How change agents are driving school improvement at scale

21 December 2018


Global Partnership for Education/Mediabase

By Charlotte Jones, Global Head of R&D, and Matt Davis, UK Regional Director, Education Development Trust

What drives behaviour change in education systems? New analysis from Education Development Trust looks at the role of change agents in the ‘middle tier’.

What would you do if your doctor told you that you were at risk of a fatal disease if you didn’t change your diet? Surprisingly, the usual answer is ‘not much’. Studies consistently show that up to 80% of us fail to comply with doctors’ orders . Behaviour change is hard: even when it’s potentially life and death, we struggle to change our habits.

Public policy-makers know this all too well. As the global education policy debate shifts to focus on quality and transforming teacher instruction, the key issue is not finding effective practices – ‘bright spots’ are often easy to find – but working out how to spread and scale these practices to every classroom.

Education Development Trust has recently been addressing this challenge through our research and programme delivery. One of the most exciting developments we see is the emergence of a new kind of education professional: a cadre of change agents at the system’s middle tier who are working directly with schools and teachers, and who are dedicated to instructional change.

For example, in Jordan, we have helped deploy specialist Subject Supervisors to work across schools to spark change: they broker the latest international evidence on high impact pedagogy, tailoring it to meet teacher needs. In Kenya, our Instructional Coaches are transforming teaching practices across schools in the slums of Nairobi. In Rwanda, policy-makers are reconfiguring instructional oversight by creating a new group of system leaders. In England, outstanding maths teachers act as Core Maths Leads, coaching their peers in new pedagogical techniques.

Getting results from change agents

In all cases, these change agents are selected from the very best local practitioners. But this alone is not enough to get results. Our research finds that the most impactful change agents have a distinctive set of skills. In driving change they:

  • Bring a sense of energy and commitment to making change happen – they build a strong vision for change; inculcate a sense of possibility and passion for improvement; and positively challenge the status quo.
  • Build capacity and create a learning culture – they support and inspire others to improve and share their practice; excel in coaching; dispel teachers’ fears, and build confidence.
  • Broker evidence and mobilise knowledge – they sensitively assess local knowledge gaps. and translate the evidence base in a way that makes it most likely to be useful to the particular local context.

Why are these competencies so important? Because change only happens in a climate of trust. We’ve seen again and again that successful change is created by this combination of deep expertise, credibility as a peer who has taught in the same context, and the skill and disposition to bring this expertise to bear in a way which empowers rather than controls or overwhelms. It means teachers own and trust new ideas, feel motivated by new possibilities, and are supported to interpret new techniques for their context. As Atul Gawande, a leading thinker in health system change, reminds us:

People follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take up [a new idea]. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process (The New Yorker, Slow Ideas, July 29, 2013).

So the lesson for policy-makers? Invest in the social process. Highly skilled change agents such as these can be lynchpin roles. It is these professionals who will make sure that new practices both reach and are sustained within every classroom.