Making change in education – champions are for charlatans

I’ve been using this expression in a few talks recently and I thought I should clarify what I mean by it. These are notes for future gathering… feedback always welcome. The lists of ‘things to look for’ are not meant to be exhaustive.

Most of my professional career the standard argument for making change in education is to work with the ‘willing’ first and move your way to the more resistant. This idea of seeing very willing people as a ‘trojan horse’ or as ‘change leaders’ has been so prevalent that I never thought to question it before. In the last year, however, both working with the department of education in PEI and now with the medical school, I’ve started to realize that It’s a losing proposition. Worse, I’m starting to believe that it’s the ‘approach’ that people often turn too when they have no plan.

Who are these champions
The name itself is a little misleading. There’s a sense in the expression that these are the people who are your winners. They give 110% all the time. They keep their stick on the ice… insert sports metaphor for ‘winner’ here. These are the people who will rarely say no. They are the people you lean on, the people who will stay up another hour at bedtime to plan for the next day. They are the 20%.

There are any number of charts about change and most of them offer some separation of 20/60/20. That first 20 are on board for everything. They are the early adopters. They jump in without really checking if the sharks are in the water. The bottom 20? They’re the people who never want to do anything. OLD THINGS GOOD. NEW THINGS BAD. They want to keep the status quo the same… for any number of reasons. The middle 60 is where the magic is. If you can convince the middle 60 that they want to change something, your change is going to stick.

The middle sixty
There are any number of reasons that people end up in the middle 60 of your change chart. For some it has to do with the way they are committed to their families. For others, they may have other interests outside of their employment that take up their free time… some are lazy… some are disorganized. Some are mostly reasonable but just a bit obstinate. They are, however, by interested in the best interest of your organization. They are, in education, the teachers that make the difference between a good school and a bad school. Treated badly, they will not be happy, or effective. Treated well… things are fine.

Why we shouldn’t aim for the champions

  1. It’s not super ethical. These are the people already working extra (usually unpaid) time. If you want to keep your champions healthy and happy, don’t use them on half baked ideas.
  2. You’ll create super stars. Super stars, in a school, are that teacher that get all the toys, lots of help, and lots of accolades. No one likes that teacher. And they create a false model. Other people will look at that person’s success and either think they aren’t good enough for it… or that it only worked because they got anything.
  3. It’s not sustainable. That person will not be able to give you an extra five hours a week until the end of time. They will move on to something else exciting soon enough. You want to embed your change in the middle 60 if you want it to last.

Why champions are for charlatans
Educational technology is replete with consultants who have never managed change. They may have been good teachers or just like to take your money, but this doesn’t mean that they are going to help you change your school. I am always suspicious of the consultant who wants to work with the school superstar. (odds are they were a school superstar too before they became a consultant). Real change is hard, and slow, and takes careful planning. Superstars mostly just give you the appearance of change.

It’s important to listen to everybody. There are lots of good ideas out there. But if someone comes to you with an idea and wants to prove to you that it works because three teachers at a district used it… ignore them. That’s proof of nothing. If they tell you to get a few teachers started and that will spread… I’d ask for evidence of it. That has not been my experience.

What you should be looking for from a consultant

  1. A plan that lasts longer than a year
  2. A plan that has the hearts and minds training of the middle 60 as a core component
  3. Someone who is asking you for money to interview a variety of staff – teachers, administrators, admin assistants.
  4. A plan that solves a problem you actually have, not one that sells you a piece of technology because ‘you need it’.

Remember the opportunity cost
Just because an idea is a good one, doesn’t mean you should do it. Your middle 60 are busy. Every time you try and fail at a project you reduce the chances that they are going to work with you next time. Even if your project works, they can’t be working on other projects at the same time they are doing this one. An opportunity costs means that when your people are busy… the can’t be finding new opportunities or doing other things.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

6 thoughts on “Making change in education – champions are for charlatans”

  1. Good work, Dave. Holding decision makers at all levels accountable and responsible for your 1-4 points is a must. As a consultant responsible for lots of stuff, I’m busy enough trying to oil the current machinery so that teachers have the best experience possible. I’m also not the least bit interested in becoming some nascent edtech provider’s early adopter so I see myself in the 60 as well.

  2. I have too many battle scars from trying to be part of the superstar 20%. I do think they’re valuable. They’re definitely intrinsically motivated. They’re generally willing to try lots of crazy things. They can be super useful when you’re trying to put together a proof of concept. But if you keep going to them with the half-baked crazy ideas, you’re going to wear them out.

    I think the danger, too, is that people tend to move down the scale with experience. As a young teacher, I was among the champions (or, at least, I thought I was). With time and experience, I moved down to the middle 60. I’m willing to make changes, but I want to see positive evidence first that this is direction we should be moving in. Compare it to a new version of Chrome: convince me that 71 is better than 70, and it’s not going to break something critical. Until you do that, I’m staying where I am.

    The worry, though, at least with me, is that I seem to be moving to the bottom 20. The more times you get burned with bad initiatives or half baked ideas, the less likely you are to jump in to the next one. And I’ve been in the middle 60 on plenty of projects that didn’t reach critical mass. So even after being convinced to jump on board, it never really got off the ground.

    As a consultant (I am not a consultant), I don’t think you can make a living on slow, consistent change that focuses on the middle 60. If you come in with a plan that says “this is going to take three years and tens of thousands of dollars before we see any real benefit” you’re not going to get the gig. You have to use the champions to get the green light to move forward with the middle 60.

    Charlatan? Maybe. But I think you still need them to get much done.

  3. Hmm, this makes me think…I spend a lot of my time plotting ways to “get” the middle 60. But in a way that does solve a problem, and that is sustainable and that does not rely on super-stardom to succeed. It’s a long road…

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