Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

Using Data to Motivate Change

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Before Sandra, the Algebra 1 team leader, can make progress with her team, they need a reason to think about changing their classroom practices. When Sandra presented the factoring method, it came out of nowhere for most of the teachers in her group. One might have been asking inside her own head, “Why is Sandra telling us about this? Yeah, factoring is a problem, but kids either get it or they don’t. I don’t see why I should consider some new method just because she thinks it is a good idea.” My suggestion to Sandra that she work with a math specialist in our fictional effort to improve Algebra 1 performance is based on a belief that if teachers (or anyone) can understand student learning data and their role in influencing it, then they may be motivated to make change. To move ahead, Sandra must step back and think about what motivates people to change (or not).

Kurt Lewin (1947) made the claim that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. As an organizational behavior theorist, he thought a great deal about how interpersonal forces push people in various directions. He used the metaphor of freezing and un-freezing to explain how change happens. We can imagine the Algebra 1 team frozen in their tried and true method of factoring that they had learned as students and always taught as teachers. Sandra had an epiphany when a student who had moved to her school from another state showed her a different method. Sandra started to un-freeze because she saw the simple logic behind the method and how it might be easier for students to grasp and remember. In Lewin’s terms, she moved in her un-frozen state to a new position—in this case with respect to factoring. But what we so easily forget in our enthusiasm for a new solution is that those around us have not had the same un-freezing experience. Sandra presented the new method to a room full of icebergs and there was little discernable effect.

If Sandra is able to show the Algebra 1 teachers data indicating that an inability to factor polynomials is a root cause of D’s and F’s in Algebra 1, she may be able to use that as a “heater” to un-freeze the teachers on her team. Why? Because the teachers want their students to succeed, which in turn reflects positively on them. Presumably, student success is their reason for teaching. The problem for Sandra is that her teachers may simply see factoring as another in a long list of concepts, tools, and algorithms that some students “get” and others don’t. Presenting concrete information about the role of factoring in student success can serve to spotlight the process and draw teachers’ attention.

Sandra’s leadership challenge in un-freezing the team is a little more subtle, however. She cannot walk into a future meeting, present the data, and tell them that it proves factoring is important. She will need to help them work through the data in a manner that they voluntarily share her perspective—become un-frozen as she is—and therefore motivated to make change. Her goal is to create changed perspectives so that the teachers are more amenable to addressing the puzzle of teaching factoring more effectively.

Weisbord (2004), an intellectual descendent of Lewin’s, elaborates the problem of un-freezing and moving to a new understanding by claiming that there are four different mental states in the process of change. The figure below demonstrates his four stages.




Adapted from: Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weisbord argues that people who are content with or in denial about the present situation are very unlikely to make any changes. They have constructed a reality that suggests to them there is no reason to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Osterman and Kottkamp (2004), as I mentioned in my last post, explain how presenting data makes contentment or denial more difficult and therefore opens up individuals to considering change. Weisbord maintains that people must move out of their contentment or denial before change or improvement (what he calls renewal) can happen. There are no shortcuts, though. Confusion is a necessary stage prior to achieving renewal. Thus, anyone starting out in contentment or denial will first need to move through the stage of confusion before getting to renewal. This is a major red flag for Sandra. If she is successful in presenting data that teachers find compelling, as they un-freeze and start to move they will likely become somewhat demoralized in their confusion. This manifests with teachers in many ways that are rooted in a fear that trying something new may produce worse results for students. There is no do-over. The year rushes on and it is possible for many reasons that trying a new factoring method will generate even worse results than before, with possible long-term consequences for students. Sandra’s instructional leadership ability will be greatly tested if she is successful in moving her teachers into confusion.


Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics, Part 1: Concept, method, and reality in social sciences: Social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1, 5 – 41.

Osterman, K., & Kottkam, R. (2004). Reflective practice for educators: Professional development to improve student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited: Dignity, meaning, and community in the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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