big ideas may seem like nothing more than a progression through the alphabet. They are important concepts, but without effective communication they can seem disconnected from students’ day-to-day experiences.

While P’s relate to proficiency-based learning, they also help students graduate with transferable skills such as effective communication and time management. That these skills lead to greater success in the workplace creates a common ground for dialogue about how this big idea is relevant to learners and their families.

Identifying and communicating core values in your big idea that most parents and students would agree with (such as workplace readiness) helps everyone understand that discomfort resulting from change, such as a new computerized grading system, relates directly to students’ success.

SUBSTANCE. Big ideas can increase a sense of polarization. This is especially true when they are gestures without substance.

Big ideas have emotional appeal so it’s hard to criticize when teachers wear matching T-shirts with upbeat slogans or to claim the “Four P’s” don’t matter. One might even appear ungrateful or cynical to doubt the value of these efforts. Yet some big ideas can be like measuring a house for new curtains when the roof is leaking. They will be an improvement and present a glimpse of an ideal we are striving to realize, but they don’t protect you from what is falling from the sky.

SMALL THINGS. Without a foundation of basic needs being met, any change becomes more difficult for your community to understand and support. When complex phenomena like mental health, opiate addiction, chronic illness and poverty affect the classroom climate, big ideas can seem like absurd tangents or optimistic thought experiments.

Because some community members may not fully benefit from the long-term outcomes of a big idea, be sure to attend to immediate, day-to-day challenges that educators, students and families face. For example, if your district website is outdated or school buildings are in disrepair, it will be more difficult to persuade your community that a big idea should be a top priority.

COMMITMENT. We all know administrators who are frustrated because their communities lack the resources or patience to act on a big idea. It may seem easier for them to move on to a new school district that appears more receptive to change. Implementing big ideas requires long-term follow through.

Introducing big ideas without personal commitment gives the impression that school leaders have a separate, privileged ability to move beyond (or discard) the needs of their students and community. Big ideas usually are not easy to implement, and a leader’s commitment to the change process is essential to ensuring progress in the schools.

Our schools need creative, forward-thinking administrators who are willing to consider new theories and effectively implement new programs. We want to focus our attention beyond immediate needs and crises. A big idea may be called for, but the importance of communication and commitment to the immediate needs of your school community should not be underestimated.


REBECCA ZELIS is a culture and communications strategist in Brandon, Vt. Twitter: @rebeccazelis