Effective teaching is a continual work in progress. As educators, we adapt our practice each year to a new group of students, each of whom brings a unique blend of strengths, challenges, and experiences to learning. We adopt new curricula and apply new standards and mandates. We are always on the lookout for new approaches and strategies demonstrated by educational research to work in the classroom.
But all these changes can be hard. For example, adopting a new approach may require changes to lessons, new forms of assessing and monitoring student performance, more substantial consultation with colleagues, and adaptation of strategies to make continuous improvements. As teachers, we are willing to invest the time and effort required to change our practice if we clearly foresee the benefits of that change.
The Social Mechanics of Change
For decades, social scientists have been studying how change happens, and you may find the implications of that research useful in endeavors to implement transformational teaching changes in your school with colleagues, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders. A central theory that describes the pace and path of acceptance of new ideas and innovations was put forth by Everett Rogers (PDF). Rogers described how the diffusion of innovation takes place in a social system as people undergo a five-step process to assess the impact of change on their work and lives:
- In the knowledge step, they become aware of a new idea and begin to develop their understanding of the function of this innovation.
- People are then persuaded to form either a favorable or unfavorable attitude about this change.
- They decide whether to adopt or reject the innovation.
- They implement the new idea.
- They confirm their decision by evaluating the results of the implementation.
Rogers' theory acknowledges that people go through these steps at widely varying speeds and in ways that influence how others around them will respond to and adopt the innovation. Some people are innovators, the first in line to try out new things. Close behind them are early adopters, who are drawn to a new idea through the positive responses of innovators about the benefits of adopting it. Following the early adopters in stages are the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards, who may resist adopting a new idea until they are penalized in some way for resisting.
Your School at the Tipping Point
The adoption rate of a new idea or approach is influenced by several factors. Applying these factors to education:
- The first and foremost is how teachers and administrators perceive the advantages of a new idea or approach in comparison to the status quo. In other words, does it seem likely that this new approach will improve students' academic performance?
- Is this new approach compatible with the existing professional values and past experiences of teachers and administrators?
- If the new idea is complex, how can it be presented in a way that makes it understandable, relevant, and actionable?
- Can teachers try out this new approach, experiment with it, and adapt it?
- Are the results observable? The more clearly that positive change can be demonstrated, the more likely teachers and administrators will be to embrace a new approach.
At the core of diffusion of innovation theory is the tipping point at which a new idea gains wider acceptance and adoption. The tipping point is the stage where small changes and advances have accumulated to gain significant momentum toward more profound progress. For educators, the question becomes: What can people who are in favor of this progress do to "move the dial" toward the tipping point? This issue is at the heart of transformational teaching -- finding ways to move effective educational practices and initiatives past the tipping point into the realm where teachers, administrators, and policy makers acknowledge their positive impact and agree on the need to integrate them into school systems.
In the school setting, the introduction and adoption of innovations take place within the social system of a collaborative work environment. Some strategies that might be useful in gaining support for positive change in your school or district include:
- Identify and clearly communicate the observable benefits demonstrated in research and practice, repeatedly and by whatever means available, of adopting an innovation.
- Get opinion leaders on your side. Seek out the support of influential colleagues and administrators who are likely to become early adopters of an initiative and willing to spread the positive word to others.
- Marshal organizational support by advocating for policy and procedural changes that will facilitate adoption of the innovation.
- Take advantage of social networks, electronic channels, and other engaging ways to make the case for change.
Authors' note: This post was adapted from our new book Smarter Teacher Leadership: Neuroscience and the Power of Purposeful Collaboration, which will be published this fall by Teachers College Press.