The Value of Piloting Change

Change in schools is never easy. As we critically examine “how we do things” and scrutinize fundamental changes to existing practices, adversity is going to arise. When looking to initiate changes, whether it is implementing Collaborative Team Meetings, investigating new assessments or assessment practices or any other myriad of changes that could impact school-wide structures and practices, you are going to encounter staff members that fall into four categories.

Douglas Reeves, in his book Leading Change in your School (2009), provides research to help explain these categories, which we have classified as champions, early adopters, late adopters and opponents.

  • Champions – Reeves suggests that 17% of teachers fall into this category. They are the ones willing to lead the change initiative. Often, they may have been the ones advocating for the change. They are the ones with the energy and excitement for the change and already see the need and potential a change can provide.
  • Early Adopters – 53% of teachers were wiling to model the change once initiated. These are the supportive but hesitant staff members, those who will support change but may be reluctant to lead the charge initially.
  • Late Adopters – Reeves refers to this 28% of staff as “fence-sitters”, those aware of the change but not yet implementing. We would suggest these are the staff members looking for evidence before making changes, those that need the opportunity to process and see some kinks worked out before adopting. They place high value and can often be influenced by the views and opinions of their colleagues.
  • Opponents– Reeves suggests that these are the toxic 2 percent, those “who were either defiantly unaware of leadership expectations or, more likely, actively opposed to them” (p. 53). Although small, this group of staff can be quite vocal and sway others (possibly the late adopters) if given opportunity early in a change initiative.

We once heard Todd Whitaker describe this phenomena effectively (and we are paraphrasing). With change initiatives and new practices, you will have those that jump on early and act as the engine, driving the train forward. You will have staff who get on the train at various points in time, some early in the trip and some later. There are others that either get dragged along or asked to catch another train!

Often when looking at new school practices (and we have witnessed this with schools investigating elements of Collaborative Response), schools will often jump in with both feet. Let’s use the example of collaborative team meetings. They take time to plan and discuss with staff, often utilizing a leadership team made up of champions, and then jump in. The problem often with this approach is that despite the best planning efforts, there is likely to be kinks. Trouble ensuring all staff is there. Discussions derailed by a staff member. Time not utilized effectively. When these troubles arise, it provides fuel for the opponents (“I knew this was going to be a waste of time”) which can then sway the late and early adopters (which comprise nearly 80% of the staff). Although the champions will still exist and will be willing to adjust and try again, it may mean taking a large step back (or even derailing the initiatives).

Now consider what happens when value is placed on piloting. By this, we mean trying out a change with a small group of teachers or target group of students, utilizing the excitement and energy of the champions. Start collaborative team meetings with one team (the one most ready to try this process). Try a new school-wide literacy assessment screen on one classroom. Attempt an intervention strategy with one group of students for a month. This approach puts the power into the hands of the champions and early adopters on your staff. This often also utilizes the talents of a learning coach or similar specialized role on staff. Picture this – you start collaborative team meetings with the grade six staff team (comprised of a champion and two other staff members who highly value the insights and work of the champion on their team). That meeting is productive and those staff members start spreading the value of it to other staff members (creating a level of grassroots support). Or that meeting shows the potential but reveals some bugs that need to be worked out before the next meeting (which the motivated group is willing to try). Piloting becomes an incredibly effective way to initiate change and place value on those driving change in the school.

Now may be a great time to attempt piloting some structures or school-wide practices which could have potential for larger adoption across the school. Work out some kinks and build support to drive change efforts throughout the year!

Adapted from a previous posting – originally published April 12, 2012

Author: Kurtis Hewson