Spreading great ideas in teaching: How does change happen?

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 17, 2009

In my previous post on The Burden of Proof (what does educational research tell us?), many of us started to discuss why do faculty choose to change their teaching, if they decide that they should? (The question of whether or not they should is left for another discussion, another day).
So, I’m sitting now in my favorite coffee shop, reading a fabulous book called Diffusion of Innovations by E. M. Rogers.

It’s a classic volume describing how some innovations do and don’t take, such as the Palm Pilot (it was great value for the money), rap music (it espoused the anti-establishment values of white youth), and the one-child-per-family law in China (it was mandated by the government).

In education, we can learn a lot from this change literature.  I already am, in reading this book.  There is no one recipe for successful change, it’s clear — the strategy and evaluation has to depend on the innovation at hand.  But there are some common themes:

The innovation has to have some clear relative advantage over the old way of doing things. This is certainly one of the major hurdles we face in educational innovation.  It’s hard to assess the impact of pedagogical changes, and even then, many instructors don’t feel an emotional tug to try something new.  They just aren’t convinced, in their deepest self of selves, that this is a positive change.

Another form of relative advantage is whether it’s easier and faster to do things in the new way.  Rogers cites this as one reason why a new method soil testing (the N-Trak) failed — it was more work for farmers at an already busy time of the year, even though it saved them money and helped the environment because they didn’t overapply nitrogen fertilizer.  The PhD’s developing the new tool thought that the advantage would be obvious to farmers — they didn’t consult with the farmers to see how to develop it to best suit their needs.  In education, of course, we have to work directly with teachers and other potential adopters of the change we want to see, to create programs that take into account the political nature of change.  Sometimes we have to sacrifice the perfect for the good.

Economic factors are also important, of course — if it costs too much, people won’t buy it, like VCRs which originally sold for $1200 in 1980 weren’t adopted until the price dropped to $50 in 2002.  So the same should be true of educational innovations — if we suggest creating an entirely new classroom structure, or purchasing technology, which has a burdensome cost, then the chances of it being adopted are slim.

The innovation also has to be compatible with a person’s values, beliefs, and needs.  For example, the famous “miracle” rice bred by the Interational Rice Research Institute failed when it was adopted in the market in the Phillippines, because it didn’t “taste right,” even though it had much increased yields over traditional varieties.  How many of our educational innovations don’t “taste right” to faculty?  How can we design innovations that work in their particular culture, or that they can adopt to their needs?

Similarly, innovations have to be compatible with a person’s previous ideas. We understand new ideas in light of things that are already familiar.  In the case of education, the “familiar” is often the standard traditional “lecture at the blackboard” style.  That’s why I think clickers can be a really useful form of innovation — we can easily see how clickers can be incorporated and support the existing lecture format, in a way that extends the familiar model, instead of doing away with it.  “The more compatible an innovation is, the less of a change in behavior it represents,” writes Rogers. “How useful, then, is the introduction of a very highly compatible innovation?  Quite useful, perhaps, if the compatible innovation is seen as the first step in a cluster of innovations that are to be introduced sequentially.”  Today — clickers.  Tomorrow — the world!

Compatibility with needs is probably one of the more important considerations for educational change.  “Change agents must have a high degree of empathy and rapport with their clients in order to assess their needs accurately,” writes Rogers.

Potential adopters may not recognize that they have a need for an innovation until they become aware of the new idea or its consequences.  Change agents may seek to generate needs among their clients, but this must be done carefull or else the felt needs upon which a diffusion campaign is based may be a reflection only of the change agent’s needs, rather than those of the clients.

In the Physics Education Research community, this difficulty has already been documented.  Faculty feel that education researchers are foisting their ideas upon them, and telling them that they are teaching “the wrong way.”  For more information on this research, go here or here for Henderson and Dancy’s work on divergent expectations.  And here is a case study on how one institution ” involved its faculty in a systematic discussion about teaching and used the resulting feedback to alter policy. Faculty reactions, as captured in this case study, could be instructive in guiding instructional reforms at other research universities.”

Who is responsible for accepting the innovation is also an important factor.  Rogers notes that changes adopted by an individual spread more rapidly than those that require an entire institution to sign on.  That’s probably the case in education as well — the best changes are grassroots changes that spread among individuals in a social community.  Yet, many changes also require institutional support, so the slower process of getting larger organizational structures to support educational changes is also important.

Other aspects of innovations that affect their adoption are:

  • Trialability (can you try it out first?)
  • Observability (do you see other people using it?)
  • Status (does the adoption make you look cool?)
  • Complexity (is it difficult to use?)

Think about a common innovation, like cell phones, and how well they fit into a lot of these above categories — everyone has them, they’re a status symbol, easy to use, and you can try your friend’s phone pretty easily…  It’s easy to see how a lot of educational innovations aren’t as easily adopted. They’re a lot of work, it’s not obvious to many why we need them, and faculty trying new things are often lambasted by students and fellow instructors.

A commenter just mentioned another great book that I read in part, recently – Sheila Tobias’ Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don’t. Definitely a worthwhile read!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

M C Smith March 18, 2009 at 12:35 am

Rearranging the final 4 aspects of innovation you describe yields the acronym, COST. Reminds me that educational innovations come at some cost — but sometimes these costs are indeed worthwile.

Maria H. Andersen March 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm

You might want to check out this article: Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics

The article focuses on the Physics Education community, but is based on Innovations Theory and is good research applicable to all sciences (and, I think, math too).

My dissertation topic is on diffusion of innovations in mathematics (just re-read Rogers’ tome myself).

Find it here: http://homepages.wmich.edu/~chenders/Publications/HendersonPRST2007Barriers.pdf

sciencegeekgirl March 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

You might want to check out this article: Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics

Thanks for the direct link and comments, Maria! That article was one of the ones I was directing people to in the reference to Henderson and Dancy’s work in the post. It’s very interesting stuff. Please, feel free to share any of the highlights from your own dissertation (or if you’d like to share a substantial chunk, I welcome guest bloggers!)

Robert March 24, 2009 at 3:16 am

Another reference that I have found useful is the book “Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don’t” by Sheila Tobias, Research Corporation, 1992. Yes, 1992 – back when Mazur was doing peer instruction via show-of-hands (Chapter 8.) The basic structural issues have not changed very much since then.

sciencegeekgirl March 24, 2009 at 3:57 am

“Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don’t” by Sheila Tobias

Yes – that is a wonderful book! I’ll put a link to it in the post.

sciencegeekgirl March 24, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Here is a blog post from Derek Bruff about a recent article applying Rogers’ concepts of diffusion of innovations to clicker use!


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