Deep Practices as a Path for Adaptive Change

Note: While this article focuses primarily on education, coaching and leading through adaptive change can improve any organization or system. The Deep Practices Coaching Framework is a useful tool for any industry interested in long-term transformation.

Adaptive Challenges versus Technical Problems

True, lasting innovation comes from grappling with adaptive challenges.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2002) wrote in Harvard Business Review that solutions to adaptive challenges “require individuals throughout [an] organization to alter their ways” (p.1). This is what sparks transformation in people, organizations, and systems.

Adaptive challenges exist in contrast to technical issues. Technical issues are easy to identify and can be addressed relatively quickly with concrete solutions. These solutions will alleviate surface-level problems, but alone they’re not enough to generate long-term innovation.

Instating pay raises to reduce teacher attrition is an example of a technical solution. While important, alone it fails to address the complex causes of the problem, which are rooted in the teachers’ social-emotional needs (Headden, 2014; Michalec & Newburgh, 2018). In contrast, an adaptive solution for teacher attrition could involve adopting a system of deep supports (Newburgh, 2018) that positively shifts school culture, values human capital, and helps teachers and school leaders develop their deep practices (Michalec & Newburgh, 2018).

The catch is that adaptive changes often bring up resistance because they ask people to examine entrenched assumptions and patterns. Therefore, leading people through adaptive change requires flexibility, empathy, commitment, and a clearly defined vision for success. The work is difficult but critical if we want to create systems that deliver powerful and equitable learning opportunities for teachers and students.


Collective Efficacy as Adaptive Change

One example of adaptive change that can have wide-ranging, positive impacts on an organization is building collective efficacy. Collective efficacy, according to researcher Jenni Donoohoo (2017), means that teachers believe “that together they and their colleagues can impact student achievement” (p.8). According to John Hattie (2012), collective efficacy is the single most important factor in boosting student achievement year to year. In fact, it is so powerful that it has the potential to help students make 3.6 years worth of gains in a single year.

It sounds simple, but developing true collective efficacy is extremely difficult. Many teachers, leaders, and districts are entrenched in patterns that limit the potential for collective efficacy to thrive. Moreover, the design of the education system, with its strict top-down accountability measures, often hold people in patterns of thought and action that squash cultures of true expansiveness and change (Newburgh & Michalec, emerging research). So how does one develop this powerful mindset?  


Deep Practices: The “How” for Adaptive Change

As Parker Palmer (1998) said, “we teach who we are” (p. 1). I believe this is true regardless of your profession. No one can work effectively if they’re cut off from their personal beliefs and values. People who do this deny themselves access to the life-giving parts of themselves and their jobs.

This is why the process of adaptive change is so delicate. It requires us to unearth our shadows, fears, vulnerabilities, and emotions in a space that traditionally exhorts us to “leave them at the door.” However, there is no such thing as leaving parts of you at the door. Not only is it impossible, it shows a distinct intolerance for the whole human being that comes to work every day. Our shadows will influence our actions whether we acknowledge them or not. The path to adaptive change is to embrace and understand your full self in order to consciously create the impact you want to make on the world.  

If this sounds like a tall order, it is. But it’s also the most meaningful work you can do both for yourself and for those around you. However, while lots of research indicates the importance of creating inclusive and connected work cultures, there are very few practical tools that help generate ongoing adaptive change. This is why we created the Deep Practices Coaching Framework.

The coaching framework is a tool designed to help professionals integrate both best and deep practices in their daily lives. It works to develop personal and professional wellness, job satisfaction, a connected school culture, stronger relational trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2003), a growth mindset, and better student relationships, all of which are necessary for sustainable adaptive change.

Adaptive change is a delicate process that calls for honesty, vulnerability, and absolute trust. However, a commitment to adaptive change is necessary if we want to live meaningful lives at work. It brings us back to our purpose as professionals to create space for system-wide transformative teaching, learning, and leading. The Deep Practices Coaching Framework is a guide for helping professionals lead and grow through this critical and life-giving process.




Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-45.

Donoohoo, J. (2017). Collective Efficacy: How Educators' beliefs Affect Student Learning Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Headden, S. (2014). Beginners in the Classroom: What Challenging Demographics of Teaching Mean for Schools, Students, and Society. Stanford, CA:. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Michalec, P., & Newburgh, K. (2018). Deep Practices: Advancing Equity by Creating a Space and Language for the Inner Core of Teaching

. Teacher Education and Practice, 31(1).

Palmer, P. (1998). Courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


In press or emerging research:

Newburgh, K. (2018). Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining

the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers. Educational Philosophy and Theory. Accepted and in press.


Newburgh, K. & Michalec, P. Deep Practices Coaching Framework: Developing Inspired and Effective Educators. Emerging research.