Twenty-first century education involves questioning a lot of norms and reimagining many of our practices. Things don’t have to exist as they always did.

But how do we inspire change in an institution that can oftentimes be entrenched in its practices? How can we take a vision and make it become a reality? How do top-down and bottom-up movements contribute?

I listened today as many people I greatly respect discussed aspects of this issue. There is certainly no magic answer with so many layers and variables at play. But, for what they’re worth, these are my thoughts.

Encouraging Change from the Bottom-Up

The diffusion process was published by sociologists in the 1950s. It’s often used to describe the lifecycle of the adoption of new technologies or new ideas. It has had its variations (you may have seen the pencil metaphor), but they are all based on the same basic bell curve:

From Wikipedia

At the 2015 Bring IT Together conference, I attended a session presented by Scott Johnson on the topic of “Leading Change”. The thing that stuck with me the most from his presentation was to work with the people who want to change. You can’t force change on those that don’t want it (yet!). Scott emphasized aiming professional development or opportunities at the early adopters. Not by doing things *to* them, but by gathering an eager team and letting them lead.

We can sometimes be so worried about convincing the late majority and the laggards that we bore & alienate the innovators and early adopters – or, worse yet, get frozen in inaction. But, when we focus our efforts on building the new with those who don’t need our convincing, amazing things can begin to happen. From within the innovators and early adopters, grassroots movements can grow.

We all understand that change won’t happen overnight but let’s not spin our wheels focusing on those who aren’t ready to change. We certainly don’t want to cause undue stress or resistance.

Let’s focus on identifying those who are already willing and eager. Let’s find time for these people to connect and feed off one another’s energy to generate ideas and action.

Do we worry that we’re leaving the others in the dust? No. They’ll be much easier to convince and bring on board once they can see the action and success of the innovators and early adopters. They’ll begin to see and understand the why. As time goes on, with continued support, the early majority will follow the lead of the early adopters and eventually, the late majority. We will get there – but we have to start somewhere. This bottom-up movement is key.

Encouraging Change from the Top-Down

That said, innovators and early adopters need top-down support in order to drive larger change. Grassroots movements are more likely to take hold if, instead of resistance, they meet with encouragement and trust. I don’t see it so much as a mandate…. moreso as permission.

I consider myself an innovator but as I keep experimenting and changing my teaching practice, I have to spend quite a bit of time and energy justifying and backing up my choices. I think it’s a good thing in many ways – I really shouldn’t be changing for the sake of change, so having a well-thought plan with a solid rationale is a positive.

But if there were a top-down direction, in black & white that I could point to, that supported innovation and change, I could focus a lot more of my energy on innovation and iteration rather than worrying about trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole to satisfy the “rules”.

Clearly define what the non-negotiables are and where the opportunity for freedom lies. Are report cards non-negotiable? Is the physical grouping of students into grades and classes with similar-aged peers non-negotiable? Is curriculum non-negotiable? What, specifically, are the areas where there is no flexibility and which areas are open to innovation? Ideally, we could innovate in any area but the reality is there may be limitations we must respect and knowing where those lines are, if they exist, will help us focus on a productive path.

Changing can be a risk. New ideas can fail. I understand completely how some people are not willing and eager to try, or to support those that want to. For lack of a better way to put it: they’re “afraid” of getting in trouble from higher up. Teachers are afraid of not pleasing their principals. Principals are afraid of not impressing their superintendents. And so on. It’s in our nature. It’s far easier to play it safe and meet the tried-and-true success criteria – to give people exactly what they want.

Everyone has good intentions and wants to do a good job. Sometimes the definition of a “good job” comes from policy, documentation, research, tradition. But when we talk about innovation, those measuring sticks won’t work. To break the mould and find something better, we have to stray from the knowns. There won’t be a body of research to back us up. It may not fit into the neat boxes of existing policy. We may not have all the answers when we begin.

A top-down direction for innovation that was supportive for those willing to stick out their necks would go a long way to setting the tone to let people know it’s okay to fail. I think there are lots of people willing to try, if they knew they had the safety net of acceptance.

That and funding. While not all changes will have an associated cost, many of the truly transformative ideas will require a monetary investment.

How Do We Know We’re Successful

At the beginning stages of change, what *I* would look for isn’t any particular outcome but instead – is someone trying. It might work. It might not. But are we trying? Are we experimenting? Are we questioning? Are we reflecting? Are we sharing what we’re discovering (for better or for worse) so that others may build upon our ideas? Are we iterating?

Best practices are evolving. I don’t think we truly know yet exactly what success looks like. If we could fully define it already, we might already be doing it. If we are talking about truly transformative change – I don’t think we can boil it down to a checklist of exact criteria yet.

To keep it simple, we may have to go with our gut initially – is this change better or worse that what I did before? If it’s better, could it be even better somehow? If it’s worse, could it be saved with an adjustment or do I need to throw it out and find plan B (or C, or Z)?

If someone has the best interest of students at heart and is transparently sharing the journey, I think we can safely trust that good things will happen.


-The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.-


Hazel Mason · January 20, 2016 at 6:33 am

I loved your blog and your thoughtful reflection of our conversation. Innovation is exciting and challenging for all the reasons you expressed but if you believe it is the right thing to do, you persevere. It has been a journey for me too and I haven’t always felt supported by my colleagues but I keep at it because I believe it is the right thing to do for our kids. At the heart of it my guiding post is always, will it make a positive difference for kids. If my answer is yes then my resolve to make it so becomes even more firm.

Ms. Armstrong · January 20, 2016 at 9:39 am

Agreed 100%. It’s an exciting journey that’s worth it. Thanks so much for your leadership – I know I feel its impact.

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