Why do educators resist change?

In an Education Week blog (cross-posted at Dangerously Irrelevant), Scott McLeod offers ten reasons courtesy of IBM, and another two reasons of his own.

I offered a thirteenth: “the change is seriously flawed.”

I have seen many situations where teachers’ and administrators’ genuine concerns were dismissed as generic “resistance to change.” Supposedly, if you were “forward-looking” and a “team player,” you kept your skepticism muted.

Once I worked in a library that was converting from its file catalogs to an online catalog. A “change consultant” came to train us on preparing ourselves for change. She gave us a questionnaire to assess our readiness for change. It had questions like, “How often do you buy a new pair of shoes?” “When you go on vacation, do you go to the same place every time, or do you like to try new places?” All of this had very little to do with switching to an online catalog. Nor was there much “change resistance” among the staff in this case–it seemed the management had simply anticipated resistance and brought the change consultant in.

To deal with any change, and to understand people’s responses to it, one must look closely at what the change entails. Not all change is well considered.

Comments

  1. When you have worked as a teacher for as many years as I have, you recognize the bad fads the second (or third) time around. One of the reasons I get paid more than newbies is experience – and that includes a memory of the mistakes I made and of the mistakes my schools have made.

    “Help promote positive change.” “Why are you always arguing against improvements?” “Why can’t you get on board?”

    Because I’ve seen this movie before and the Titanic still sinks at the end of it.

  2. Well said, Diana. Teacher opposition based on the merits (or lack thereof) of the change is often dismissed by administrators and/or policymakers as unreasoned opposition or opposition just for the sake of opposition. Teachers deserve better…

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    The other thing I would add is most educators know nothing other than education and “it has always been done this way”. Successful organizations do not do the top dowm approach continuously and expect to live…the employees have to understand the reasons behind the change, know their peers helped craft/drive them and “get on the train” so to speak.

    @ curmudgeon — i hear you on the fads…parents are equally frustrated going from one bad idea to another and not seeing educators make substantial changes that address today’s kids needs…the kids in the schools today are not the same demographic profile as when I was in government schools…nope our district was no where near 80% FARM….what was done 50 years ago is not working today…

    Please make it better….for these kids that deserve a true break…and a legitimate education which is not what they are getting today…too many games continue to be played to “look good” for the outside when doing what is needed for the kids and their families…dang…

  4. Supersub says:

    Because contrary to what so many consultants and eduwonks say, there is little need to improve traditional educational methods. We are still working with the same equipment – human biology.
    Traditional education has developed over hundreds (or even thousands) of years. While technologies have improved access to education, the basic learning process is unchanged because our biology still functions the same way as it has since our ancestors walked first upright.

  5. Supersub says:

    tim-10-ber
    I would hazard to guess that if you compared what was done in your district 50 years ago to today that you would find many changes, and I’d say that is likely causing many of the problems you see.

  6. I tend to agree with your 13th point. If you want to change something, and you want to make sure you crush any opposition to your plans, just be prepared with a “some people are afraid of change” comment. It’s devastating.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    That’s the cousin of “defender of the status quo,” as resisters against corporate education reform are regularly labeled.

    The attitude here, sometimes explicitly expressed, is: We have to try something, ANYTHING.

    I wonder how that would translate to areas like medicine. It’s certainly behind the concept of lobotomies, for example.

  8. The education reformer’s syllogism: Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it.

  9. That’s the cousin of “defender of the status quo,” as resisters against corporate education reform are regularly labeled.

    Depends on whether the status quo is defensible. Most of the time it is. Sometimes it’s not.

    The attitude here, sometimes explicitly expressed, is: We have to try something, ANYTHING.

    I wonder how that would translate to areas like medicine. It’s certainly behind the concept of lobotomies, for example.

    It wouldn’t. We know medicine is a deadly serious business, and so we don’t tolerate hospitals and clinics with records of massive failure. In education, we let schools fail for years (even decades) before the call for reform is sounded. Worse, the call is to do *something* rather than *something that’s been proven to work*.

  10. Example of why teachers resist change: when my building was trying to cope with a major loss of staff, we expected and hoped for a first meeting with the new principal that gave us some guidance, direction and support for how this challenging year was going to go.

    Instead, we got a mini-session on Who Moved My Cheese.

    Things went downhill from there.

    Hey, we knew change was going to happen. There was no alternative but to adapt. We needed someone to help us figure out what to do and give us direction about what management expected us to do…not lecture us about our change profiles and what character in Cheese we most resembled. We needed to be able to discuss and plan around actual concerns.

  11. There are many reasons why educators resist change, depending upon the circumstances. Many educators like to stick with what they know. I embrace change it can create new opportunities and improvements.

  12. Wow, joycem, that’s quite a story. It’s similar to my library experience but worse.

  13. I’ve really enjoyed reading Michael’s and Diana’s posts this past week. Much food for thought. Thanks to you both.

    Sometimes administrators fail to establish any specific need for the change, and they choose instead to frame the new policy in vague, urgent terms that don’t do anything except trigger alarm. Many teachers, myself included, have developed Alarm Fatigue. We’ve heard the frantic call for change so many times, we’ve seen so many administrator-initiatied fast-track-to-higher-up-jobs policies burn and fizzle with the person who rammed them through, we’ve seen politicians use our work as the whipping post for social ills, we’ve seen textbook adoptions completely reverse themselves in just a few years, technology grants with no follow-through, new equipment rusting in back rooms, we’ve seen Bloom’s Taxonomy and Harry Wong, cooperative learning, whole language, drill and kill, differentiation and direct instruction,Singapore vs. Everyday Math, open classrooms and closed doors, girls vs boys, uniforms, Finland, Korea, gifted vs. special needs, low and high class sizes, and the tide, the reformers keep telling us, is rising rising rising and it won’t end until god help us all, something, *something* changes.

  14. Having worked for decades on the other side of this equation (the one trying to initiate change), my belief is that change efforts fail in education because too many people are making their living off the status quo. For example, many teacher contracts contain pay grades by longevity, thus the teacher becomes invested in maintaining the system. Administrators, even if they understand the systemic problem, will opt for minor adjustments at the margin so they can be seen as ‘doing something’ while not doing much at all. And it is at the margin where education consultants make their living. Flashy change initiatives that most of them privately admit are just lipstick on the pig.

  15. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Never attribute to malice what can be explained by simple ignorance.

    But there’s a corollary:

    Never attribute to psychological defect what can be explained by simple laziness.

  16. The quality of any proposed change is inversely proportional to the energy directed towards its implementation.

    My district is working towards an integrated co-teaching model – i.e. putting special ed/resource teachers together with regular ed to co-teach the class. We had an in-service which discussed the various models of how to do it, and how to plan for it. I had one concern in the back of my mind the whole time. Finally, at the end, somebody asked how this could be made to work if the two teachers do not have any planning time together (which we never do). The simple answer was: it can’t.

  17. BadaBing says:

    Besides the “some people are afraid of change” comment, administrators at my school have also successfully used this one: “Maybe you need to get out of your comfort zone,” as if discomfort were a prerequisite for improvement.

  18. CarolineSF says:

    Rubutting Quincy.

    Quincy says: “Depends on whether the status quo is defensible. Most of the time it is. Sometimes it’s not.”

    My response: No. Your response assumed that the “defender of the status quo” accusation is valid or sincere, which it isn’t. It’s an insincere and unethical (and lame) accusation aimed at discrediting the opponent with whatever might work, the “throw **** at the wall and see if it sticks” method. Your response is invalid, since the accusation isn’t sincere anyway. I associate with many critics of the current corporate-education-reform fads, and I don’t know a single one who could possibly be described as a “defender of the status quo.” In any case, the status quo is now underfunding schools, blaming and punishing schools and teachers, and reducing children to data points. The corporate reformers are the ones defending and promoting the status quo.

    Quincy, you say that the “we have to try something, anything” attitude wouldn’t translate to medicine, but your reasoning is unsound and invalid:

    ” We know medicine is a deadly serious business, and so we don’t tolerate hospitals and clinics with records of massive failure. ”

    No. The valid comparison would be if you looked at the most challenging health conditions. We haven’t cured pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia, for example. Based on that notion, hospitals and clinics that served patients with pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia would be damned as having “records of massive failure.”

    And, Quincy, I’m not sure if what you’re saying about “something that’s proven to work” is that the nostrums of the corporate education reformers have been proven to work, but if so, that’s inaccurate. I first encountered the “we have to do something, anything” attitude about now-failed, for-profit Edison Schools — that belief was the basis on which editorial boards attacked school districts that resisted Edison, for example. There was no basis for claiming that for-profit public schools had been “proven to work, and in fact when tried, they failed.

    Now we’re looking at more fads and nostrums that have not been proven to work either, coming from the same people — when are the susceptible going to learn the concept “Fool me twice, shame on me”?

  19. Diana–that principal didn’t make it through the year.

  20. Your response assumed that the “defender of the status quo” accusation is valid or sincere, which it isn’t.

    Caroline, so you’re telling me that every single public school in this entire country has a defensible status quo? Really? Come on.

    As usual, you’re being dogmatic and narrow-minded while failing to address my actual point. In some cases, “defender of the status quo” *is* a valid perjorative. Believe it or not, there are public schools that massively fail to educate students while wasting tons of money on the effort. Defending the status quo in these places is wrong, but the people who have non-educational interests in the situation (teachers, administrators, unions) sometimes do so anyway.

    The thing is, that’s the minority of cases. Most schools need incremental improvement or none at all. In those cases, being a defender of the status quo against unwarranted change is *the right thing to do*.

    No. The valid comparison would be if you looked at the most challenging health conditions. We haven’t cured pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia, for example. Based on that notion, hospitals and clinics that served patients with pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia would be damned as having “records of massive failure.”

    So, you’re saying there’s some percentage of the population that is so hard to educate that the effort to do so can be compared to treating pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia? Now, when it comes to those with severe mental disabilities, I might agree to that notion. But otherwise, no.

    A failure to teach reading or arithmetic to a cognitively normal child is a *failure*. Period. The failure can be analyzed and a cause can be assigned because we *know* how to teach reading and arithmetic to cognitively normal children. Now, the cause of the failure might not be in the school, but it can and should be found.

    And, Quincy, I’m not sure if what you’re saying about “something that’s proven to work” is that the nostrums of the corporate education reformers have been proven to work, but if so, that’s inaccurate.

    I said nothing of the sort. Continuing my point about analysis of failure, in what school reform situation has there ever been a detailed analysis of *why* the school is failing students? I have never heard of any. It’s always, “School X is failing, so let’s do Y.” Y, of course, is whatever reform fad is currently in fashion. Bringing in corporations to run the schools is just one form of this. The latest program, the latest initiative, taking over the school, whatever.

    Without the analysis of why education failures are happening in individual cases, there exists little to no chance of remedying the failure except by sheer luck using the “throw **** at the wall and see if it sticks” method. This means, of course, that most of the change driven out of this approach is, to Diana’s original point, “seriously flawed”.

    Why don’t schools manage to analyze their situations in the ways that successful organizations do? I don’t know. But this is what we need to be looking at instead of worrying about “educators being resistant to change”.

  21. Roger Sweeny says:

    Without the analysis of why education failures are happening in individual cases, there exists little to no chance of remedying the failure except by sheer luck using the “throw **** at the wall and see if it sticks” method. … Why don’t schools manage to analyze their situations in the ways that successful organizations do?

    Perhaps because nobody can agree on just what schools are supposed to do. So there are no tests/metrics/questions where one answer means success and another means failure. And then there is no automatic consequence for having the answer come up failure.

  22. CarolineSF says:

    Quincy asks: “So, you’re saying there’s some percentage of the population that is so hard to educate that the effort to do so can be compared to treating pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia?”

    I’ll restate it this way: Overcoming the effects of poverty and a deprived, violent and/or traumatized childhood is so hard that is can be compared to treating pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia.

    I totally agree with your characterization of education reform fads as “throw **** at the wall and see if it sticks,” though. I’ll have to reread your post a few times to figure out how you are so on target while apparently also supporting this brand of education reform, but I couldn’t have said it better.

  23. I’ll have to reread your post a few times to figure out how you are so on target while apparently also supporting this brand of education reform, but I couldn’t have said it better.

    Simple. I don’t support any “brand” of education reform, I support solving problems. I’m an outsider to the education world at the moment who has a strong interest in seeing that kids get educated well. I don’t care as much *how* it happens as I care that it *does* happen.

    In the majority of schools, the biggest threat to students’ educations is change itself. In these places, education administrators and others who want to try out lightly-conceived and unproven techniques (a.k.a. fads) on the kids should be resisted.

    In others, though, there are legitimate threats to students’ education. These can vary from the community at large being so dysfunctional that the kids simply can’t handle being in school to cases where the adults are putting their own gain ahead of their charges’. (In the latter cases, the culprits can range from administrators to union bosses to teachers themselves. Partisans in the debate tend to only notice certain types…)

    In all cases, it should at least be possible identify if there is a disease, diagnose what it is, and attempt to plan a course of action based on it if needed. However, by and large, that mindset seems not to exist in education. It truly scares me how much the nostrums and reasoning offered up by education “experts” today tend to echo the patent medicine era of the late 19th century.