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Why Promising School Initiatives Often Fail to Get Teacher Buy-In

Circumstances, not personality traits, drive teachers to innovate

by Thomas Arnett

As Johanna¹ rolled back from summer break and started preparing to teach 6th grade for the 2013-2014 school year, she got word that her district was launching a promising new initiative. In a few select pilot classes, teachers would be doing “personalized learning;” an approach that the district hailed as a 21st-century way to differentiate instruction.

But fast forward a few months, and word was spreading like wildfire at district staff meetings that the new initiative was an absolute nightmare. The pilot teachers were under water trying to develop “personalized” learning plans for each of their students. Then came mountains of paperwork to track and customize students’ progress through their unique learning pathways. And in the classrooms, the magical moments of teaching and learning had all but vanished. Students spent most of their school hours plugged into electronic tablets as teachers patrolled the room to ensure the “personalized” experiences ran smoothly.

As these horror stories tallied up, Johanna thought “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. How am I going to keep up with 60 kids doing 60 different things across 3 subjects?” And when she looked around for her colleagues’ reactions, they weren’t any more thrilled than she was. “All of the teachers were basically in an uproar saying ‘This is not for us, this is not gonna work. Plus, what is this doing to our kids?’”

Common pitfalls on the path to school improvement

Johanna’s story might be a tale as old as modern public education. Year after year, “progressives,” “reformers” or “innovators” hand down new ideas to school leaders across the country, who then roll them out across their schools and classrooms. But when the rubber hits the road, not all teachers carry the banner. Leaders get frustrated that their boots on the ground don’t understand the vision. But for teachers, the ideas that look so shiny in fresh packaging just aren’t as helpful as they were sold to be. And when one initiative after another enters a school without really landing, it’s easy to see why many teachers have allergic reactions to new initiatives.

As Johanna’s story illustrates, the success of personalized learning—or any other school initiative—hinges on teacher adoption. Professional teachers ultimately decide for themselves how best to teach their content within the four walls of their classrooms, and whether new practices will be helpful in doing so. Many new initiatives fail because leaders rarely understand what really motivates a teacher to change his practices.

A new framework for approaching change management

In late 2017, the research team at the Clayton Christensen Institute launched a project using the Jobs to Be Done Theory to uncover what truly motivates teachers to draw new instructional practices into their lives. According to the theory—validated across many sectors—all people are internally motivated toward reaching personal goals within their particular life circumstances. We call these circumstance-based goals ‘Jobs’ because just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise.

In Johanna’s case, her circumstances were such that she was generally pleased with the way her students were performing in class, she just wished they were a bit more engaged overall. The Job she was looking to hire for was not to hyper-differentiate her lessons, especially if new practices doubled her workload while making her abandon her way of teaching. Instead, after interviewing Johanna, we saw that Johanna’s “Job,” or circumstance-based goal, was to find practical, non-radical ways to engage her students in social studies and language arts content.

A year after personalized learning came to Johanna’s district, the district rebooted its approach and invited teachers to join a new digital learning cohort. Johanna had used classroom technology as part of her teacher preparation program and knew how effective digital devices could be for supplementing her lessons and class projects with learning content tailored to her students’ individual needs and preferences, thereby boosting engagement. But she was reluctant to sign up given how time-intensive and disruptive the district’s last initiative had turned out. However, her anxieties subsided when teachers from the first cohort told her about the great professional development they received to help them adopt new digital-learning practices. Her worries aside, Johanna was thrilled by the idea of joining the cohort to get a class set of iPads.

Four “Jobs” that teachers are hiring for

Through our research, we interviewed teachers who had recently adopted a new instructional practice to uncover the Jobs that often motivate them to pull new practices into their classrooms. By analyzing patterns across the narratives in these interviews, we uncovered four distinct Jobs. These Jobs are:

  1. Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job were eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement efforts. They looked for promising yet simple initiatives that would be straightforward to share with their colleagues.
  2. Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable (Johanna’s Job). Teachers with this Job were happy overall with the teaching and learning in their classrooms, but wanted practical strategies for reaching a few students who were slipping through the cracks.
  3. Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Teachers with this Job taught in circumstances where few students were succeeding academically. They were eager for radical new approaches that would help them find a renewed sense of purpose as teachers.
  4. Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative. For these teachers, their schools’ initiatives didn’t seem to offer viable ways to reach their goals, and thereby created compliance-oriented motivations. They focused on finding help with doing what they had to do in order to not disappoint their school leaders, colleagues, and students.

As these Jobs surfaced from our data, a number of key takeaways also emerged. First, one-size-fits-all initiatives rarely offer acceptable solutions for all the varied Jobs among a school’s teaching staff. For example, an initiative that appeals to teachers looking to lead their schools’ incremental improvement efforts will likely fall flat among teachers looking to radically change instructional models.

Second, the teachers who adopt innovative practices enthusiastically do not do so because their personalities make them prone to be innovators or early adopters. Rather, any teacher will adopt innovative practices when their circumstances help them see a way to fulfill one of their existing Jobs.

Third, encouraging adoption is just as much about creating the circumstances that prompt change and addressing circumstances that hinder change as it is about advertising the benefits of something new.

In our paper, “The Teacher’s Quest for Progress: How school leaders can motivate instructional innovation using Jobs to be Done,” we lay out insightful recommendations that reveal how school leaders can retool their initiatives to nail the “Jobs” their teachers are already striving to fulfill. We hope that this research helps school leaders and policymakers shift from trying to foster new practices through top-down mandates that often stereotype teachers as either supporters or opponents to change, to instead design inclusive efforts that align with teachers’ circumstance-driven aspirations.  

Johanna eventually became an enthusiastic proponent of personalized learning after her district rebooted its initiative in ways that better met her Job of engaging more of her students in a manageable way. Her story shows that if school leaders hope to deliver on the progress they promise, they need to start with a clearer picture of the progress that teachers themselves are seeking.

¹Name has been changed to protect the confidentiality of our research interviews.

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