Note: This is part of a series of reflective posts that form part of a university course that I am taking. I hope that you will find something valuable in my reflections as well.
Here in BC we have, once again, been experiencing terrible wildfires. As I write, Kelowna is covered in a thick bank of smoke, so thick it makes the city feel like the set of an apocalyptic dystopian movie. The smoke has, unfortunately, become a normal part of summers here in the Okanagan; coming and going on the winds, it reveals beautiful blue skies for days only to descend like a pall suddenly and without warning.
Needless to say, forest fires dominate many a thought and conversation throughout the summer here. I often think about how ridiculously easy it is to start a forest fire, how one tiny little spark can grow so quickly into something that spreads so quickly. In this light, it's easy to see how the spark is often used as a metaphor in business or education; one tiny little idea that, when given fuel and oxygen, spreads rapidly from person to person, growing larger by the minute.
In the context of a school, there are often people who are seen as the sparks - the ones who always have new ideas, seem to be up on the latest and greatest innovations, who try new things and share them freely with others. There are positions that foster these skill sets as well - curricular leads, consultants, specialists, teacher-librarians. Sparks often move into these roles because their access to others grows exponentially in these positions; they are now sought out for their sparkiness, for their ability to share their ideas. And sparks, my friends, want to spread their fire. It's what they do best.
As a result, people who find themselves in these roles, these hubs of information and innovation, if you will, need to figure out how to fan the flames and spread the word. And this is the hardest part of all. Leaving the fire metaphor behind for a moment, think about a time when you had a great idea, found a great resource or wanted to try something new - was it easy to get others on board? Where did you start? Who did you go to with your brilliant idea?
Interestingly, there is actually a theory that explains how ideas spread. Dubbed the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, it originated in 1962 and continues to be relevant today. The brainchild of a man named Everett Rogers, the theory outlines how an innovation is communicated over time amongst a social system. Understanding the basics of this theory can help us be more effective in ensuring that innovations we introduce in our schools don't just fizzle out.
Diffusion of Innovation Theory in Education
Ever heard the term "go with the goers"? At the heart of DIT (Diffusion of Innovation Theory), is the idea that amongst people there are different timelines for adopting a new innovation - first, the innovators, then the early adopters, early majority, late majority and finally, the laggards. If you have a new idea, the innovators are the ones who are going to adopt it first - they love all things new, shiny & trendy. They are more likely to be your tech-savvy teachers, your inquiry loving teachers, your learning community, cross-curricular teachers. Cultivate relationships with these teachers, as they will be the ones you can go to when you want to try new things. This, though, is a very small segment of the population so you may only have a couple of staff members who fall in this category. Your early adopters make up a much larger segment of the population and are your next target.
Let's say you want to try bringing inquiry into your library program. This hasn't been done before at your school and you sense that your whole staff isn't quite ready to dive in with you. So, you find that one teacher who keeps mentioning wanting to try inquiry in their classroom and you approach them with some ideas. The two of you build a great unit together, co-teach it and the kids love it! You decide to showcase some of the student work in the library and you and your co-teacher speak briefly about the unit at a staff meeting. Next thing you know, you have two new teachers (early adopters) wanting to try it out too. Yay! Now the trick is to keep the momentum going; to do this, we need to convince people that our idea, our teaching method, our tech tool, is better than what they are currently doing. That it will, in some way, serve their needs in a way that makes their job easier, more enjoyable or more effective. In education, we often need to convince people that what is good for kids will also be good (i.e. not more work) for teachers. This is why Dr. Michelle Mazur believes that the Diffusion of Innovation theory is actually a communication theory.
In order to successfully get more teachers collaborating with you on inquiry units, you need to move from the innovators and early adopters to the late adopters and laggards, To do this, we need to communicate what Rogers calls the relative advantage, or how an inquiry approach is better than the way the teacher is already teaching the unit. You also need to communicate how your idea (inquiry) is compatible with their values, needs and experiences. This is going to be different for every teacher; in order to reach those late adopters and laggards you are going to have to build relationships that allow you to understand the teacher and their teaching style, while at the same time building trust so that when you do broach the idea, they are willing to step out of their comfort zone with you.
In the end, bringing new ideas, innovations and resources to a group of people as diverse as a school staff requires three main things:
1) Know your people. Who are the innovators? The early adopters? Who is going to require a bit more personalized attention in order to try this new thing?
2) Build relationships. Once you know your people, approach them all a little bit differently. Dive in with the innovators, share enthusiastically with the early adopters and be prepared to take the long road with the late adopters and laggards. While it might be tempting to try and sway the late adopters right away or abandon the laggards entirely, go slow to go fast. Take the time to gain the trust of these two groups and you will likely see more progress in the long term.
3) Communicate clearly and simply. When we are fully immersed in a new idea or teaching method, we tend to over-complicate our explanations of things. We forget that just a short while ago we only knew the bare bones of how to use it and we go too deep, too fast. As you sell your idea, try to simplify your sharing; use examples and success stories and keep to the basics. Wherever possible, share student work publicly and have students share their experiences as well. Be willing to share your planning documents, process and resources with other staff members.
School staffs are as unique as the individuals that make them up. There is no one best way to communicate new ideas, tools and resources - you have to know your people and figure out what works for them (a tech-savvy team may love a Google Drive folder for sharing, while a more traditional group may still be reliant on photocopied handouts). One staff may respond really well to "lunch and learn" opportunities, where they listen and eat, while another enjoys a more hands-on, try before you buy workshop approach; there is no right way to share ideas, just right ways for the group of people in front of you. Keeping the principles of Diffusion of Innovation Theory in mind (and this was just a surface skim of DIT, see below if you want to learn more) will help you target the distribution of ideas and communicate in ways that will help your new ideas and innovations spread. It might not be easy and it might not be fast but it will be effective! Go ahead and give it a shot...I'd love to hear how it goes.
Want to learn more? Check out the following:
Baer, Drake (2013, Jan 17). Harvard professor finds innovative ideas spread like the flu; here's how to catch them. Retrieved July 28, 2019 from https://www.fastcompany.com/3004829/harvard-professor-finds-innovative-ideas-spread-flu-heres-how-catch-them
Mazur, Michelle. (2019, Nov 5). How new ideas spread and ultimately become accepted. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://drmichellemazur.com/2019/11/how-new-ideas-spread-ultimately-become-accepted.html.
Rogers, Everett (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-5823-4.
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, May 23). Diffusion of innovations. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:54, July 29, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Diffusion_of_innovations&oldid=1024582287
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!