“Unfreezing” Teachers:  Why So Many Technology Initiatives Are Stagnating

Over the last six years schools and districts have spent millions of dollars equipping their students and faculty with iPads and Chromebooks, often in an attempt to create one-to-one classrooms. Many schools have held hope that these devices might lead to a surge of innovation in classroom practice. Now years removed from the iPad/Chromebook wave, many schools and districts have found that instruction has barely changed and some schools have cut back on their technology programs. 

Many teachers point to perceived deficiencies in the devices for the lack of sustained enthusiasm in tech-infused classrooms. For instance, teachers in iPad classrooms have complained that students cannot type effectively on the iPads. Teachers in Chromebook classrooms complain that the device does not include PowerPoint. Yet, complaints about device deficiencies are typically symptoms of the problem and not its root cause. 

“Lewin’s Law” helps us understand the root cause and how to deal with it. Lewin, a pioneer of social and organizational psychology, is credited with a widely accepted model of change in which change is depicted as a three-stage process. In the first stage, termed unfreezing, individuals overcome inertia and an existing "mind set" is broken down. In the second stage, termed change, the change actually begins and is often characterized by a transition, fraught with some confusion. In the second stage, individuals are confronted with change but do not have a clear picture as to what the future will be. The third stage is freezing. In freezing, a new mindset emerges and individuals become more comfortable in their new environment. 

In many schools, teachers are not “unfreezing” and remain stuck in stage one of Lewin’s change process. Yet, schools distribute devices to teachers and expect that they will be in stage two, where change actually begins. Unfortunately, administrators often fail to present teachers with the need for change and often do not provide a vision of what desired change will look like. Furthermore, many schools do not provide the time needed, nor a practical method, to begin to enact change. As a result, teacher inertia is not overcome and the existing teacher mindset continues. In this mindset, teachers remain unconvinced that their instructional practices need change or are unmotivated to change them. Lacking a motivating vision and a galvanizing call to action, teachers instinctively evaluate technology primarily in terms of the efficiency it brings to what they are doing and have always done. Therefore, when iPads or Chromebooks are introduced into a lecture-based class, the teacher will likely evaluate the device in terms of its note-taking qualities rather than the potential to nurture new, student-centric, and creativity-focused instructional environments.  

For leaders of teachers, they must strike a delicate balance between fostering pressure to change and providing comfort zones. They need to introduce information and data that speaks to a need for instructional change. But they must also introduce psychological space that allow teachers to accept the information, overcome any anxiety, and begin to change. Change, after all, is a complex psychological process and “unfreezing” can be very painful for teachers. Change involves overcoming individual psychological defenses as well as group expectations entrenched in the community culture.  For teachers to enter stage 2 of Lewin’s model, they must be willing to accept that something is not completely right and needs to be rectified. Such a recognition can be a blow to their ego and identity as teachers and make it difficult for them to accept.

Schools must then provide psychological safety nets if they ever wish to “unfreeze” teachers. There are many ways to create these nets: working in groups, providing positive reinforcement, providing space to make mistakes, encouraging a learner-mindset, breaking the process into manageable steps, providing online coaching, mentor-teachers, creating student help desks, and more. As MIT Teaching System Lab Director Justin Reich points out, "change happens when teachers go through a cycle of experiment, reflection, and adjustment." Some things will go wrong and it will get messy at times. If a school leader’s goal is to oversee thoughtful innovation, she should be thinking about how to help teachers through a cycle of iteration and innovation effectively, efficiently and even joyfully. 

Where schools so often fall short is that they don’t develop a galvanizing vision of how learning can be different when technology is introduced. Administrators too often expect that once a device enters a classroom teachers are going to understand and appreciate its inherent possibilities. Moreover, training sessions often center on nuts-and-bolts tech and not instructional vision. Without the vision, teachers will never reach the new mindset. So schools need to go much further in communicating how teaching and learning can be transformed with technology. 

Consider for a moment all the revolutionary and disruptive technologies that have been introduced in our society over the last twenty years and how teaching has remained virtually impervious to change throughout this period. It’s not the technology. No matter how powerful, creative, or versatile a device or tool, teachers will continue to teach the way they have always taught if there is no motivating reason to change and an understanding of what beneficial change looks like. Creating a galvanizing vision should be the first and foremost step of any technology program. Without it, the chances of unfreezing teachers are remote.


Schools & Random Acts of Innovation