Some believe that change happens like this: smart people in universities invent an educational innovation. Policy makers craft funding mechanisms and regulations to promulgate the innovation. Staff developers create clever workshops. Classroom teachers attend the workshops, and the innovation is “implemented”. Researchers then study fidelity of implementation and recommend technical refinements to the process.
In 1973, a young researcher at the Rand Corporation began studying the implementation of four Federally funded school innovation programs. Five years later, she concluded that policy does not dictate practice, that local context matters, that many players exercise agency in the shaping of classroom learning, through a process she termed “mutual adaptation”. Milbrey McLaughlin is now an emeritus professor at Stanford University and The Rand Change Agent Study, published in 1979, has stood the test of time. Other observers of organizational change have drawn similar conclusions. Donald Schon at MIT wrote in the 1980s about the fallacy of the technical-rational theory of change, advancing in its place reflection-in-action. Kevin Dooley has written about the nature of complex adaptive social systems that defy linear change. An entire branch of social science-- systems thinking-- corroborates McLaughlin’s findings. It is widely acknowledged today that organizational change is multi-directional and non-linear.
Still, policy makers, curriculum designers, textbook publishers, and education leaders act as if it isn’t so. Scan the articles and ads from any issue of Education Week: technical trainings, teacher-proof textbooks and software, State Boards creating syllabi that dictate what will be taught. Strategies, driven by a simplistic view of change, are initiated regularly and wind up influencing the system in ways wholly different from what was anticipated. Imagine an eight year old climbing into the cockpit of a commercial jet and pressing the shiniest button thinking, I bet this makes the jet go fast.
To be clear: funding mechanisms, government regulations, assigned textbooks, and central office mandates DO impact the classroom, but not in the ways imagined by those at the top of the system. Human agency has a way of asserting itself all along the path of influence. Any organization is an array of semi-autonomous individuals each of whom can bump an innovation this way or that ensuring the final outcome is nearly unpredictable. Individuals matter. Individual actions matter. Democracy, it turns out, is not just a political ideology, it is a fundamental mechanism of human social organization, whether or not we endorse it.