Time and money can be
large roadblocks on the path to school innovation, but big budgets and flexible calendars are powerless in the face of “This is the way we’ve always done it.” The psychological term for our desire to keep things the same is “consistency,” and for the most part, it’s a useful trait. Your morning commute, for example, is a consistent routine that frees you up to think about the day, to listen to music or to call a friend—all good stuff. We need consistency because it stops us from investing precious time and energy in things not worth changing. But it also stops educational innovation in its tracks.
But here’s the thing that most school leaders miss: Consistency can work both ways. If you can generate a commitment to new, desired behavior, consistency becomes your ally. Put another way, it’s tempting to think of consistency as a wall to knock down or go over, but it’s more like a moving train that we need to route to a different track. And it turns out that specific types of commitments are the key to flipping that switch.
Make Consistency Be Your Ally
In his best-selling book Influence, psychologist Robert Cialdini mentions two studies that every school innovator should heed. In the first, two groups of homeowners were asked to display a huge “Safe Driving” billboard on their lawn. In the first group, 17 percent agreed; in the second, 76 percent did so. The difference? The second group was asked two weeks before to display a three-inch “Be a Safe Driver” sign. Lesson number 1: Small commitments can change our view of ourselves, and we will often accept larger ones to stay consistent with earlier decisions.
In the second study, three groups were asked to estimate the length of a line. They then received evidence that suggested they were wrong. Those in the first group, who had just made a mental guess, readily changed their answers. Those in the second group, who had written down their guesses, were much more stubborn about changing them. The third group was most resistant. Its members had written down their answers and then shared their guesses with other people. Lessons 2 and 3: Written commitments are powerful tools for consistency, and public commitments are even better.
Commitments to Change
As a school leader, think about whether people have an opportunity to make these kinds of commitments in your change initiatives. In a typical “top-down” program, the answer is no. Often our projects require people to participate in an active but noncommittal way.
Contrast that with the successful 21st Century Skills pilot at Hunterdon Central School District in Flemington, N.J., that incorporated each of the commitments illustrated above. First, teachers were asked to change only one of their classes (small commitment). Second, they wrote a one-page description of what they would change (written commitment). Third, they shared their progress not only with other participants, but also in department meetings, faculty meetings and other venues (public commitments). The result is that these commitments gave participants an opportunity to change their views of themselves. Once the program ended, those new self-images stuck around, and pilot members embraced new styles of teaching and learning.
That’s also why online social networks should play such a large role in school innovation. A small commitment to using learning networks like Twitter and LinkedIn often results in your people making written, public commitments to new forms of behavior. Every groundbreaking educator that your teachers meet online is another person that can reinforce and support new ways of thinking about their classrooms.
Creating Lasting Change
The next time you’re planning an innovative program, ensure that the time and money you are spending will create lasting change. Build in opportunities for people to make commitments, and involve them in online networks where they can expand those commitments by interacting with other educators. If you do this, your program will be more than the “story of the day”; it will have a lasting impact on student learning.