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.

15 Ways to Promote the Adoption of a New Innovation in Your Learning Organization

How do you promote the adoption of a new innovation in your learning organization? If you’ve seen the term early adopter, then you have been partly introduced to the work of Everett Rogers, author of a classic text that helped to explain how innovation gets adopted in various communities or cultures, The Diffusion of Innovation. This is a text that has been around since 1962. Even though newer models and theories abound, Rogers’ work remains a classic that continues to shape the way we think and talk about technology and innovation adoption. This framework remains a useful resource when thinking about managing change and promoting a promising innovation in your learning organization.

To put it in broader context, Rogers divided adopters into six categories based on the timing of their adoption, their role in a broader adoption, and the extend to which they ever adopt. There are the innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards, and the leapfroggers.

Innovators

These are the people who have the resources and risk tolerance needed to create many of the innovations that eventually gain wider adoption. Failure is common and an understood part of their work. They are people who have access to not just the what but the how of the innovations, often tapping into the best and most current research on a given innovation.

Early Adopters

These are thought leaders and people who usually have a pretty high level of respect from many others. They don’t take as many risks as the innovators, are still judicious in what they adopt, but their influential role should not be overlooked.

Early Majority

These individuals do not have the position of thought leadership like the early adopters. They are, however, often connected to the early adopters.

Late Majority

This group typically has no connection with the innovators or early adopters, approaches innovations with a measure of skepticism, and adopts innovations a little later than the average person. They also have limited to my thought leadership around the innovation.

Laggards

As the name would suggest, these are the last people to adopt an innovation. They are not very connected to people in the other groups, are champions for tradition and the status quo, and they usually have little to no influence on others when it comes to adoption.

Leapfroggers

These are the people who hold out on innovations often through several iterations, but eventually do adopt it.

About the Six Categories

Notice the relationship between the different adopting groups. The innovators will not directly influence the laggards. That is because laggards tend to interact with other laggards and the late majority. So, you typically get to the laggards through that next group up the adoption ladder. Innovators influence other innovators and early adopters. Early adopters influence other early adopters and the early majority. You get the idea. This is not a perfect science, and there are many exceptions, but this general concept is important because people tend to be more influenced by those with whom they can relate and share much in common. That means that a compelling case from an innovator is probably not the best way to invite the laggards to consider something new.

15 Ways to Promote the Adoption of a New Innovation

Given all this information, how do you progress toward the adoption of a new innovation? Here are some practical ideas to get you started.

  1. Increased an awareness of the possibilities.

A simple way to do this is through some strategic field trips. Consider identifying innovators and early adopters, and invite them to go with you to another learning organization where the innovation has already been adopted. Whether it is an educational technology, teaching method, or overall school design; people need to be informed about the possibilities. Notice that I suggested starting with innovators and early adopters. Send the others too early in the process and they are likely to come back with a long list of reasons why your organization should not go the same route.

However, as adoption develops, you can strategically identify good places to visit for other adopters as well. Don’t assume that the most extreme is the best. Consider models where a late adopter can meet and learn from how another late adopter in a different organization made the transition and is not a champion for the cause.

2. Nurture shared ownership from key leaders in the organization.

There are certainly instances of grassroots adoptions of innovations, but in most organizations, if the leadership does not own it and value it, you will be fighting resistance every step of the way, or you will just lack the resources to really make it happen. Sometimes this comes down to making a case for the innovation, garnering the financial support to move forward, and having them agree to speak in favor of and even shift priorities to make it happen. Even if it takes months or years, this is usually a very good investment of your time and energy. It is hard to over-emphasize this part of the adoption process. If you are a school leader, then making sure your board is all-in will likely be important. If you are a teacher, make sure you nurture the support from the principal or other key leader. This usually means lots of conversations; listening to their interests, goals and concerns; and helping them to see the benefits and how this innovation will align with and support their other goals.

3. One-on-One Conversations

Take the time to build relationships with others in the organization, and talk to people individually about the ideas and possibilities. You will be amazed at what will come from simply investing the time in this individual chats. I find that chats over coffee or a nice lunch are extremely valuable.

4. Ask People for Help

There is something about helping another person that builds a connection and sense of commitment. Ask for colleagues who are open to help you out as you begin to progress toward the adoption. Maybe they help out with a presentation that you give. Maybe they help create materials or resources. Maybe they help provide candid feedback and input. By inviting them into this work, you are also giving them a chance to test the ideas and build comfort with them. Just make sure that you are asking them to help with something that matters. People don’t like to be patronized or have their time wasted.

5. Pilot and Pilot Some More

The word “pilot” can be your best friend. Identify teachers who would be open to you piloting the innovation in some way in their classroom or amid their work at the learning organization. Invite their opinions and input along the way. This gives them a front row seat to exploring the innovation, providing them wit the time to weigh their concerns with the possibilities and opportunities.

6. Provide Information

Create one-page handouts, a simple and easy web site or blog, offer a lunch-time tutorial or presentation, etc. Find ways to help people get the necessary information to learn more about the innovation. In order to adopt, most people need to get informed, learn about the benefits and drawbacks, have a chance to explore and experiment, etc. Start with providing non-threatening opportunities to dip their toe in the water. Answer common questions. Inform. Also don’t be afraid to persuade. Consider using Howard Gardner’s Seven Levers for Changing Minds or Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion.

7. Show and Tell

As some teachers start to adopt, coordinate opportunities for other teachers to visit and see it in action. Remember that the late adopters will not be readily convinced by the innovators. They need to see fellow late majority and/or early majority people doing it for them to be the most open to the innovation.

8. Bring in an Expert

Sometimes it is also helpful to invite some leading experts into the community to show and teach what they know about the innovation. For some in the community, this added expert opinion will offer a little more credibility to the innovation. However, remember that people tend to be most influenced by similar people. So, if the expert is seen as an innovator or disconnected from the real world of their learning organization, they may find it hard to listen and accept such expert input.

9. Simulated Experiences

Many will not try something in a real classroom or context until they’ve had ample time to test it out in a safer and low-risk context. Set some of those up and provide support for people to try it out…look no risk and low barriers to entry.

10. Celebrate Successes

As new people adopt and have good experiences, capture those and share them with others in the community. Celebrate what is going well.

11. Debrief Setbacks

Things will not always go well. Innovations can have glitches and exceptions that become fuel for resistance. Don’t let those spread in the community. Find out what happened, why it happened, and how to fix or prevent it the next time. Help people through the setbacks and turn them into more success stories. There share those stories.

Some disagree with me on this, but I believe that it builds important credibility for you to be the first to know and highlight the problems, limitations and setbacks of an innovation. Do you really want to be someone who pushes for an innovation that is not good or truly beneficial? Do your homework. Surface the problems. Explore them together, solve them or manage them. If it isn’t a good innovation, be willing to kill it. In the long run, this is better for you and the organization.

12. Devise Team Workshops

Sit and get in-services are of limited value. However, it is completely different if you set up a workshop time and put people in groups (intentionally organized based on your best guess at where they fit as adopters), and have people plan, build and create something related to the innovation. This is a chance for some positive peer support and influence. Think practical and hands-on. Also build mechanisms for people to try and use what they built.

13. The Mandate

At times, this works. If leadership is on board and it is mission critical, sometimes it is time to work with the leadership (or if you are that leadership, do it) to communicate a reasonable but clear goal for the community that we are going to move in a given direction. If you do this, be sure that you are ready to give the time and resources necessary for people to make the transition by a given time. You also need to gauge your community. Some communities will approach such a mandate with bitterness, holding a grudge and waiting for the whole thing to fail. Others respond favorably because there is a measure of trust and the culture has tolerance for some strong central leadership decisions.

13. The Team Scouts

Similar to others, it can work to identify a group of trusted and respected members in the community to review a given innovation and make recommendations on if and how to adopt it. Give them the time and resources for a thorough analysis (classes, readings, connections with experts, visits to and interviews with others who have adopted it, etc.). Make this a dream team and then support their decisions when they report back. At the beginning, provide clear questions and direction for the group, and then work closely with them to help act on what they find and recommend.

14. Build Internal Experts

If you find some innovators and early adopters who want to champion the innovation, invest in them. Provide them with the support and resources to become world-class at it. Then promote their work more broadly: in the local media, at conferences, through various external venues. Celebrate their success and influence within the community. Their thought leadership can be a powerful force. It can also help connect your school’s identity with the innovation.

15. Highlight the Problems

Be careful not to be manipulative with this one, but innovations should be about addressing key problems or taking advantage of promising opportunities. Finding a way to discover, surface and highlight problems that you want to address with the innovation is a great way to build a case for it.

There are countless other elements to the adoption of a new innovation in your learning organization, but these 15 are a helpful starting point. Don’t treat them like a recipe. Rather, see them as suggestions. Consider getting more familiar with the diffusion of innovation research, as it is a helpful tool for understanding the dynamics at work when an innovation is introduced to a community. From there, you can use these fifteen and other ideas to work toward a culture that embraces something new for the benefit of the learners.

The problem with, “I already tried that.” in educational innovation.

Whether you are in education or any other field, you have no doubt experienced this. An administrator or professional development facilitator encourages (or maybe even required) a teacher to implement a new practice or strategy. They try it and run into problems. They go back to their previous practice. When you ask them about the new practice or strategy, they explain that they tried it an it doesn’t work. Logically, they abandoned the new practice and went back to the familiar methods of the past. Yet, I’m not sure that makes as much sense that it might seem to some. Consider the following four scenarios.

Physical Therapy Treatment

A person is recovering from an injury and the doctor urges the person to work with a physical therapist. The person goes the first time, and the physical therapist takes them through a series of stretches and strengthening exercises. It was painful, but the person persevered. The patient goes home that night and never returns. When asked why they didn’t return, they explain that they went, it was painful and didn’t do anything to improve their condition.

Piano Lessons

A person decides to learn to play the piano. The person finds a teacher, goes to a first lesson, becomes embarrassed because of how little he knows, then he quits. When asked why, the person explains that the lessons “were not working.”

Reading a Classic

You are in a literature class that is reading T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. You read it through once, completely confused and then give up, explaining that this poem doesn’t make any sense.

Learning to Drive a Car

You start driver’s education and have your first day driving the car. As you start to pull out of the parking lot, the engine makes strange noises and shuts down. You try to restart it but no luck. You and the teacher check under the hood, but there is no obvious solution. So, you quite driver’s education, explaining to everyone that driving is not good because the technology isn’t reliable.

We read these examples and probably see the error in thinking. Of course you are not going to get better after a single physical therapy treatment. Of course you are unable to play the piano well after a single lesson. Of course it will take multiple readings and some research to understand a poem like The Wasteland. Of course driving works, but this person just had a bad experience. Yet, when it comes to educational innovation and educational technology, exploring new practices and methods, I’ve observed a similar line of thinking countless times. The person taking or teaching a blended or online course for the first time has a bad experience and uses that as evidence that all blended and online learning is bad, ineffective or the technology is too unreliable. Or, a person tries teaching a certain type of blended learning class, doesn’t enjoy it (similar to the lack of pleasure practicing piano before you can play a song), and quits, confident that it is a bad teaching method.  A person tries to design and teach their first project-based learning lesson and it bombs. They conclude that project-based learning doesn’t work with their students or maybe not at all. Someone invites a teacher to replace a lecture-dominant approach to teaching with a Socratic method. The questions are not well-crafted, the skill of socratic teaching has yet to be fully developed, and the class doesn’t perform as well on the first exam. The teacher concludes that lecture is clearly a superior teaching method to socratic teaching.

None of these are approaching the new method or strategy realistically. Implementing something new often takes study, practice, time, multiple attempts, reflection, revision, and ongoing adjustments. Of all people, shouldn’t educators be the first to understand this? A teaching method is not like a pill you take that instantly makes you feel better. It almost always needs to be combined with the development of new knowledge and skills. Even then, it is accompanied with ongoing reflective practice to hone the craft. Such an understanding is really a foundational element of being an effective learner.

Notice what happens when people approach new strategies, methods and models with an ongoing commitment to working hard at it, curiosity, reflective practice and an understanding that you don’t make a great surgeon by giving them a great method. You need a great method plus the accompanying skill before we see the great results. The same thing is true in teaching. It is also true in learning. We need educators why embrace such a mindset. Even more important, we need learners who know and understand this.

Educational Innovation & Building a Plane in the Air

Is making educational change like building an airplane in the air? Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase before. The more I think about it, the more I see it as having some useful lessons for thinking about managing change in learning organizations.

I had the privilege of helping with a recent boot camp for a select group of schools chosen to get help working toward a school-wide make-over, with a focus upon moving toward a blended learning model that amplifies their core values. The goal was to help these schools be successful with this innovation while also developing promising practices to share and replicate elsewhere.

We started the first day with a critical conversation about the compelling why behind theirs school and having non-negotiable school-shaping concepts through which they sift new programs, projects, ideas, policies, and practices. Without such groundwork, it is far too easy to make blended learning about chasing the next shiny thing. Coming up with your school-shaping concepts, and making them truly non-negotiable is a key to what I call mission-minded educational innovation that pops, that has a distinct and compelling identity and that results in a high-impact learning organization.

At the end of that first day, we debriefed, and I was struck and excited by one of the questions.

I see how you can do this if you are starting a new school are doing a re-start, but some of us are not in a position to do that. How do we make changes now, while we are still teaching students and working through many of the identity questions.

It is true. There are many benefits to starting from scratch, and engaging in school-wide educational innovations in existing organizations calls for a different approach. It calls for change management and developing the knowledge and skill to know when, what, how, and how much you can adjust at any given time. You are building (or at least updating) an airplane in the air, as represented by the following video.

This playful representation of managing change for existing, living, moving organizations provides a little comic relief to the familiar pain and challenges of leaders who have tried to do such a thing. It also highlights the risks associated with such an effort and draws our attention to some guiding principles.

1. Changing Course

Sometimes it isn’t as if you are building or rebuilding the concept of school. You are just adjusting or changing course. That is not uncommon in the air. We often need to adapt to the circumstances, and that is why things like curriculum require constant review and adjustment. That isn’t necessarily like building a new plane as much as making the adjustments necessary by a good pilot.

2. Major Changes are Done on the Ground, When People are Not Present

That is true for schools as well. Major changes typically happen between school years. You might plan for it during one school year, but launch it the next. There are exceptions to this, but there are still the exceptions. Even in the video you don’t see them building the engine in the air. Some things can be worked on as you go, but it just isn’t possible or advisable to make core changes in the air.

3. Building and Rebuilding Requires Care & Skill

Whether it is on the ground or in the air, it takes time, skill, and special attention to do this well, and in a way that does no harm. It requires knowing the difference between a major change and a minor adjustment; and having the wisdom to choose the best strategy to achieve the goals/changes.

4. A Compelling Why Makes a Huge Difference.

Maybe the comments in the video were over the top and full of cliché, but educational innovation can quickly fizzle under difficulty or pressure if there is not a compelling why to justify the time, effort, challenge, and risk. This is also critical for nurturing shared ownership or buy-in from the different stakeholders.

5. This is not a one person task.

If you have a small and simple enough team or organization, some changes can be led and managed by a single person, but most learning organizations don’t work that way. There are many parts to leading a successful educational innovation, and a committed, cooperative, core team is going to be necessary.

While these may seem simple, I’ve seen plenty of examples where innovations or attempted changes failed because lessons like these were ignored. Lone range efforts rarely work in complex learning organizations. Changes without a clear goal and compelling why often don’t have what it takes to persist or last. There is usually a learning curve and the need to develop or tap special expertise to make these changes a reality. And it is important to assess what can we done “in the air” and what needs to wait for us to be back on the ground. Pay attention to these five lessons and you’ve greatly increased your changes for a successful rebuild.