7 Considerations When Managing Educational Change

In a recent article, I discussed fifteen ways to promote a new innovation in a learning organization. That sparked more than a few conversations, which led to this article about managing educational change. Often, when thinking about what practice to promote and how to promote them, we fail to stop and recognize why people adopt new practices. With that in mind, I’d like to reflect on a number of tendencies that people have when it comes to the adoption of innovations in education. Recognizing that these are at play will give us a helpful perspective as we go about change management.

Head and Heart

As a rule, educators do not make decisions about how to teach, teaching tools, or new methods and approaches based on some carefully reasoned or evidence-based approach. Evidence-based practice is certainly a factor for many, but there is more to it. Instinct, folk knowledge, prior experience, attachment to certain traditions, and other similar factors often come into play. Nonetheless, when a new idea or practice is proposed, some of these same people will challenge it and ask for evidence, research, and a well-reasoned rationale. Even if you give all that, it might not accomplish what you hope because those are not the only influencers. By the way, all of us have a unique mix of motives and rationales for how we teach and the tools we use, and I happen to think that is more often than not appropriate. Keeping this in mind can help us better understand reluctance as well as openness to new possibilities.

Art vs. Science

Is teaching an art or science? Most recognize that both inform what we do and how we do it. How do you determine if something is scientifically sound? That has been codified quite a bit, but there is still room for disagreement. A finding published in a scientific journal is not the end of a conversation about something. It is the beginning. Now there is need for discourse, debate, and follow up studies that hopefully accumulate into something that is helpful in guiding us toward a best practice.

What about the art of teaching? For that, some argue that there is no absolute right or wrong. Yet, there are clearly standards for what constitutes good and bad art. Yes, there is disagreement, but there are also largely accepted common understandings to some extent. Most people can accurately judge that my attempt at ballet (having no formal training nor involvement beyond watching my daughter at ballet class on occasion) does not compare to that of someone like Mikhail Baryshnikov. Comparing one professional to another may be more nuanced and debatable. As such, whether people align closer to teaching as an art or as a science, there is room for debate and disagreement. What is frustrating, however, is when educators or educational leaders have not even taken the time to learn the nuances and involve themselves in the broader discourse. It is like the person who flippantly dismisses online learning without doing enough research or exploration to call for a passing grade on a middle school research paper. For that, we must be firm and challenge ourselves and others to raise the bar on the expectations for what it means to be involved in the field of education.

Right & Wrong or Benefits & Limitations

People have deep-seated beliefs and values that inform what they think and do in education. As such, we can easily frame our positions on past, current or emerging practices in moral or ethical terminology. One practice is right and the other is wrong. A certain technology is good while another is bad. As those who read my blog often probably already know, I find it more helpful to guide the conversation away from moral and ethical terminology (unless that discourse is indeed the most appropriate) and instead toward conversations about the benefits and limitations of a given practice or technology. What values does it amplify and muffle? What benefits does it generate and what limitations or restrictions does it create? How are these answers similar or different in diverse contexts? This will often highlight any number of important values and ethical considerations, but it also helps us venture into a much more nuanced and open conversation.

Openness to New Practices & Ideas

There is much that is malleable about us as humans and much of my research and scholarship depends upon that premise. I, for example, work from an assumption that people can become more curious and develop a greater love of learning. At the same time, I acknowledge that there are more fixed ranges among people. Some people are, by nature, more curious than others. The same it true to levels of openness to the new or novel. This is an important factor when thinking about change management. You will never devise a perfect change management plan that produces 100% adoption at an even rate across all people, not unless you are brilliant at stacking the deck through your hiring practices (which is a valid strategy in some cases).

Do People Use what they Like or Like what They Use?

Once working through a new practice and there is broad adoption, people oftentimes come to prefer that which was adopted. Even if a more promising practice or technology comes along, people might prefer what they know. For some, that current practice took much work and emotional energy to adopt. They are finally comfortable with it and it is stressful to think of going through all that work again. Even the suggestion conjures anxiety. We are wise to keep this effort of change in mind. It doesn’t mean we refrain from moving forward, but it might mean guiding people through the potential stress.

People Often Prefer the Familiar

The more outside the box your innovation, the more important this is to remember. In the diffusion of innovation research, this is a key consideration. People tend to listen to and be more open to those with whom they feel similar…to the people with whom they can relate. If you come off as rebel in the community, unless you have an immense amount of trust from those in the community, people will be less likely to follow and consider your new ideas. I’ve learned this the hard way. I once had an early conversation with a colleague about my more radical views of education. It was so far from this person’s own views and convictions that, now six years later, the person almost instantly assumes that an idea from me is radical, suspect, and best to leave unconsidered. Either find people who are “insiders” to help with the innovation or find ways to build rapport and become a familiar and relatable figure. The same is true for the practice or innovation itself. Consider framing it in terms of how it is similar to what people already embrace or accept in some part of their life or work.

People Prefer What They Discovered

The more we can involve people in exploring the possibilities and selecting the direction, the easier it is to develop shared ownership. As such, consider how you can invite people behind the scenes, playing a role in shaping the future. That can be a much faster route to a new practice or innovation that sticks. Or, if you are a startup, make sure you recruit and hire people who are already on board with the key concepts…who have already “discovered” it and are ready to join others who came to the same conclusion and what to do something about it.

Ultimately, what I am saying here is likely obvious. There are important sociological and psychological elements to adopting new practices and innovations. Ignore these nuances at your own risk. Instead, consider how you can be really curious about people, change management, and the entire process. Look, listen, learn and use what you learn to build a community of trust and possibility.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

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