Tag Archives: change theory

Reinholz et al. (2021)’s eight most used theories of change and how they relate to each other in my head

I’ve been playing with this figure (inspired by the Reinholz et al. 2021 article) for a while now for the iEarth/BioCeed Leading Educational Change course, where we try to look at our change project through many different lenses in order to find out which ones are most relevant to help us shape and plan the process. In building this figure, I am trying to figure out how the different perspectives overlap and differ. But since there is a huge amount of information in this one figure and it might be slightly overwhelming, here is an animated version (edit: which, apparently, only starts moving if you click on the gif. No idea why, maybe it’s too large?). The gif builds over 25 seconds, and then it shows the still, finished image for 25 seconds. Not sure if this is the best option; I was also considering doing it as narrated slides. But not right now…


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

 

 

Thinking about theories of change (based on Reinholz et al., 2021)

I’ve spent quite some time thinking about how to apply theories of change to changing learning and teaching culture (initially in the framework of the iEarth/BioCEED course on “leading educational change”, but more and more beyond that, too). Kezar & Holcombe (2019) say we should use several theories of change simultaneously to make things happen, and Reinholz et al. (2021), describe the eight theories of change that are most commonly used in STEM, so the most pragmatic approach for me was to consider those eight. As I’ve been discussing and applying those theories of change in practice, my thinking about them has developed a bit, and so this is how they work in my head for now (also see figure above and below; it’s the same one).

As a general mindset, it is helpful to start out from what is good already (or at least kinda working) and use that to build upon, rather than tearing everything down and starting from scratch: This is the “Appreciative Inquiry” approach in a nutshell, and it makes sense intuitively, especially when the change isn’t coming from within (for myself, I kinda like the “forget everything and start from scratch” approach) but in the form of a boss, or an academic developer, or a teacher. This appreciative inquiry approach should be considered in the planning phase of any change, but also as a general principle throughout, so we keep building on what’s positive.

Communities of Practice” is the framework feels most natural to me, and about which I’ve read the most, so this is how I naturally think about culture and changing culture. In a community of practice, people have a common interest which they practice together in a community. The community includes different legitimate roles: not everybody needs to participate and contribute equally or in the same way, or even be fully part of the community to be accepted and appreciate (see figure above/below). There are also legitimate trajectories, i.e. ways to increase or decrease involvement as new people enter or other people leave (see the people skiing into and out of the community in the figure). Objects foster exchange within (tuning fork in the figure) and across (book and violin in the figure) community boundaries, because they are manifestations of thoughts and practice that can be transferred, re-negotiated and modified according to whatever is needed.

Communities of practice have different stages from when they first form until they eventually die, and there are design principles that can help when cultivating communtities of practice, for example to make sure participation is voluntary, there is opportunity for dialogue within and across the communities’ boundaries, and the community is nurtured by someone facilitating regular interactions and new input. In this way, I think of communities of practice as a way to co-create learning and teaching situations, making sure everybody can play the role they would like to play — be who they want to become — and take on as much ownership of the community and the change as they want.

Other theories of change address different aspects that I want to integrate in and add to my thinking about communities of practice:

  • What is it that motivates individuals to do things in the first place? Generally, people are more likely to act on something if they want it and it is likely they’ll get it (-> Expectancy Value). This is depicted in the figure above/below as the considerations one might have before joining a meeting: How much time will I spend there, and is that time commitment worth the outcome I expect? All other things being the same, coffee might make it more appealing to go.
  • No matter how good an idea is, people are not equally likely to jump on an innovation right away. There are distinct stages of adaption, and different “types” of people are likely to adapt in different stages: Knowing about great new ideas does not make everybody want to try them out, so just letting people know is not going to convince everybody; many people might have to see successful ideas implemented by many others before they even consider them for themselves. (-> Diffusion of innovation)
  • Teacher thinking about change related to what & how to teach, who to teach and teach with, and education in general, is influenced by different contexts. These contexts include the personal context (demographics, nature & extent of preparation to teach, types & length of teaching experience, types and length of continued learning, subject & general), system context (rules and regulations, traditions, expectations, schedules, available funding and materials, physical space, subject area), and the general context. (-> Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform)
  • For a team to learn, the whole system needs to be considered: each individual needs to challenge their prejudices, assumptions, and mental models; and strive for personal growth and mastery, only then can a shared vision be developed and worked towards by a whole team. (-> Systems Theory)
  • In addition to people (goals, needs, agency) and symbols (beliefs and ways to communicate them) similarly to what is described above, it is often helpful to consider structures (roles, routines, incentives), and power distribution (hierarchies, coalitions, …) (-> Four Frames)

Lastly, there are three stages a person or community must go through in order to change successfully: “unfreezing” in order to create motivation for change (e.g. by realising dissatisfaction, and by feeling relatively certain that change is possible), “changing” (cognitively redefining based on feedback), and “refreezing” (making sure that the new normal is congruent with how the person wants to see themself and with the community) what should stay. (-> Paulsen & Feldmann)

And here is all of that in one figure! And maybe this figure is not so useful as a boundary object to share ideas from my brain to yours, but at least it really helped me structuring my thinking, and I am more than happy to discuss!


Kezar, A., & Holcombe, E. (2019). Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform: An Examination of the AAU STEM Initiative. Educational Policy. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904819843594

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

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

Quick summary of literature on the Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform

As preparation for our next meeting in iEarth & bioCEED’s course on “Leading Educational Change”, I am reading up on “Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform” (TCSR).

The motivation to develop TCSR as a new model to plan and ealuate change arose of observations of “the school reform paradox: change without difference”, i.e. a century worth of school reforms that did not fundamentally change what happens in schools in the US. Previous attempts to understand why change did not happen were insufficient since they only focussed on individual facets. Woodbury & Gess-Newsome (2002) thus proposed the TCSR model, which they describe as a “multifaceted yet focused and dynamic model of educational reform”.

The TCSR model considers of three factors: the general context, contextual factors of structure and culture in the system a teacher is working in, and the teachers’ personal context.

Contextual factors of structure and culture are for example the local context (e.g. what are the governing policies around education, standards, curricula, assessment; how are teachers educated and evaluated; what teaching materials are being used; what are the student demographics; what are cultural norms), the school context (e.g. type & size of school, physical settings, budget, schedules, technology, …), the department & subject area context (e.g. teachers’ teaching loads, budget choices), and the classroom context (e.g. student demographics, class size, time of day, materials & technology, …).

Personal contextual factors are for example demographic things like gender and age, how prepared a teacher is, how much teaching experience they have, and their ongoing efforts to learn about teaching and learning generally and as applied to their subject.

Those factors all interact with and influence the teachers’ thinking when it comes to their knowledge and beliefs regarding teaching and learning, choice of content, etc., thus influencing their practice.

The TCSR model can be used to develop or evaluate reforms. For example, when a new technology is supposed to be introduced in teaching practice, it is helpful to consider that it is most likely to happen if it is congruent with the teachers’ beliefs and knowledge, but also that it needs to be available at their school and supported by culture at the school and in the wider context. In evaluation, the TCSR model provides different factors whose influence can be investigated.

The TCSR model has been applied in different ways, for example:

Birt et al. (2019) use TCSR to understand why new college instructors react to reform attempts the way they do — or don’t: The local teaching environment inhibited some reform attempts to the point that instructors felt their hands were tied, and using the TCSR model helped identify barriers. Birt et al. then identified agency as a new factor to be included in the TCSR model, that can help instructors overcome hindering influences of the context they are working in. They state that “empowering new instructors to enact teaching practices that go against the grain and support student learning, rather than maintain the status quo, is paramount.

Ferrare (2019) uses TCSR to support the assumption that classroom practice is determined by teachers’ beliefs and the context they are in, which is then confirmed by their own study on >70 teachers and >140 hours of classroom observation. They focus on the connection between teacher beliefs and observable practice, and find that educational reforms need to address beliefs in order to change practices.

While I appreciate the different lenses on what makes teachers change their instruction and the checklist of factors to keep in mind as potentially important, I’m not sold on the TCSR model as useful for my purposes as no mechanisms are considered or suggested.


Birt, J. A., Khajeloo, M., Rega‐Brodsky, C. C., Siegel, M. A., Hancock, T. S., Cummings, K., & Nguyen, P. D. (2019). Fostering agency to overcome barriers in college science teaching: Going against the grain to enact reform‐based ideas. Science Education, 103(4), 770-798.

Ferrare, J. J. (2019). A multi-institutional analysis of instructional beliefs and practices in gateway courses to the sciences. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(2), ar26.

Woodbury, S., & Gess-Newsome, J. (2002). Overcoming the Paradox of Change without Difference: A Model of Change in the Arena of Fundamental School Reform. Educational Policy, 16(5), 763–782.doi:10.1177/089590402237312

8 steps to accelerate change in your organization (Kotter, 2018)

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving change recently (especially in the context of the “leading educational change” course by iEarth and BioCEED), and found the Kotter Inc. website on the topic super helpful. They provide a free e-book on the “8 steps to accelerate change in your organization” which I want to summarise here.

The 8 “accelerated” steps build on a previous version from 1996. The old version of leading change was about discrete, finite projects that were dealt with in a systematic, linear way, by a small group within a hierarchy. The new version, however, is about dynamically addressing changes when opportunities open up while continuously working towards change, using a broad coalition of people throughout the organisation as well as the traditional hierarchy.

Four change principles

It is worth keeping in mind four change principles that support the change process:

  1. Leadership + Management: The change process needs a group of people taking on responsibility for it and managing the efforts, as well as providing the vision and positive reinforcement
  2. Head + Heart: Logic alone is usually not enough to inspire action, but if people are involved emotionally and see a worthy goal that they can contribute to, they are often willing to invest a lot of time and energy
  3. Select Few + Diverse Many: Change does not only need to happen top-down, but a change process should open up opportunities to contribute to change to everybody who wants to be involved, and this might reveal to date unknown potential for change
  4. “Have to” + “want to”: If the goal seems meaningful and people feel genuinely included in the process, they will want to contribute beyond their role as defined by their job description

Keeping in mind these four principles, there are 8 steps to the change process as described by Kotter.

8 steps to accelerate change in your organisation

1. Create a sense of urgency

People are a lot more likely to come together and put in a lot of effort if there is an opportunity opening up now, that will not be there forever. Creating this perceived urgency to change things before a window of opportunity might close again helps get people together and willing to act now.

What does this mean for our own change project?

  • We need to be able to identify an opportunity that can be used to create such urgency when it opens up. How would we recognise it if it appeared, what kinds of criteria are we looking for?
  • We need to be able to communicate that THIS is THE OPPORTUNITY. And for that, we need a plan.
  • We need to have a realistic idea of the change we want to create. What would be the impact if all went well, and what would be worse case scenarios?

2. Build a guiding coalition

The idea behind the guiding coalition to drive change is that if the coalition consists of the classical team that would always be assigned to lead change, the results are very likely the same as they’ve been up to that point (i.e. not fundamentally challenging the status quo). Therefore, it makes sense to assemble a team that is diverse on all metrics, but especially from different functions within the organisation, including all geographic locations of the organisation, etc.. But everybody has to be willing to actually work in a team that is built across hierarchies and functions, and needs to be committed to the common goal.

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

A strategic vision and initiatives is what other people might call a theory of change: How will the changed future be better from where we are now? How will we get there; i.e. where exactly are we now, what are initiatives that need to happen, how will we get people to support and adopt the change, how will we know that change is happening, …?

4. Enlist a volunteer army

We need a critical mass of people supporting the change initiative. That means, we need to invite and inspire people to take part, but then also give them the agency to become part of the change in whatever way they decide. 15% of people involved in an organisation are enough to get a change process going, 50% are needed for the change “to stick”. But recruiting and inspiring once is not enough — we also need to look after our volunteers and make sure they stay motivated and engaged and receive recognition for their work.

Kotter also writes that no outsiders need to be bought in, “the existing people hold the energy”, which I found really interesting.

5. Enable actions by removing barriers

Historical structures can effectively prevent change, so breaking up old structures that are no longer serving a purpose might be a good step towards enabling change.

Barriers that need to be removed can be found by considering why previous change attempts failed. Were decisions made by the wrong people, were people sticking to beliefs that weren’t helpful (“this is just not going to work in our context”), were procedures slowing things down so much that people gave up, was support from the leadership missing, …?

6. Generate short-term wins

Anything moving us towards the final goal is a win — an action that has been taken, a lesson that is learned, a new product that is created, something that happened in a different way than it always did. And if we can recognise and communicate wins, we can use this to sustain momentum over a longer period of time by motivating all our volunteers, and to create a narrative of how the change happened.

And we can also plan for those wins in advance, and how we’ll use them to generate momentum or show change happening across the organisation etc.

7. Sustain acceleration

When you see things beginning to move, don’t relax. Now is the time to press even harder, because clearly what you did is working! If you slow down now and then don’t reach the goal, it is going to be a lot harder to motivate people a second time, seeing that the efforts “failed” the first time round… So remind yourself (and everybody else) about the goal and why it’s urgent to take action now, and if you started out with some sort of campaign to create urgency, maybe it would be a great time to bring it back, to re-energize the existing team and to recruit more members, that will come with new energy and a fresh perspective on things.

8. Institute change

Now that we have changed something within our organisation, we need to make sure that people stick to this “new normal” and don’t fall back into old routines or practices. Therefore, we need to create the narrative, supported and disseminated by leadership, relating the way things are now to the organisation’s current and future success, and for management to set in place a framework that supports this new way of being (i.e. creating the “barriers” against unwanted change that we tore down in step 5 ;-)).

All of this might change parts of the organisational structure, but it won’t overthrow hierarchies but rather work with them to create the change we want.