Real Change From Within, Not From Above

Lately, I've been reading Peter Block’s The Answer to How is Yes and Robert Evans’ The Human Side of School Change. While Block’s musings are mostly philosophical and Evans’ primarily psychological, both authors address an essential and compelling question that befuddles administrators everywhere: How do we get those under us to change?

In schools, many administrators are frustrated that after spending so much money on Chromebooks and iPads few of their teachers have actually changed their instructional practices. These administrators not only spent a lot of money on devices, they also hired education technology specialists with the goal of changing teacher behavior. 

Yet, as Block points out, no one changes as a result of our desires. Indeed, they will resist our efforts to change simply due to its coercive nature. When we say we want others to change, we are actually expressing a wish to control them. We may say that we want them to change for a purpose that we feel is good and desirable, but we are actually saying that we know what is best for them. And people resist coercion much more strenuously than they resist change.

Furthermore, as Evans notes in The Human Side of School Change, we ignore the reality of how people actually change when we try to structure innovation on a command-and-control system and when we move quickly to how-to-do-it teacher training. Administrators too frequently fail to build a base of support for their innovations before such training and teachers are often unwilling or unable to fulfill the new roles and responsibilities created for them. Instead, they figure out ways to continue what they used to do rather than what they are expected to do.

As Evan notes, administrators typically rely on rational, objective decision-making, quantitative measurement, and long-range goals when launching initiatives. Change efforts are based on a traditional paradigm that focuses on top-down innovation, in the form of dissemination of information and resources and informal and formal pressure. In the process, administrators may speak openly about teacher autonomy and choice, but for many what they actually want is getting people to “go along.”

As John Diamond, Michael Fullan, and other educational researchers have pointed out, teachers change their instructional practices in response to other teachers, not as a result of top-down initiatives and top-down processes. Exchanges between teachers around what's working and not working in their classrooms are the foundation for innovations in how teachers teach. Teachers glean tips and ideas from other teachers and try to implement them, per their setting. No matter what standards or administrators may say about what teachers teach, how they teach is most influenced by their colleagues.

When I first started teaching with laptops in a 9th-grade classroom back in 2000, I had no designs on expanding the laptop program to other classrooms or changing other teachers’ behavior. I simply focused on finding useful resources and designing effective lessons and activities for a technology-infused classroom. Since I had to create most of these lessons and activities from scratch, they forced me to be creative and be willing to take risks. 

Within two years, many of my history colleagues decided that they, too, would be willing to teach in a one-to-one classroom. I never sought out to make other teachers at my school adopt technology in their classrooms, but they would ask me about my experiences and word of my classroom activities were reaching parents. 

I think that many schools are realizing that top-down initiatives and control systems will likely only bring about minimal change in teacher practice. For lasting change to take place, it must be organic and authentic. It happens through teacher-to-teacher interactions and with it exchanges of information and ideas. As long as schools continue to focus on top-down systems at the expense of nurturing lateral teacher interactions it is hard to envision deep and lasting innovation taking root in those schools. 

School Leader as Social Architect

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