Tag Archives: theories of change

Wamsler et al. (2021)’s literature review on “Linking internal and external transformation for sustainability and climate action”, and “Inner Development Goals”

Especially when it comes to teaching about climate change or sustainability more generally, it seems unavoidable to really consider mental states. While the dominant discourse around climate change has been about external, biophysical factors for a long time, and climate change was thus seen as a challenge that can be solved by technology and policy changes and does not require any other real changes from us, this view is currently changing towards one that considers internal “mental states”. The climate crisis is then a human relationship problem that cannot be separated from other crises like hunger, poverty, or the covid-19 pandemic, and that is inadvertently caused by internal issues like racism, injustice, consumerism. So fixing the climate crisis requires changes in the way we all think about the world and live our lives: We need to reconsider our values, beliefs and worldviews in order to change the way we act.

Wamsler et al. (2021) review the literature to develop an integrated model of change that explains the interaction of internal and external changes for sustainability.

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“Systems conveners in complex landscapes” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2014)

If I had to pick one book that has influenced my current thinking about teaching and learning the most, I would pick Wenger’s 1998 “Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity” (link to my summary of the book and some later work on CoPs). What I find really helpful to think about in the CoP framework is that there are many different, but legitimate, roles, that can also — again, legitimately — change over time. The description of one specific role, the “broker”, really spoke to me when I first read the book: Someone who is involved in many different CoPs and facilitates information flow between them. That’s kinda what I have always been doing because that’s what I find most interesting (much more interesting than really digging deep into one topic), without thinking about that being an important contribution to all those CoPs. And now I read another Wenger work which made me realize that while I was probably a broker for many years, maybe now I am on my way of becoming a “systems convener” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2014): “They are dreamers but they are also schemers, with a solid dose of strategic thinking and tactical acuity.”

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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

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.


Currently reading: “Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform” (Kezar & Holcombe, 2019)

I am attending a course on “leading educational change”, run by two Norwegian centres for excellence in education, iEarth and BioCEED. The course brings together people working on educational change in very different roles: teachers, administrators, deans, network coordinators, and it’s a great opportunity to connect with people and to do some really focussed thinking on how to change things we’ve always wanted to change! And to do some serious reading of really interesting articles. One of the assigned readings is the article “Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform: An Examination of the AAU STEM Initiative” by Kezar & Holcombe (2019), which I’ll summarise in the following, because it is a really fascinating and new-to-me perspective on how project planning can be understood, and should be happening.

First of all, there is such a thing as a “theory of change”. A theory of change describes a specific perspective on how and why changes in complex systems happen, and it can be used both to understand current or past changes as well as plan future changes. There are many different theories of change that are commonly used, focussing on different mechanisms and contexts and looking at the change process from very different perspectives. Six main sets of theories of change are

  • scientific management: in a very rational, planned, controlled approach, resources are strategically assigned to grow certain activities to further an agenda, and thus change an organisation; e.g. strengthening a new initiative by assigning service credits
  • evolutionary: the “ecosystem” in question is seen as influenced by other systems in a changing world around it, which can lead to changes happening, for example, due to fear of missing out, or to protect the system from outside influences
  • cultural: traditions, shared visions and sagas are created and negotiated, and this changes interactions between people, leading to changes in the whole system
  • social cognition: the organism itself is able to learn based on arguments and evidence, and mindsets are changed in feedback loops
  • political: power and status/funding are distributed to elevate the groups doing the desired work, and buy-in of important stakeholders is considered
  • institutional theory: the administrative frameworks and norms inside and outside the organisation, e.g. accreditation, funding bodies, disciplinary organisations, shape boundary conditions and are thus the driver of change; there is competition and less successful institutions mimic more successful ones

In some cases, a specific theory of change is assumed to fully explain the change desired or observed in a system. But in most cases, it just sheds light on it from a very specific angle, and using more than one theory of change simultaneously would be helpful to more fully understand what is going on, or to make sure to pull all relevant levers. Kezar & Holocombe (2019) describe one such initiative, where several theories of change were leveraged to improve teaching across different departments. The theories of change that were discussed in the proposal for the project are more specifically defined than the six main sets of theories of change described in the article and summarised above:

  • systems theory: all parts of a system need to act together to create positive change. To improve teaching, not just the teachers need to get better, but they also need to be supported by the university, appropriate facilities must be available, teachers need to be incentivized to spend time on teaching, …
  • organisational learning: individuals learn and together change the way the system works, structures at the organization can influence how information flows and knowledge is put to use
  • network theory: considers how information and behaviour spread and coalitions form to minimise risk/maximise outcome for the individual, depending on how people get the chance to meet and connect
  • institutional theory: about how influence and status is used to change institutional norms, and prestige is aspired to

Using several theories of change simultaneously can support the design of specific activities or programmes (or retrospectively help understand what happened), and more generally there are synergies that can purposefully be leveraged.

Let’s take, for example, annual meetings (which we all know and love, but mostly do because that’s just what is done. Who knew there were so many different functions they could fulfill if designed correctly?). Looking at the project through an institutional theory lens, the annual meetings gave participants the opportunity to learn from, and meet with, the prestigious partner organisations. Inviting everybody into stimulating and significant venues, and bringing in highly-esteemed guest speakers leveraged the influence of prestigious personalities and institutions on participants. From an organisational learning perspective, the meetings led to sharing of information and experiences, which resulted in adaptation of those new practices in several new places. From a systems theory perspective, the meetings were organised to reinforce the framework that was being established, by using it as a guiding structure and always referring back to relevant documents. And lastly from a network theory perspective, the meetings provided opportunities for informal and formal meetings and bonding situations in both random and planned groups.

But also beyond specific activities, theories of change can be thought together in order to create synergies. For example network theory and organisational learning: Buildingof  knowledge and skills within organisations (organizational theory) can be supported by creating networks between organisations in which knowledge and experiences can be shared, or where learning can happen together (network theory). But there can also be conflicts between different approaches: For example if competition between organisations is fostered as a motivational tool in institutional theory where all is about status, this can hinder or prevent cooperation and learning from each other, which might be a goal from an organisational learning and/or network theory position. In the project described in the article, this did happen and was only discovered and understood after the fact.

I found this article really eye-opening in the sense of seeing the potential in considering multiple theories of change simultaneously rather than one at a time. Reading about concrete examples of where multiple theories of change act to create synergies and where they might negate each other really drove home the message that it is absolutely fundamental to have a good idea of which theories of change should be the basis of a planned change process (rather than just curating a collection of activities that all might make sure in and of themselves, but maybe not so much when taken together), and make sure that all activities are aligned with those theories, or at least not in conflict with any of them. This sounds like a really basic “duh!” kind of thought, but as someone who has always relied on communities of practice to explain everything I’m trying to do, I will definitely widen my approach, and highly recommend you read this article if you haven’t thought about these things yet!

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