Changes: turn and face the strange

The government’s recent focus on inclusive teaching and learning has left some staff in disability services playing a central role in facilitating changes to academic culture which they may not feel fully equipped to manage. One key aspect of taking on such a role is to consider models or theories of change in order to better understand how the process can be facilitated and to understand why change is often difficult to achieve.

Michael Fullan, a central figure in research and writing related to educational change, proposes one such model in his book ‘The challenge of change’. Here I discuss the 8 key principles mentioned in the book as they relate to the context of higher education.

Engaging moral purpose: staff need buy-in for any change and this can be fortified through appealing to the greater good.

There is quite a strong discourse in UK HE around the Equality Act/DDA but this legislative model only gets us so far and also can lead to moral panic amongst academic staff who are already faced with a multitude of change initiatives. However, most academic staff buy into the idea of inclusive practice and are led in their own teaching practice through moral purpose and values which generally relate to liberal notions of higher education. The notion of praxis (or value driven practice) is also worth considering here. It strikes me that an appeal to these values might prove more useful that using the stick of the legislation.

Alongside this bottom up approach, it is worth considering what the driving forces are within your HEI currently, such as student-led learning, employability or retention: although the warning here is that corporate strategies or top level organisational drivers do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the staff who they are supposed to serve..

Building capacity – the need to channel capacity through new knowledge of the subject area.

Try to connect academic staff through facilitating their engagement in resource development around inclusion. Traditional training workshops often fail to develop capacity and few academic staff attend. Fullan suggests shared knowledge generation and building capacity through development of policies and procedures. Avoid the writing policies in isolation as this can leave staff feeling that it is something which is being done to them rather than with them (Levin, 1998). Find ways to take a collaborative approach with staff across the institution.

Related to this is the need to consider staff resources and identifying who can drive this work forward.

Understanding the change process

These principles in themselves offer a way of understanding change and trying to ensure that the change process sets off in the right direction. I can also strongly advise Paul Trowler and colleagues’ work on change in higher education. Particularly, his seminal book ‘Academics responding to change’. Remember that change can be difficult to see over the short term especially in large organisations such as HEIs. I sometimes feel like I am dealing with the same issues I dealt with when I first came into HE 20 years ago and I have previously likened the journey to an Escher staircase: you feel like you are going round in circles but actually it might be better to view these processes more like a spiral staircase. You will encounter the same issues as you come to the same point on the 360 circle but you need to convince your brain that you are moving upwards!

Developing cultures for learning – tap into learning communities amongst academic staff.

‘Successful change involves learning during implementation’a powerful way to achieve this is to learn from peers. How can you get academic staff who are already setting a good example to pass on that knowledge to colleagues? Fullan et al highlight that the knowledge gained needs to involve putting it into action: pockets of excellence will not be sufficient.

Developing cultures of evaluation

You need to carefully evaluate the change project in the post-DSA modernisation world this requires evaluating changes to teaching and learning practice. Fullan et al suggest a range of ways to evaluate. One option, could be through accountability data which is being used externally such as HESA enrolments or degree attainment. However, it is recommended for there to be more of an emphasis on faculty-based self-appraisal for which a framework (link to ILTAF) to evaluate and action plan could be provided. It is also important to note that some inclusive practice does not currently have sufficient evidence to demonstrate effectiveness – nevertheless, this need not mean it shouldn’t be attempted. The student voice can also be used as a powerful driver in evaluation efforts.

Focusing on leadership for change

Fullan et al focus on the capacity building nature of leadership. In our context this might be facilitating academic staff to take responsibility for innovation in this area. Leadership for this change requires understanding how the university might facilitate this rather than the disability office. Perhaps this could be undertaken through an existing network of academic liaison staff via the Learning and Teaching Development Unit. Perhaps disability services staff can collaborate with learning and teaching colleagues as part of a wider shared endeavour.

Fostering coherence making

There are likely to be constant change and policy implementation initiatives within each HEI therefore it is important to understand how the initiative fits in with other developments. They may act as drivers for the change to take place or you may need to explore how inclusive teaching and learning interconnects with these change initiatives.

Cultivating tri-level development

Here Fullan et al focus on changing the broader context but for this blogpost the context is your HEI. He emphasises that educational initiatives should not just focus on changing individuals but should aim for broader change. There must be development across subject disciplines for instance or within academic departments and within the organisation for successful change to occur.  Addressing the challenges arising from the DSA changes involves ensuring that academic colleagues are exploring what inclusion means for their practice and is situated within their local contexts. It would be unlikely in such a model that staff would be ‘told’ that they should abide by a baseline number of compensatory actions for instance as suggested by the BIS government checklist  (which was published as part of a draft practitioner guidance document by the SLC) .

What theory or model of change are you currently following? Do you even have one? Are you working on the basis of top down policy and management influence or are you working across the organisation through bottom up processes?

Fullan, M., Cuttress, C., and Kilcher, A. (2009) 8 forces for leaders of change in The challenge of change: start school improvement now! 2nd edition, M. Fullan (editor). Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California.

Levin, B. (1998) An epidemic of education policy: (what) can we learn from each other? Comparative Education, 34 (2), pp. 131 – 141.