June 18th, 2008

Creating and Sustaining Institution-wide Pedagogical Change

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Despite increased external pressure on teaching and learning innovation, top-down, centralized strategic initiatives usually fail to produce large-scale transformational change. And the problem with smaller-scale pedagogical innovation is that the impact is rarely felt beyond those directly involved, says Johanna Duponte, acting dean of health sciences at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts.

The challenge of creating transformational change lies in the structure of higher education institutions. “Faculty are typically involved in their own disciplines, and they don’t have a lot of opportunities to be involved with the work of the institution,” Duponte says. “A lot of times they are not made aware of strategic priorities of the institution and don’t see how their work is connected to the work of the institution. In addition, teaching is a private activity, so when we have innovations going on, they can remain very isolated. They don’t necessarily move out of the classroom in which they’re happening. They don’t necessarily spread among departments.”

Duponte studied three community colleges considered to be pedagogical innovators to determine which factors contributed to their success and how emergent changes—those that evolve in the day-to-day work of faculty—can successfully transform an entire institution. She began by looking at the work of Kezar and Eckel on the key factors that help bring about institutional change. These key factors were collective leadership and culture. “There is no pat and clear process or strategy that institutions need to use [to bring about change]. There need to be very institution-specific strategies based on the culture of the institution,” Duponte says.

In addition to the principles that Kezar and Eckel found, Duponte also observed in her research that the institutions that were successful with transformational change had linkages between innovations and institutional priorities. “These linkages happened by creating lots of opportunities to talk about pedagogy and opportunities for faculty to experiment, assess what they do in the classroom, reflect on it, and share that information with fellow faculty members in a supportive environment,” Duponte says.

Emergent change can come from faculty engaging in formal pedagogical scholarship, but Duponte found that scholarship was not the only means of bringing about transformational change. Individual faculty may get involved in exploring innovative pedagogies, such as service learning, theme-based learning, and electronic portfolios, for any number of reasons, including a personal interest in how the brain works or a feeling that current teaching methods do not work for all students.

The biggest obstacle to involvement is workload. Not surprisingly, engaging in innovative pedagogy demands more time from faculty members. This is why it is essential for faculty to receive adequate support. It is up to academic leaders to gauge individual faculty interest in certain innovations and to provide release time, funding, and other support.

In addition, according to Duponte’s research, faculty need a place, such as a teaching and learning center, where ideas can “cross-pollinate” and that provides a formal structure to support pedagogical innovations. At one institution in the study, cross-pollination created broader institutional linkages, which has led to broader responsibility for developing students’ written and oral communication skills rather than relying solely on the English department to develop these skills. “That’s something that occurred because these cross-disciplinary, cross-functional teams have been working, and they’ve created a set of unifying goals in terms of what they want their students to know and be able to do,” Duponte says.

Communication is a key to successful transformative change, Duponte says. “Communicating the idea of change was a really critical piece, because if the communication was a top-down directive, it was far less likely to succeed, and, I think to some degree, that’s what we’ve seen in terms of the assessment movement. This was planting a seed, inviting participation, and it was administrators who recognized interest and recognized faculty talent and recognized potential for leadership and kind of coaxed these folks, invited them, created the opportunities. It wasn’t just structural support—release time, professional development, or money—it was also cultural support. The senior administrator reflected the true institutional value having to do with student learning. It was reflected in many opportunities, so that at staff meetings they would be talking about this sort of thing. They would point out the work of the people involved in innovation and give folks opportunities to share that information.”
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Communication also can generate broader interest, which is important in sustaining change. “Changes weren’t sustained when they were just the primary responsibility of one person or one department, because then changes in staffing or job responsibilities would mean that innovation couldn’t go on. An important part of being sustained was that there were a number of people involved and engaged in the innovation,” Duponte says.

However, the communication is not just formal. It needs to be part of the everyday discussion. “They need the opportunity to talk and reflect with other faculty members and do it again before it becomes embedded in the way they do things,” Duponte says.

As with the assessment movement, pedagogical innovation requires faculty involvement throughout the process in order to be successful. “Faculty want to be respected for their expertise and knowledge. They want to be involved from the beginning in terms of looking at the problem, designing solutions, and participating at every step of the process, rather than [being given] top-down initiatives,” Duponte says.