Change is an outcome of living. We all have to go through it, but we just prefer when it is by choice. Why? Because of the sense of autonomy and feeling in control. Yet, what we know about choice is that the learner doesn’t always know best (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). They also don’t know, when they don’t know best (Dunning-Kruger effect)!
I felt obligated to write this post after observing a number of different threads on Twitter and Facebook where teachers negatively commented about changes to do with the curriculum, opposing views and addressing teacher workload.
In this blog, I will look at why it can be so hard to get someone to change and four simple steps that we can follow to support them through the transformation in their thinking. Usually when we think of change, we think of these big processes that need to occur. Yet, I would argue that as educators, managing change is basically our job. For example:
- Teaching students how to behave, so that they can be active learners.
- Implementing a new process/system/routine for staff or students.
- Running professional development for teachers. Any effective PD will include an actionable step. To do that, they need to swap something out, so that they can swap something in.
- It can be more obvious, like moving to remote learning or having a new teacher.
- Heck, even trying to teach our students something new is asking them to change their pre-existing thoughts about something.
However, as Viviane Robinson says in, Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, “Not all change is desirable.” We need to understand that if we want change then it should be in the name of improvement.
So, assuming you’ve done your due diligence and looked at the evidence, why doesn’t change just happen when you make your proposal?
Why doesn’t change happen?
From thousands of years of training to survive, humans have developed the ability to go into “fight or flight” mode. When we are caused stress we release hormones called adrenalin/epinephrine and cortisol. This then triggers a chain of events in the body including our breathing rate increasing, a faster heart beat and it generally feels uncomfortable. It can be projected through some of the behaviours listed below (I spoke more about this here – Implementing the science of learning when the rest of the school isn’t).
When this protective mechanism is combined with the various cognitive biases that we have, it makes trying to support someone to change extremely difficult! You can read more about this process in this article: How To Implement The Science Of Learning When The Rest Of The School Isn’t and one of the steps is to Engage the Pre-Contemplator with your Theory of Action. This is the stage that we will be diving into in this article.
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.Leo Tolstoy
If they don’t want to change, they won’t
Believe it or not, this is true! Yet, we try to change people who don’t want to change all the time. Think about the countless educational “wars” that are currently going on (Structured vs. Balanced Literacy, Discovery vs. Explicit Instruction) and that no matter how logical your argument may seem, the other side won’t listen. This is because they are in the pre-contemplation stage, they aren’t even considering your suggestions as an option because they already believe that they have the right one.
The resistance to change becomes even stronger if people align themselves to a side. For someone to “change teams” requires a huge shift in their mindset and a great deal of compassion from the opposition.
Tread carefully on Twitter
I’ve loved engaging with people on Twitter and other social media platforms and have not only expanded my network, but developed friendships with people that I haven’t actually met face-to-face.
However, I’ve also seen a lot of “teacher bashing” and unbelievably often it’s come from other teachers! With so many teachers leaving the profession feeling demoralised, I feel now more than ever, we need to tread carefully with how we engage with others on social media.
These are some reasons why you’ll never change someone’s mind on social media.
- You haven’t got a personal relationship with the person you are engaging with, so you’re just another “keyboard warrior” to them. There’s no relational trust.
- It’s difficult to display empathy through written communication platforms like Twitter because you’re limited in how much you can write, they can’t see your body language or hear your tone of voice.
- Bandwagon effect impedes our judgement when other people join the discussion and take our side. The way social media algorithms work means that we are surrounded by like-minded people. This is not necessarily a true reflection of the rest of society. This then leads to confirmation bias, when we just see the information that confirms we are right.
- We can unintentionally display bullying like behaviour e.g. dismissive talk, sarcasm, “ganging up”
“Just as you must not abandon your new path simply because other people have a problem with it, you must not abandon those other folk either. Don’t simply write others off or leave them in the dust. Don’t get mad or fight with them. After all, they’re at the same place you were not that long ago.”Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic
4 Simple Steps For Supporting Someone To Change
So what can we do? Firstly, you need to have a personal connection to whoever you are trying to support through change, so that there is relational trust.
Secondly, you can follow this four step process to increase the chances of change.
1. Agree on the problem
This conversation needs to be one-on-one to avoid group-think bias. Hopefully your team has already started to normalise your Theories of Action. If you’ve already planted the seeds, the person you’re trying to influence would have already started to move into the Contemplation Stage before you present the problem to them.
In the move from pre-contemplation to contemplation, an individual must (Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005):
- become aware of the problem
- make some admission or take ownership of the problem
- confront defences and habitual aspects of the problem
- see some of the negative aspects
We need to provide them with evidence that there is a need for change. The evidence might be presenting them with internal data that has been collected.
In Flip the Script, Oren Klaff talks about the phrase, ‘Winter is coming‘. Meaning there are elements that come, that force us to change e.g. curriculum changes or new staff coming in.
You need to position yourself as part of the problem and come across as curious, rather than accusing. Use phrases like, “My understanding…” or “My reading of the data…”
- If they do not agree that there is a problem, they won’t agree to your solution.
- Are you the right person to make the proposal or someone else on your team that has a better relationship with them?
- If you are presenting large amounts of information, you are best off giving them time to process this information. Lock in a time to come back to it.
2. See the world through their eyes
If they believe that the current results are good, what can you show them that will change their mind?
Following the Motivational Interviewing process, Lee et al, 2014 highlight the importance of avoiding trying to fix what is broken and instead focus on finding out what is important.
As part of your preparation for this, you should have thought about what cognitive biases, past experiences and points of view may be impeding their thinking and how they might respond in this stress triggering event. What is in their head and how did it get there?
Remember, if they are still in the pre-contemplation phase, that means that they have not even considered there is a problem. So, when you approach them, you will be delivering new information. How will they perceive this new information?
Will they feel threatened or personally attacked? Then you can expect 🤺fight mode.
Will they feel out of their depth or like they’ve heard this before? Expect ✈ flight mode.
So, how can you make this seem valuable to them? How can it align to their identity or purpose?
Professors Tiziana Casciaro and Julie Battilana in Power, for All write about how we have two basic needs of safety and self-esteem with six things that address those needs:
- Material resources
We need to connect to their needs, so we can break through their protective barriers.
What story will they connect with?
Also, we still need to be open-minded. Otherwise, we are just mirroring the behaviour of the resistor. So, we need to:
- lean into the conversation with genuine curiosity
- not make assumptions about what they are thinking
- clarify what they are saying e.g. “Let me just check…” or “Am I right in saying…”
- dig deep into any reservations that they may have e.g. “Tell me more about that…”
- ask direct questions e.g. “Are you happy with…” or “What did you see…”
- try to find points to agree on, so that it’s not all about saying you’re wrong.
3. Shrink the change
Now, you need to present them with your Theories of Action (what you believe are the best solutions to the problem). Like in sales, we need to present multiple options with a favourable one in mind.
Our default way of problem-solving is to be more intuitive, than deliberative. Meaning, we don’t want to think too hard. So, this change needs to feel easy.
While you might have a “big picture” goal in mind, now is not the time to unveil it. For them, it can feel quite overwhelming and disheartening to realise that you haven’t been teaching in the most effective manner. Help them choose the simplest path to start with. One that will be the easiest to implement with likely success.
We want this experience to feel more like organising a 15 minute Uber trip, than trying to plan a 6-month overseas holiday (wouldn’t that be nice). Uber makes the experience for the customer easy, safe and unambiguous.
You need to make the change feel good and normal. Are there others who are already doing what you are proposing?
How can you generate a feeling of progress e.g. “Are you willing to start for a tiny amount of time?”
Success leads to motivation, which in turn increases our attention. So, we want them to experience early success. The first milestone might not be the end goal, but the feeling of being on the way, is important.
We want to see an increase in their “change talk” (verbalisation that reveals the person’s own motivation to change), but there’s also a need for them to feel that we are working in partnership with them (Lee et al, 2014).
4. Clarify the solution
What will the picture of practice be?
What will be replaced?
How will success be measured?
How will we know it has been correctly applied?
How will accountability be held?
You both need to be clear on what the next steps are and exactly what needs to be done. Clarify any misunderstanding and finish by highlighting the important points. Finish the conversation positively and describe how excited you are to move forward.
In a nutshell
- If you feel someone needs to change, first build a relationship with them
- People won’t change if they don’t want to
- Come across as curious, rather than accusing
- Help them connect their needs to the goal
- Focus on easy, early success and recognise when they achieve it
* An example from Motivational interviewing 101: How to help patients embrace (and stick to) new habits showing how the Motivational Interviewing approach can be used from the perspective of a clinician trying to motivate a patient to change their health behaviours.
I went through this process and much more in my presentation for Think Forward Educators
* FREE to access this webinar plus many more once you sign up as a member 👇
Think Forward Educators Webinar:
A disruptor’s guide to school improvement
Have you had the realisation that the way your school has been going about things is not evidence-informed? Have you also struggled with initiating the changes that are needed for school improvement? This talk is targeted at classroom teachers and middle leaders who are experiencing barriers in the implementation process. In this presentation, Brendan will discuss some of the strategies that teachers can use when approaching school leaders and what you need to understand before moving forward.
Battilana, J. and Casciaro, T. (2021) Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business. Simon & Schuster
Hord, S. M., Rutherford, W. L., Huling, L., & Hall, G. E. (2006; revised PDF version uploaded on Lulu.com, 2014). Taking charge of change. Austin, TX: SEDL. Available from http://www.sedl.org/pubs/catalog/items/cha22.html
Kirschner, P.A. & van Merriënboer, J.J.G (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395
Klaff, O. (2019) Flip the Script: Getting People to Think Your Idea Is Their Idea (Portfolio)
Lee, J., Frey, A.J., Herman, K. & Reinke W. (2014) Motivational interviewing as a framework to guide school-based coaching, Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 7:4, 225-239, DOI: 10.1080/1754730X.2014.949515
Patuawa, J.M., Sinnema, C., Robinson, V. et al. (2022) Addressing inequity and underachievement: Intervening to improve middle leaders’problem-solving conversations. J Educ Change . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-022-09449-3
Prochaska, J.O. and DiClemente, C.C. (2005). The Transtheoretical Approach. Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration. (pp. 147-171) United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, USA.
Robinson, Viviane M J. (2017) Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (Corwin Impact Leadership Series). SAGE Publications