Sensemaking and School Failure: Lessons from Two Cases

Jeff Hei Walls


The analytic power of sensemaking has been widely applied throughout the organizational literature. Yet, while Weick’s (1993) seminal article on the collapse of sensemaking in organizations has been widely cited in the educational literature, it has rarely been applied to the problem of school failure in the face of organizational change.  This case study analysis advances a preliminary framework for sensemaking in schools based on both Weick’s insights and newer developments in the sensemaking literature. It then explores the cases of two schools that failed in the face of change through this framework. I conclude by comparing the cases to Weick’s recommendation for group structure and resilience, and draw implications for school and district leaders to prevent school collapse in the face of planned change.



organizational theory, sensemaking, case study, school failure

Full Text:



Bidwell, C. E. (2001). Analyzing schools as organizations: Long-term permanence and short-term change. Sociology of Education, 100-114.

Coburn, C. E. (2001). Collective sensemaking about reading: How teachers mediate reading policy in their professional communities. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 23(2), 145-170.

Coburn, C. E. (2005). Shaping teacher sensemaking: School leaders and the enactment of reading policy. Educational policy, 19(3), 476-509.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research. Los Angeles, CA: Sage

Evans, A. E. (2007). School leaders and their sensemaking about race and demographic change. Educational Administration Quarterly, 43(2), 159-188.

Hofstede, G. (1983). National cultures in four dimensions: A research-based theory of cultural differences among nations. International Studies of Management & Organization, 13(1-2), 46-74.

Honig, M. I., & Hatch, T. C. (2004). Crafting coherence: How schools strategically manage multiple, external demands. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 16-30.

Isenbarger, L., & Zembylas, M. (2006). The emotional labour of caring in teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22(1), 120-134.

Limnios, E. A. M., Mazzarol, T., Ghadouani, A., & Schilizzi, S. G. (2014). The resilience architecture framework: four organizational archetypes. European Management Journal, 32(1), 104-116.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. London: Sage.

Louis, K. S., Febey, K., & Schroeder, R. (2005). State-mandated accountability in high schools: Teachers’ interpretations of a new era. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(2), 177-204.

Louis, K. S., Mayrowetz, D., Murphy, J., & Smylie, M. (2013). Making sense of distributed leadership: How secondary school educators look at job redesign. International Journal of Educational Leadership and Management, 1(1), 33-68.

Maitlis, S., & Christianson, M. (2014). Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. The Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 57-125.

Maitlis, S., & Sonenshein, S. (2010). Sensemaking in crisis and change: Inspiration and insights from Weick (1988). Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 551-580.

Maitlis, S., Vogus, T. J., & Lawrence, T. B. (2013). Sensemaking and emotion in organizations. Organizational Psychology Review, 3(3), 222-247.

Mellahi, K., & Wilkinson, A. (2004). Organizational failure: a critique of recent research and a proposed integrative framework. International Journal of Management Reviews, 5(1), 21-41.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rudolph, J. W., & Repenning, N. P. (2002). Disaster dynamics: Understanding the role of quantity in organizational collapse. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(1), 1-30.

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Gomez, L. M. (2006). Policy implementation and cognition. In M.I. Honig (Ed.), New directions in educational policy implementation (pp. 47-64). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Spillane, J. P., Diamond, J. B., Burch, P., Hallett, T., Jita, L., & Zoltners, J. (2002a). Managing in the middle: School leaders and the enactment of accountability policy. Educational Policy, 16(5), 731-762.

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002b). Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387-431.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stern, S. (2016). Principled neglect and compliance: Responses to NCLB and the CCSS at an Expeditionary Learning Middle School. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 15(4), 448-480.

Tourish, D., & Vatcha, N. (2005). Charismatic leadership and corporate cultism at Enron: The elimination of dissent, the promotion of conformity and organizational collapse. Leadership, 1(4), 455-480.

Weick, K. E. (1969). Social psychology in an era of social change. American Psychologist, 24(11), 990.

Weick, K. E. (1988). Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations. Journal of Management Studies, 25(4), 305-317.

Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 628-652.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Weick, K. E. (2010). Reflections on enacted sensemaking in the Bhopal disaster. Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 537-550.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421.

Yin, R. K. (2013). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zembylas, M. (2003). Emotions and teacher identity: A poststructural perspective. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 9(3), 213-238.


  • There are currently no refbacks.