Understanding Your Team’s Proclivities for Educational Change & Innovation

We each have this wonderful constantly emerging blend of inherited traits and those which grow out of life and experience. Thinking about this fact, I am developing a framework for understanding different proclivities when it comes to educational change and innovation. These are tendencies to have certain types of reactions to emerging models, approaches and frameworks; a proneness to ask and value certain questions over others. As with many such frameworks, one’s reaction is often a blend of two or more of the proclivities, but it seems as if one takes the lead while other play supporting roles. Similarly, the context and nature of a community impacts one’s proclivity for a particular context. A person might gravitate toward one proclivity in one part of a person’s life but a different one in another group or community. Similarly, a person’s proclivities change over time as one’s life experiences unfold. As we think about our own teams in learning organizations, consider how these proclivities are present and how recognizing them might allow you to manage change while valuing the unique contributions and perspectives of the different players on that team.

1. The Assumption Proclivity

Also known as the “first impression proclivity”, this is the person with a tendency to quickly assume an understanding of the innovation, its benefits, and/or drawbacks.  Sometimes this comes from having extensive experience in a related area, assuming that this allows one to make a quick and correct judgement about the innovation or change.

In the world of online learning, I see the assumption proclivity quite a bit.  It comes from people who have quick opinions about the educational value of online learning in general. It also comes from people who have training and experience with one approach to online learning and come to believe in that approach and certain practices as non-negotiable best practices, labeling most things outside of that realm of experience as wrong or uninformed.  On the other hand, the assumption proclivity can also just as easily lead one to assume that a given innovation is excellent and the certain way to go. This is often shown by people with a “new is better” mindset.

As with all of them, there are benefits and limitations to this proclivity. The downside of the assumption proclivity comes when people are overbearing or unwilling to bracket this first reaction long enough to develop a deeper and more substantive understanding of the innovation. The benefit of having a person with an assumption proclivity is that these people can help spark a lively and potentially high-impact conversation…granted that we have enough people with other proclivities and that there is enough trust in the group.

2. The Skeptical Proclivity

This is the person (also referred to as having the Thomas Proclivity) who treats educational innovations and changes as guilty until proven innocent.  It sometimes comes from living through countless educational fads and perceiving them as largely ineffective or even damaging.  In other instances, it comes from a desire for positive evidence to support any change or innovation. While these people sometimes come off as negative, they can be valuable in helping to refine an idea and to genuinely evaluate the worth of it.

3. The Wait-and-See Proclivity

Distinct from the skeptical proclivity, this is the tendency to sit back and watch with a new innovation. This person does not seem to make a judgement in favor of or in opposition to it.  At the same time, the person does not show a desire to scrutinize it. Leave that up to others. If the innovation takes root and gains momentum, this person is likely to follow suit, and will make the best of it.  People with a wait-and-see proclivity will not be early adopters (in the Everett Rogers sense), but they are also not laggards, being the last people to join in. Instead, depending upon the circumstance, they tend to join in with the early or late adopters.

4. The Analytical Proclivity

This is distinct from the skeptic as well, although these people can often be mistaken as skeptical.  This is the tendency to dissect the change or innovation, wanting to explore it from different angles and move forward (or resist it) with a clear and deep understanding of the benefits and limitations.  Sometimes the person with the analytical proclivity sounds negative because she is willing to genuinely looking at and entertain strong criticisms. However, she is doing it to understand more than to tear it apart. In postmodern terminology, these are not deconstructionists in the sense that they want to tear it apart and leave it on they ground.  They want to tear it apart and then put it back together, sometimes making wonderfully helpful enhancements along the way, or helping to mitigate against some of the limitations of the change or innovation.

5. The Possibility Proclivity

The person with this proclivity has similarities to those with both the assumption (in the positive sense) and the analytical proclivity.  This is seen in the individual who analyzes the change or innovation by quickly jumping to the benefits and possibilities.  What are the possibilities that would emerge with this change or innovation? This is essentially the analytical person who focuses upon the benefits.  This sometimes seems to come from a belief that innovations are inevitable and that it is most important to figure out how to make the best of it, to use them for the greatest benefit or to amplify a given value. For them, this is an exercise in imagination and creativity.

6. The Doomsday Proclivity

This is the flip side of the possibility proclivity.  These people find themselves gravitating toward imagining the worst case scenarios.  However, with encouragement and a trusting community, these team members can be encouraged to bolster this proclivity with a strong secondary proclivity, considering both positive and negative possibilities. While this may sound like an unpleasant perspective, these people can share passionate concerns that help elevate the groups understanding of genuine risks that should be managed as part of a given change or innovation. Ignore their concerns and they may leave or become silent or outspoken resisters.

7. The Big Picture Proclivity

This is the tendency to put a given change or innovation into perspective by thinking about larger overall organizational or community goals and needs. It is a mindset that may accept a less than perfect innovation because the person sees it as moving the organization or community in the right direction. One can always adjust or redirect at a later time and as needed.

8. The Moral Good Proclivity

This is the tendency to put changes and innovations into categories of good or bad.  This may connect closely with any of the other proclivities, but it comes from a strong moral and ethical sensibility, quickly seeking to evaluate a given change by a set of moral beliefs or convictions. People with other proclivities may well leverage a moral code as well, but this is a tendency to make this the first set of evaluations. These are the people who are first trying to decide if this is the right thing to do, if it helps support a core set of values and convictions. I often see this in the form of an educator who has clear and personally compelling personal mission that drives her actions and decisions as an educator. It might be a core value like the belief that everyone has a right to a good education, the value of human agency, the value of developing deep and positive relationships with each learner, or belief in the importance of treating each student as precious and full of potential.

9. What-Does-This-Mean-For-Me Proclivity

As you can guess from the name, this is the tendency to first evaluate innovations and changes based upon how they will harm or benefit them personally. This might relate to whether it means more or less work, requires one to change ingrained habits, if it requires re-learning a great deal, or if it will impact one’s other life commitments.  While this may sound to some like a selfish response, it can also be seen as simply counting the cost.  People in education, like those in any field, need to have boundaries, and this is the tendency to assess  changes based upon whether the person is willing or able to invest in a give change or innovation. Note that this is not necessarily (although it could be) asking “What is in it for me?” Instead, it is trying to figure out what it means for me.  The person may decide that it means a great deal of work and change, but it is worth it.  They may decide the opposite as well.  The point here is that this person is first driven to figure out the personal impact.

Note that I do not describe any of these proclivities as wrong or inappropriate. In fact, in most contexts I tend to see it as helpful to have people who respond from any or all of them.  Such diversity, when experienced in the context of a trusting community, makes for wonderfully rich and valuable discussions.  Of course, given the differences, these people are seeking answers to different questions.  As much as a leader or change agent might want to get everyone focused upon asking and answering the same set of questions, these different proclivities give a glimpse into what may well be happening in the minds of the people. Understanding, recognizing, and respecting the value of the different questions that come with each proclivity allows one to manage change in a way that honors and benefits from the unique blend of genes and experiences in the team.

Posted in blog, education, education reform, educational technology, innovation

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).