Theoretical models of the change process in schools

A number of theoretical models of the change process have been proposed. Most start with an idea or belief shared with teachers in the hope that they will be inspired to change their classroom practice.

This section provides a brief overview of some models.

Waks (2007) suggests that the change process begins at the institutional level, where change can cause frustration and protest, fuelling new ideas and innovations, from which emerge new beliefs, values and practices. The organisation then readjusts to the new institutional ideas and norms.

Priestley & Miller (2012) differentiate between structure (relationships, resources, power, social positions) and culture (beliefs, values, norms and ideas) in an attempt to distinguish the contribution each makes to the change process, finding that both influence how teachers respond to innovation.

Spillane, Reiser and Reimer (2002) found that new experiences and information are assimilated through existing knowledge structures. They suggest that one barrier to successful innovation is the different interpretations people can make of the same message, especially if leadership is top-down.

Guskey (2002) asserts that innovation in schools is most successful when teachers use a new tool and see first-hand the benefits for their own students, a view supported by Glatter et al. (2005), who state that small-scale experiments are better vehicles of change than rapid large-scale interventions.

Importantly, Guskey found that attitude and belief changes occur only when training and implementation are combined with evidence of improved student learning. His model consists of four linear steps:

  1. Professional development

  2. Change in practice

  3. Change in student learning outcomes

  4. Change in teacher’s beliefs and attitudes.

Support for this model comes from a number of different studies, including Bolster (1983), who found that teachers only commit to a new instructional approach when they have seen it work for their students.

However, acknowledging the weaknesses of his model, Guskey states that it is oversimplified and does not take into account the many contextual variables that impact change efforts. He also accepts the view of Huberman (1992) that the process of teacher change is more cyclical than linear, conceding that the model may be too superficial given that teachers do not easily change their practices.

Fullan (2001) highlights that teachers themselves must actively increase their ability to cope with change through collegiality, stating that successful innovations must begin with a shared understanding of the proposed change – a statement that appears to directly contradict Guskey’s model.

The answer may be a fusion approach, whereby small scale changes are underpinned by professional development that supports both the development of a holistic understanding and the skills necessary to implement the change.

If small-scale changes result in a visible change in student learning outcomes, teachers gain more insight and change their attitudes and beliefs about the innovation. Eventually, the innovation becomes embedded in school life and Miller & Bentley’s “tipping point” is reached, at which point the innovation has become a part of the institution.

A Summary of Considerations Based on the Theory

  • When introducing change, plan for a period of protest and frustration. Support teachers as they engage with and develop their understanding of the innovation by making explicit links to their prior knowledge and cultural context.

  • Many change efforts begin with an attempt to create a shared understanding among faculty; Guskey suggests we reverse our ideas and start by giving teachers the skills to implement an innovation.

  • Communication, support and technical help, as well as the development of a shared understanding of the innovation, all contribute to a successful change effort.

  • By introducing small-scale changes that simultaneously develop professional skills and a shared understanding, we combine Guskey and Fullen’s ideas.

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