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Surviving Change:
A Survey of Educational Change Models

By James B. Ellsworth

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Foreword by Mary C. Herring
          Early Traditions of Change Research
          Other Reviews of Change Research
          Practical Application of Educational Change Theory

1. A Strategy for Educational Change
          Why Change Needs a Strategy
          The Change Communication Model
          Guiding Change Systemically

2. Educational Change Models
          The Big Picture
          The Classical Change Models

3. The Innovation
          Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations
          Other Studies

4. The Change Environment
          Ely's Conditions of Change
          Other Studies

5. The Change Agent
          Fullan and Stiegelbauer's New Meaning of Educational Change
          Other Studies

6. The Change Process
          Havelock and Zlotolow's Change Agent's Guide
          Other Studies

7. The Intended Adopter
          Hall and Associates' Concerns-Based-Adoption Model
          Other Studies

8. The Resistance to Change
          Zaltman and Duncan's Strategies for Planned Change
          Other Studies

9. The System
          Reigeluth and Garfinkle's Systemic Change in Education
          Other Studies

10. Contributions from Outside of Educational Change
          Major Contributing Domains
          Foundations: Other Research on Basic Change Theory
          Blueprints: Other Models of Change in Practice
          Deconstruction: Other Explorations of the Subsystems of Change
          Examples: The Practice of Change in Settings Outside Traditional Education

11. Conclusion
          Pulling It All Together
          Reaching Out, Reaching Across
          Succeeding Systemically



 A Strategy for Educational Change

Suppose you had a classroom. In this classroom, you had everything necessary for learning to occur. You had kids who were eager to learn. You had textbooks and lab supplies. You had computers, filtered Internet connectivity, and appropriate software. You had lesson plans that were well crafted, and that contained balanced, effective learning activities. You had reliable, valid assessments with which to judge student progress. You had paper, pencils, and all the little things. You had a comfortable, safe environment in which learning could occur. You had a trained, qualified, innovative, and dedicated teacher who could bring it all together.

Now, suppose you had no curriculum. You had no framework to organize those lesson plans, to help the teacher to know when to teach what subjects…or in what order. Suppose, in short, that you had no strategy. What effects do you suppose that would have on the success of the learning experience in that classroom at the end of the year?

Why Change Needs a Strategy

Over the years, the knowledge base of change research has become a bit like this metaphorical classroom. The pioneers erected the structure and their successors have populated it with empirically grounded theory describing every aspect of how change works. Yet as practitioners of educational change, we have no successful strategy to help us apply these theories in support of the change process as a whole.

To some extent, this results from a curious and counterproductive tendency in our culture to arrive at a position, stake out our philosophical turf, and defend it stoically against all comers. In the change research community, this was reflected in the formation of what Rogers (1995) has termed "invisible colleges” of change researchers, which for several decades proved remarkably resistant to the exchange of information (p. 38).  Many researchers aligned with each of the perspectives discussed in this book have stayed within the frameworks defining their models.

Ironically, when new evidence or a persuasive new model appears, this drive often reverses itself among converts from the old models.  Previous loyalties may give way to a sort of “intellectual cannibalism” where what was previously regarded as “high truth” is suddenly dismissed as the deluded belief of a more ignorant time.

In summary, throughout much of the 1990s, change research has seen little exchange among the classical camps (each remaining convinced that its approach is most productive).  Thus, no strategy has emerged from inside these camps to unite their parts in service of the change communication model as a whole.  Meanwhile, the fresh perspective most capable of doing so from the outside—systemic change—ironically merely wrote them off as not being systemic (perhaps based on the fragmentary presentation of the classical camps).

Fortunately, the past few years have seen an increasing recognition on all sides that there is value in uniting the empirical knowledge base of the classical models within a systemic context.  This book attempts to do so, using the concept ofchange as a specialized instance of the general communications model (Rogers, 1995, pp. 5-6) to illustrate how the tactics represented by the classical models may be fused into a comprehensive, systemic strategy for the change process as a whole.

The Change Communication Model

Let us begin by considering the general communication model (Figure 1).  A sender wishes to communicate a message to a receiver.  This is accomplished using a medium, which is essentially a means for establishing a channel through the environment between the two communicants.  However, this environment also contains interference which can disrupt the medium or distort the message.

First, it should be observed that this is a model of a communication system.  With a message as the unit of analysis, it represents all the major components that interact to form an instance of communication.  It should also be noted that many media are capable of simultaneously addressing the same message from the same sender to many receivers.  For example, the principal addressing her school over a public address system is engaged in a single communication instance that sends a single message to multiple receivers.

It is also worth pointing out, for this example, that some of these receivers are teachers, while others are students, and still others are administrative or support personnel.  Receivers from each of these types have different characteristics, which may cause them to reach differently to the same message.  Likewise, receivers perceiving differences between themselves and the sender may also react differently.  Many media also reach receivers in or across different environments, each of which may present varying types or levels of interference.  Effective communication systems must consider all these factors and may individualize the message or the medium selected for certain types of audiences. This essentially creates a larger communication system in which multiple instances of the model in Figure 1 serve the same communication objective.

With these things in mind, we may now consider the particular instance of this model that is change (Figure 2).  In this context, we have a change agent who wishes to communicate an innovation to an intended adopter.  This is accomplished using a change process that establishes a channel through the change environment between the two communicants.  However, this environment also contains resistance that can disrupt the change process or distort how the innovation appears to the intended adopter.

Once again, as with the general model, this is a depiction of a complete system—in this case of change communication.  With a single innovation as the unit of analysis, it represents all the major components that interact to form an instance of this form of communication.  The classical models discussed in this book address each of these components in turn, thereby providing empirically grounded tactics suited to operation on each.  By uniting these tactics in service to a guiding strategy for a particular change effort, we improve our chances of effective, lasting change.

Before we consider what this strategy might entail, one crucial point should be emphasized, which is not so readily apparent in the change communication model as in its more general counterpart.  It is easily recognized that communication is (or should be) a two-way process in most instances (Rogers, 1995, p. 6).  In the general communication model, this is simply reflected by the two parties changing places: the receiver becomes the sender and vice versa.  In the change communication model, however, it might appear to be a one-way process, as the intended adopter is unlikely to switch places with the change agent.  This would be a misinterpretation—and often a fatal one—for the change effort.  Communication throughout the process must flow in both directions.  The flow from intended adopter to change agent is merely an instance of the general communication model rather than the specialized change form!  Change practice that does not encourage this feedback is certainly unethical (amounting to a manipulative process anchored in the paternalistic belief that “the change agent knows best”) and most likely unsuccessful as well.

This need to tie change practice to the requirements and priorities of its stakeholders is one of the central tenets of systemic change that is not immediately evident from Figure 2.  Consequently, it is not enough to simply describe the parts or to show how they fit together.  Understanding the relationships among the components illustrated in the change communication model is an important part of the strategy for change presented here, but it is insufficient as a strategy unto itself.  What’s missing—the portion dealing with the interrelationships between the system or subsystem being changed and its surrounding systems and supra systems—is the topic of the final section in this chapter.

Guiding Change Systemically

It has already been noted that both the general communication model and the change communication model represent a system.  Webster’s (1979, p. 1853) defines a system as “a set or arrangement of things so related or connected as to form a unity or organic whole.”  There are three components of this definition of particular importance here:

  1. "A set or arrangement of things":  Each component of a system can be identified and examined separately. Understanding the system does not demand that the system be seen only as the whole.
  2. "So related or connected as to form":  These components, however, do not function in isolation.  One can identify and examine the inherent interdependencies and interactions between them.
  3. "A unity or organic whole":  The nature and existence of the relationships between the components presents synergies that cause the operation of the whole to be more effective than the operation of the parts in isolation    (Salisbury, 1996, pp. 9-10).
This in no way diminishes the accuracy or importance of empirically-derived knowledge concerning the individual operation of the parts.  To consider an obvious example, modern medicine clearly views the human body systemically.  Liver disease produces a yellowing of the skin and stomach distress, yet we do not simply treat the skin or the stomach.
It is equally important to note that we do not treat the system either (with the exception of holistic medicine): our understanding of the system tells us that these symptoms may best be addressed by treating the liver.  So while a focus on the system as a whole is essential for diagnosis, application of that diagnosis by the practitioner requires empirical knowledge of the operation of the individual part (or subsystem) as well, in this case the liver.

In addition to multiple parts, systems often have multiple dimensions that must be understood.  Applied as a strategy for guiding educational change, systems thinking is required in order to:

  • Integrate the parts of the change communication model
  • Select and coordinate the types of changes one makes
  • Involve stakeholders and consider their needs and concerns
  • Ensure that the end result of these processes constitutes a viable system in the context of its surrounding systems.
The first two dimensions are discussed in this section.  The last two are primarily addressed in Chapter 9 on the system.

Integrating the parts of the change communication model requires some additional explanation.  Take another look at Figure 2.  While at first glance it may appear to be a straightforward linear model, further examination reveals additional complexity.  The change agent is not always the developer of the innovation.  Frequently, this is simply an individual within the system of intended adopters who wishes to (or is assigned to) facilitate the diffusion of a pre-existing innovation.  A linear model might therefore be expected to place the innovation first.  But the wise innovation developer, taking the broader systems view discussed in Chapter 9, will have studied the characteristics of the intended adopters, their relationship within the systems of which they are a part, and the environment in which those systems exist.  Should those components, then, be placed first?

In fact, the change communication model is not linear.  It is organized according to functional (i.e., systemic) relationships, rather than by linear time.  A practitioner will need to vary the portion of the model she focuses on, as her objectives bring its different parts into focus.  Thus, the order of the chapters in this book is somewhat arbitrary.

What is critical to understand about the components of the change communication model —as a system—is the effects that each is likely to have on the others.  For example, much early change research assumed that the primary, if not the exclusive, determinant of diffusion was the “objective” quality of the innovation (Burkman, 1987, p. 437).  Yet history is replete with examples where innovations whose effectiveness could be soundly demonstrated failed to diffuse (Rogers, 1995, pp. 7-10).  Later research has uncovered many possible reasons for this, which the change communication model will illustrate easily.

First an innovation is “carried” from change agent to intended adopter by the change process.  One of the major classical camps of diffusion research arose in recognition that a flawed process can doom the diffusion of an otherwise effective innovation.  Likewise the ultimate goal of a single instance of the change communication model is to get a particular intended adopter to “buy into” the innovation and use it in a way that improves some aspect of their lives or the lives of those they serve.  (Chapter 3 addresses characteristics of the innovation itself that contribute to this goal, and Chapter 7 discusses the concerns of these adopters and the levels of innovation use they must be guided through before the desired “buy-in” can occur.)  It must also be remembered that each instance of the model occurs within an environment, whose conditions will interact with the design of the change process to affect its success.  The environment also contains resistance factors that may disrupt the process or distort the message.  Finally, the characteristics of the change agent and the level of the system at which he works will interact with the design of the change process and, perhaps, the nature of the innovation.  All of these, in turn, affect the intended adopter’s perception.  Understanding the systemic interaction of these components will facilitate more effective intervention, and will frequently suggest applying a package of interventions whose components are assembled using these interrelationships to reinforce one another.

Selecting and coordinating the types of changes that one makes are also critical aspects of a systemic strategy for change.  The problems facing education today rarely reflect a single, “diseased” component that must be restored to its previous state to bring the system back to a healthy equilibrium.  Most often they reflect a desire to bring new tools to bear to enable the system to meet new requirements.  In such cases, while the success of each individual innovation depends on coordinated attention to the parts discussed above, producing the desired effects may require many coordinated, mutually reinforcing innovations that are bundled and introduced concurrently to produce an essentially new system (Figure 3).

For example, the debate about the effect of reduced class size on student learning has raged for decades with no clear resolution.  While the working hypothesis that smaller class size contributes to an enhanced learning experience is intuitively appealing, many empirical studies of this issue show no significant difference (Halloran, 1984; Harvey, 1994) or are inconclusive (Millard, 1977).  One reason for this has been that teachers in “experimental” classrooms with smaller class sizes have received little or no training in instructional strategies appropriate for those class sizes (McIntyre & Marion, 1989).  With teachers in “control” classrooms lecturing to large groups and teachers in “experimental” classrooms using the same methods to teach the same curricula to small groups, is it any wonder that significant differences were seldom observed?

This situation becomes even more pronounced when the core innovation under discussion is an emerging technology.  Successful infusion of such an innovation will generally require accompanying innovations pairing it with appropriate pedagogy, “smart” classroom layouts, power and communication infrastructure improvements, and thorough teacher training with ongoing support (Ellsworth, 1997).  Furthermore, it is frequently not sufficient that these innovations merely be complementary and undertaken concurrently. Active coordination between interdependent efforts is required (Hirumi, 1995).  This coordination is represented by the bi-directional arrows that connect the parts of the change communication model in Figure 3.


Educational change is in need of a strategy.  Past research has supplied us with effective methods for “greasing the wheels” of particular portions of a change effort, but little guidance in their integration.  Rogers (1995, pp. 5-6) tells us that change is a specialized instance of the general communication model (Figure 1).  It therefore seems reasonable that this specialized instance (Figure 2) might prove useful as an organizing framework.  In fact research from the Diffusion tradition has clustered around the components of such a model.  This book will therefore explore the research using the change communication model as a framework to suggest the common change questions that can best be answered from the perspective of each classical camp of diffusion research.

While it is critical to understand which of the tools in our “change toolbox” can best serve the practitioner under different circumstances, it is equally important not to lose sight of the systemic nature of the change effort as a whole.  Simply applying the tactics suggested by a classical model to facilitate the operation of a single component of the change communication model, or applying several in isolation to their corresponding components, will not maximize the overall effort’s chance of success.  To do this, interventions in support of each component must be integrated.  Furthermore, in most cases, multiple, coordinated innovations must be undertaken to ensure that changes in one component of the system are supported and reinforced by changes in interdependent components.  These ideas were discussed in this chapter.  Two more concepts from the systemic model—stakeholder involvement and ensuring the integrity of the changed system in the context of its surroundings—will be discussed in Chapter 9 on the system.