A review of change theory in STEM higher ed (Reinholz et al., 2021)

More reading for my “leading educational change” course run by iEarth and BioCEED! Today on how change theory has been used in STEM higher education over the last 25 years  (Reinholz et al., 2021), which I am summarising here.

Why are people interested in change theory? In order to change a system (for example to make sure society’s need for more STEM educated people can be met, or to support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives), it is very helpful to understand what levers to pull. Just making facts available does not lead to change in itself (as we also see for other issues, like climate change). Therefore, funding agencies therefore more and more require explicit theories for how change will happen in projects they fund, and more and more people explicitly lay out their thoughts of what will happen and why before starting a project.

But let’s sort out some confusing terms, or at least how they are being used in this article: “change theory” vs “theory of change”. Change theory is an evidence-based framework to explain mechanisms that drive change. It is general and applicable to many different situations. A theory of change, on the other hand, is specifically about how change will happen in a specific project: What are the goals of the project, what needs to be achieved before as stepping stones, what kind of interventions could get you there, what’s the context, how will you know if you have been successful, and what were your assumptions going into all of this.

Four essential components of a theory of change

A theory of change consists of four essential components:

  • Rationale and assumptions. A rationale is basically a narrated version of how change will happen. It is built on assumptions which need to become explicit. For example, are decision makers going to be convinced by rationally interpreting data, or do they need to be emotionally involved in order to process the data?
  • Context. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and in order to change STEM education, we must consider where it occurs. Who are stakeholders, what are frameworks like, who funds what, who sets learning outcomes, …?
  • Indicators. Working towards an ultimate goal, there are many small milestones to be reached. Indicators tell us about whether progress towards those goals is being made, and according to plan.
  • Interventions. Interventions are what is being done to drive the change. If showing data to people does not make them act, how will we get them to act instead? Maybe by changing incentive structures, or appreciation of certain activities, or more funding, or better communities.

The eight most commonly used theories of change

The authors then did a systematic literature review on articles published on using change theory in STEM higher ed (they ended up reviewing 97 articles in detail), and present the eight theories that were used most often (N = number of articles using a specific theory). I’m summarising Reinholz et al.’s summary here because it’s quite fascinating to see the different ways that people think and talk about change processes.

Communities of Practice (N = 26)

Communities of practice consist of a group of people who have a common topic they care about and work together to learn more about the topic and improve their skills. In a community of practice, learning occurs through participation. In the context of facilitating change, the idea of communities of practice has been used to inspire “communities of change” with the specific purpose to drive change, and “faculty learning communities” to drive teacher professional development.

When communities of practice are used as theory of change, the focus is usually on the community itself (and interventions are typically about creating communities of practice around practices that are supposed to be strengthened), or specific roles within that community, but not on the institutional context in which change is supposed to happen.

I really like this theory of change and have used it in the past — the original Wenger (1998) book has been transformative in my thinking and has great explanatory power for things I observe (and here is a summary of more reading I’ve done about the subject). But I really appreciate the point about the usually missing consideration of the context.

Diffusion of Innovations (N = 19)

From a diffusion of innovation perspective, ideas spread between individuals and adoption occurs in predictable stages (from becoming aware that an innovation exists, considering whether or not to adopt it, deciding to adopt it, trying it, and sticking with it). Innovations that spread well according to this theory have some kind of advantage over current practices but at the same time fit well into current practices and beliefs, are easy to adopt and have a low threshold to be tried on for fit, and can be observed in practice before one needs to make a decision about whether or not one wants to join. There are also different types of adopters which might need to be target differently: from early adopters that are willing to take risks, to late adopters which will only adopt an innovation when there really isn’t much choice left because everybody else is already doing it.

This theory seems a bit oversimplified, and extensions discussed by Reinholz et al. include considerations around how to increase chances that innovations are actually implemented, focussing on the importance of good communication and support when implementing an innovation. However, I think it is useful to consider that people are different in their willingness to adopt new things, and that characteristics of an innovation can make it more or less likely that the innovation is being adopted.

Teacher-Centred Systemic Reform (N = 6)

The essence of teacher-centred systemic reform as a theory of change is that teachers’ beliefs influence teacher practices. Teachers’ beliefs are not necessarily fully informed by knowledge, and they are hard to change by evidence. Nevertheless, this theory is mainly about targeting individual teachers to then, in the long run, change the system.

Maybe I am too much in the “communities of practice” framework of thinking and have been involved in too many faculty development activities that targeted individuals (that were super motivated in a workshop but then did not have a community or systemic support to actually change much), but to me, this theory seems to be less useful than the others. But thinking about beliefs and how hard they are to change is probably a good point to take away from it.

Here is a blog post where I review literature on Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform.

Appreciative Inquiry (N = 4)

Instead of fixing what is wrong, appreciative inquiry starts from what is positive in an organisation and develops that further towards the desired outcomes. There are four steps involved: figuring out what the team’s values are, developing a vision from that, defining goals, and then working towards them.

What I really like about this theory is that it is so positive, and approaching change from a perspective of “there is already a lot of great things happening here, let’s make it even better” feels so much nicer than approaching change as “everything here is horrible, we need to fix things”, and especially when change is driven not in a grass root fashion but somehow from the outside, this is probably a very good approach to make conversations even possible. But somehow I see the danger of not addressing real problems in a determined-enough fashion because we are trying to be so positive. But that might be just me…

Expectancy-Value Theory (N = 4)

I’ve written about expectancy-value theory as a theory explaining motivation to work towards a goal before: People need to feel both that it is actually possible to reach a goal, and that reaching the goal is important to them, to be motivated to put in the required work.

I think this is a helpful framework to consider, but this theory does not give guidance on how people’s self-efficacy can be increased or how the perceived value of a task can be changed. So it’s a good thing to check if what we want people to do is a) feasible and b) probably of value to them, but it doesn’t help much in designing interventions.

Four Frames (N = 4)

The four frames theory looks at an organisation from four different angles which each reveal different aspects of culture: structures (roles, routines, incentives), symbols (beliefs and ways to communicate them), people (individuals’ goals, needs, agency), and power (hierarchies, coalitions, …).

While this theory doesn’t give us actionable advice, it is useful to consider that there are (at least) these four frames to consider to fully understand change and to address it adequately.

Paulsen and Feldman’s General Change Model (N = 4)

This theory was specifically developed to work for change processes in STEM education. According to the theory, change occurs in predictable stages: Unfreezing (when people recognise that something within the current system is not working and they are dissatisfied enough that it motivates them to change), changing (when the actual change takes place in form of acquiring new information, forming new groups, changing routines), and refreezing (when the change is solidified).

What I like about this model is that it explicitly considers the refreezing part — not just changing something, but making sure that in becomes the “new normal”.

Systems Theory (N = 3)

In systems theory, the whole system involved in change is considered, and especially how different parts of that system influence each other. The focus is on a “learning organisation” which continually develops, and which is characterised by systems thinking (assuming that structure influences behaviour), personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning.

From the Reinholz et al. article alone, I don’t get a good enough overview over systems theory to understand its full implications, but again it seems like a comprehensive approach, which I appreciate.

My reflections

I read this article, naively hoping it would give me the eight most relevant theories that I should consider when planning theories of change for my own projects. What I got, though, were the eight theories that other people had used the most (at least in published literature on STEM changes), but it felt like, quite possibly, those other people had randomly picked a theory they were familiar with and that sounded reasonable (kind of like what I’ve been doing with communities of practice and self-determination theory myself).

Reading through those eight theories drove home the point which I also describe in my summary of Kezar & Holcombe’s article, that it is important to not only take one specific theory of change, but look at change more comprehensively from different angles: What does motivate people to change, but also what other conditions need to be in place politically, in the organisation, in the community for that change to actually happen, and then to also be sustained?

What I am missing still missing (and that is not a complaint of this article, more a realisation of what I might have to search for or do myself) is a systematic overview of change theories that are out there, and from that a discussion of how and why some might be more applicable to changing STEM education than others. Can’t someone give me a checklist of all the things I should consider to be on the safe side? ;-)

Reinholz, D., White, I., & Andrews, T. (2021). Change theory in STEM higher education: a systematic review. International Journal of STEM Education, 8(37), 1 – 22. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-021-00291-2

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