This Will Never Work!” – Exploration of Resistance to Change

This will never work… We tried this last year… I don’t have the time…

Resistance from colleagues is a familiar experience to many school leaders. In many cases this resistance is not unfounded. Teachers are under a considerable amount of strain, constantly adapting to policy changes and the day to day pressures of working in a school. For this reason, when new teaching methods are presented in a school it is important that there is a strong research base to the initiative and that staff are able to work collaboratively to explore the evidence together (Cordingley, 2012).

However, even when initiatives are well supported by research and resonate with most staff in the school, leaders may encounter some members of staff with a fundamental unwillingness to even explore change. Can these teachers be won round?

One solution can be found in cognitive psychology.  When faced with decision, our brain can become overwhelmed with the negative consequences. Tversky and Kahnman (2003) found that the decisions we make are largely based on the way a choice is framed. It was found that the human brain will more often choose to avoid a loss than to make a gain. This is why those who most strongly resist change are often the most active members of a team, even more so than the implementers themselves.

Let’s consider a possible example. Informative feedback has been shown to improve pupil outcomes and raise attainment. However, some teachers may fear that the implementation of informative feedback will result in more time marking books, more stress about lesson planning and an interruption to routine – for a particular teacher, these perceived losses outweigh the potential gain as demonstrated by research. It may be the case that a teacher reluctantly abides with the initiative for a while, but soon prefers to deliver steady results by a return to their usual practice.

This preference for the status quo is understandable within the context of the human need to avoid loss. We can learn valuable lessons from this scenario: while it is still important to have a clear rationale for your initiative, this reasoning in itself will not overcome certain types of resistance unless the barriers to change – or perceived losses – are removed first.

Knight (2009) provides some insight into how to manage certain perceived losses. He states that successful implementation of an initiative is unlikely if it involves a large number of tasks, contains significant learning challenges or takes up considerable and valuable time. Within a school, such losses can be avoided by:

  • Allocating time for CPD.
  • Embedding learning within the job (for example: using staff meetings for CPD, encouraging enquiry based learning such as Lesson Study, using teacher blogs to share advice).
  • Using demonstrations to model initiatives (thereby overcoming some learning challenges).
  • Breaking down tasks into easy-to-implement steps.
  • Providing ready-to-use teaching materials.

At the same time, Jagg (2012) reminds us that change needs to be of value to staff. We must remove any procedures which reward the ‘old’ system and instead encourage staff’s ownership of your suggested change. To increase the value staff place on your initiative, Jagg suggests:

  • Rewarding those who embrace change (via public or private feedback).
  • Rewarding staff attempts to constructively criticise and move the initiative forward.
  • Developing processes that allow colleagues to discuss the initiative.
  • Involving staff in the collection of research and evidence around the change.

Helping to remove the perceived losses surrounding a change, and demonstrating that this change will in fact be of great value to your staff, will not only help you introduce a particular initiative – it will avoid the unproductive arguments that result in the deterioration of relationships and a stagnant school environment.

In many cases opposition from colleagues stems from valid concerns. It is important that school leaders take the time to listen and make their staff feel like valued members of a team. Open discussions help to develop positive relationships and create a sense of ownership among colleagues. Engaging staff in research and exploration forms common evaluation that takes the views of all parties into consideration. With a shared vision change is more easily implemented and therefore more likely to be effective.

Sarah Austin is a Maths teacher at Denton Community College in Greater Manchester. Sarah wrote this blog as part of a Summer Project placement at the Teacher Development Trust in August 2014.