How to lead literacy change effectively

2 Mindset Traps To Avoid When Leading Change (Part 1)

Oct 24, 2021

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post titled ‘3 common change leadership mistakes in schools’. I’d been inspired by the sight of the blooming spear thistle (a noxious Australian weed) and used this as a metaphor for some of the change leadership issues that seem to arise at this time of year:

“It’s term 4 in Australian schools; the term when leaders start considering their plan of attack for the following year and, unfortunately, the term when the dreaded ‘Lack-of-Strategic-Planning’ Thistle starts to bloom en masse in schools.”

There’s a lot going on in schools at this time of the year, and the pressure to plan for more student improvement, more data growth and now more ‘catch up’ learning, can quickly turn into overwhelm.

The bad news is, overwhelm is the perfect seeding ground for ineffective change leadership. It can force leaders into 2 key change leadership mindset traps:

  1. The belief that ‘more is better than less’ and
  2. The belief that ‘fast is better than slow’.

In this blog, I’m going to unpack the first mindset trap of believing that ‘more is better than less.’

How to spot ‘more is better than less’ thinking

You’ll know if you (or others) are falling into this mindset trap when you hear phrases such as:

  • 'I know our Annual Plan says we’re focusing on improving writing, but there’s a great PD on reading coming up that we should take advantage of.'
  • 'I know this year is dedicated to improving reading, but I think we could get away with adding in a few Maths PDs as well- just to get us ready for next year’s focus.'
  • 'Our recent school review said we have to improve Literacy AND Numeracy. We’ve only got 4 years to do it all, so we’re just going to have to work on improving reading and writing at the same time.'

Now that you know how to spot ‘more is better than less’ thinking, here are 3 key mantras to help you eradicate it:

1.      When you’re doing everything, you’re doing none of it well

In schools, we seem to have developed a watered-down understanding of the word ‘priority’.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things…This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.

(McKeown, 2014)

Mike Schmoker also talks about the importance of leaders being able to prioritise in his book ‘Leading with Focus’:

To succeed, leaders must carefully select, severely limit, and then persistently clarify (and clarify, and clarify, and clarify) the work to be done by those they lead. They must also reject anything that distracts them from their focus.

(Schmoker, 2016)

When it comes to leading student growth in literacy, prioritising means literacy leaders need to:

  • severely limit their focus- i.e., choose EITHER reading OR writing OR spelling to focus on for the next 12 months and;
  • persistently clarify the work- decide which specific part of the focus area you want to zero in on. If you’re aiming to improve student growth in writing, for example, which part of teaching and learning do you want to tackle? Is it strengthening the teacher practices within writing? Building teachers’ content knowledge of good writing? Building positive student engagement and attitudes towards writing? Supporting emergent writers to apply their phonics knowledge?

The more specific you are, the more successful you’ll be.


2.      Multitasking is a myth

When leaders lack the capacity to prioritise (in the original sense of the word) they don’t see the problem with throwing in a couple of extra programs or PDs here and there (more is better, after all).

However, when teachers are asked to split their attention between numerous ‘priorities’ (in the watered-down sense of the word), they’re effectively being asked to multitask.

The problem with this is that decades of research ‘consistently confirms [multitasking’s] adverse impacts on task performance and learning’ (Wang and Tchernev, 2012).

As humans we have a finite amount of focus and attention. It's not humanely possible to focus on multiple tasks at the same time. It's a myth. We're not actually multi tasking, we're task shifting. And, as research has proven time and time again, we can't ever get to deep and sustained learning if we're stuck in a constant state of task shifting.

“We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”

(Poldrack cited in Rosen, 2008)

From my own experience of leading change through focusing on ‘doing less and doing it well,’ I know that this approach can cause anxiety at first. Many questions will be raised:

  • ‘But what about all the other areas we have to improve in?'
  • 'Does this mean we don’t care about writing now that we’re solely focused on reading?’
  • 'So Maths doesn't matter anymore?'

And that is where my final mantra comes in…


3.      Simply to amplify

I’m the first to admit that adoption of this mantra takes a giant leap of faith at first. You have to fully commit to the belief that a persistent focus on a small number of initiatives will pay broad dividends in the end.

This is the very belief the PLC (Professional Learning Community) process is based on. The idea that if a team of teachers focus on a tiny crumb of teaching and learning (not the whole cake or even a sliver of the cake) they’ll be able to improve their knowledge of effective teaching in relation to that tiny crumb, as well as other areas of their teaching.

This was recently reinforced for me during a reflection session I had with a school I’ve been consulting at this year. The literacy leadership team and I had ‘severely limited’ our improvement focus to building teacher content knowledge about the qualities of good writing. I’d provided professional development sessions and followed up with implementation support and guidance- always focused on achieving our ‘persistently clarified’ goal.

The power of the ‘simplify to amplify’ mantra was realised when one of the teachers commented in her reflection, ‘even though we’ve been working on improving writing, I’ve noticed that it’s actually improving how we teach reading too.’

And there it is!

Once you start to live this mantra and see its effectiveness, you just won’t be able to return to that ineffective ‘more is better than less’ mindset. You’ll be drinking the ‘do less and do it well’ Kool-Aide right alongside me.


Implications for leading literacy improvement in your school

  • Be wary of ‘more is better than less’ thinking when you’re planning to implement any changes in your school/team/classroom.
  • Be brave enough to severely limit and persistently clarify your desired goals.
  • Resist the urge to slip back into ‘more is better than less’ thinking. Swat away distractions and remain committed to doing less but reaping more.

In next week’s blog I’m going to tackle the second change leadership mindset trap, ‘fast is better than slow.’

Have you experienced the benefits of 'doing less and doing it well'? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.



  • McKeown, G., 2014. Essentialism. New York: Crown Business.
  • Rosen, C., 2008. The Myth of Multitasking. The New Atlantis, 20 (Spring 2008), pp.105-110.
  • Schmoker, M., 2016. Leading with focus. Alexandria: ASCD.
  • Wang, Z. and Tchernev, J., 2012. The “Myth” of Media Multitasking: Reciprocal Dynamics of Media Multitasking, Personal Needs, and Gratifications. Journal of Communication, 62(3), pp.493-513.

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