Change Strategies in STEM Education

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

I recently had a chance to read:

Maura Borrego and Charles Henderson: "Increasing the Use of Evidence-Based Teaching in STEM Higher Education: A Comparison of Eight Change Strategies". *Journal of Engineering Education*, 103(2), DOI 10.1002/jee.20040.

The abstract says:

Background Prior efforts have built a knowledge base of effective undergraduate STEM pedagogies, yet rates of implementation remain low. Theories from higher education, management, communication, and other fields can inform change efforts but remain largely inaccessible to STEM education leaders, who are just beginning to view change as a scholarly endeavor informed by the research literature.

Purpose This article describes the goals, assumptions, and underlying logic of selected change strategies with potential relevance to STEM higher education settings for a target audience of change agents, leaders, and researchers.

Scope/Method This review is organized according to the Four Categories of Change Strategies model developed by Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein (2011). We describe eight strategies of potential practical relevance to STEM education change efforts (two from each category). For each change strategy, we present a summary with key references, discuss their applicability to STEM higher education, provide a STEM education example, and discuss implications for change efforts and research.

Conclusions Change agents are guided, often implicitly, by a single change strategy. These eight strategies will expand the repertoire of change agents by helping them consider change from a greater diversity of perspectives. Change agents can use these descriptions to design more robust change efforts. Improvements in the knowledge and theory base underlying change strategies will occur when change agents situate their writing about change initiatives using shared models, such as the one presented in this article, to make their underlying assumptions about change more explicit.

The most valuable part of the paper for me is its discussion of different approaches people have taken to making change happen. The authors break this down by *aspect of system to be changed* and *intended outcome*:

Intended Outcome
Prescribed Emergent
Aspect of System
to be Changed
Individuals I. Disseminating: Curriculum & Pedagogy
Change Agent Role: tell/teach individuals about new teaching conceptions and/or practices and encourage their use.
II. Developing: Reflective Teachers
Change Agent Role: encourage/support individuals to develop new teaching conceptions and/or practices.
Scholarly Teaching
Faculty Learning Communities
III. Enacting: Policy
Change Agent Role: enact new environmental features that require/encourage new teaching conceptions and/or practices.
Quality Assurance
Organizational Development
IV. Developing: Shared Vision
Change Agent Role: empower/support stakeholders to collectively develop new environmental features that encourage new teaching conceptions and/or practices.
Learning Organizations
Complexity Leadership

The authors then discuss the underlying logic of the eight italicized approaches in detail:

  • Diffusion: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed by altering the behavior of a large number of individual instructors. The greatest influences for changing instructor behavior lie in optimizing characteristics of the innovation and exploiting the characteristics of individuals and their networks.
  • Implementation: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed by developing research-based instructional "best practices" and training instructors to use them. Instructors must use these practices with fidelity to the established standard.
  • Scholarly Teaching: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed when more individual faculty members treat their teaching as a scholarly activity.
  • Faculty Learning Communities: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed by groups of instructors who support and sustain each other’s interest, learning, and reflection on their teaching.
  • Quality Assurance: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed by requiring institutions (colleges, schools, departments, and degree programs) to collect evidence demonstrating their success in undergraduate instruction. What gets measured is what gets improved.
  • Organizational Development: STEM undergraduate instruction will be changed by administrators with strong vision who can develop structures and motivate faculty to adopt improved instructional practices.
  • Learning Organizations: Innovation in higher education STEM instruction will occur through informal communities of practice within formal organizations in which individuals develop new organizational knowledge through sharing implicit knowledge about their teaching. Leaders cultivate conditions for both formal and informal communities to form and thrive.
  • Complexity Leadership: STEM undergraduate instruction is governed by a complex system. Innovation will occur through the collective action of self-organizing groups within the system. This collective action can be stimulated, but not controlled.

The seven dense pages of references at the end were intimidating - I'm still very new to this field - but the categories laid out above have made me think hard about what strategies we're using. I have some opinions, but I'd really like to hear what our instructors and learners think. Are we trying to change the world by diffusion? Are we in the complexity leadership business? Or are we doing something else entirely? Feedback via comments on this post would be very welcome.

Dialogue & Discussion

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