The Process of Change and Curricular Innovation

by Ofra Inbar

 Introduction

Change is too often falsely perceived by individuals and organizations as a fairly simplistic phenomenon. This is a comfortable, sometimes useful, yet extremely deceiving notion.  (Everad and Morris, 1990). The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the intricacy and multidimensionality of change with special reference to curricular innovation. Awareness of the complexity and inherent problems involved in instituting change may assist language teaching professionals to better manage the transition involved in  curriculum implementation,  and allow for reflection on personal reactions and feelings towards the proposed change.
 

Background

The English teaching profession in Israel is about to embark on an adventurous journey of change - the implementation of a New Standards Curriculum. This change is received with mixed feelings among the teaching population: on the one hand, consent in general as to the nature of the document and the need for innovation, and on the other, a combination of  hesitant reservation and perturbation. Teachers at all levels are asking their colleagues, their superiors and themselves vital questions, some of which convey anxiety, doubt and uncertainty as to the nature of the change about to occur. Teachers’ queries range from questioning certain aspects in the document which they find obscure, confusing and unfeasible, to the effect the change may have on their workload, and last but not least, on their professional competence.

We, on the curriculum writing committee, have likewise experienced similar feelings during the course of numerous meetings held over the past three and a half years. We have also continuously asked ourselves some very tough and perplexing questions, to which we did not always have sufficient answers. Breaking away from former curricula formats and accepting a novel perspective, leaving behind familiar territory and venturing towards the unknown was and is often very disturbing. Yet I believe that our feelings of doubt, and sometimes even despair, have largely been replaced by a sense of achievement and satisfaction and a feeling that yes, we can do it--there may still be some obstacles ahead but we can already see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Change As a Process

Going through change, be it curriculum or other, is seldom an easy matter. It is often a strenuous and draining experience; yet, at the same time,  challenging and  rewarding.  Since innovation lies at the heart of educational development it is essential that the teachers who are about to undergo a change process are introduced to some of the assumptions underlying the notion of change, in order to consider their ramifications to their personal and professional lives. (Markee.1997). 

Change can be perceived in different ways: a rather simplistic view relates to change in terms of the object of change, i.e. the new curriculum, the new technique or textbook.  Innovation, according to this approach, is perceived as being confined to a restricted time span.  Such a limited perspective, however, deliberates on neither the need for change nor on the factors which may interact with the intended innovation, and consequently can not anticipate nor account for all the intricacies and difficulties involved in implementing change.

Contrary to the formerly described approach,  current literature on educational change describes it as a process rather than as a one-time event: The introduction of the new curriculum on a set date, for instance, cannot be referred to as THE change or innovation affecting the English teaching community, but rather as the process which occurred prior to and subsequent to the event. Thus, Hargeaves (1994) describes change as a phenomenon which includes “the practices and procedures, the rules and relationships, the sociological and psychological mechanism” of the involved parties which will “shape the destiny of any change, whatever its content”, and will “lead it to prosper or falter.”  (p. 9). Hence, change is perceived from a broad perspective which relates to the pertinent behavioral transformation required of the participants involved, in order to accommodate themselves to the proposed innovation. Consequently change entails a slow process of immense complexity, one which engages the participants’ emotions as well as their intellect, and which questions norms and modes of behavior of individuals and the organizations within which they operate. 

Identifying the Impetus for Change

The nature of the planned change and the factors which may determine its success or failure to permeate the system depend to a great extent on the impetus for change. Motivation to initiate innovation may have emanated from a variety of sources, some top-down, e.g. high ranking government officials; others bottom-up, e.g. interested parties at the school and community level.  In the case of the introduction of a new English Curriculum,  the call for change at top-down levels may have emerged from diverse government bodies, including the Ministry of Education, who could have expressed concern at the ability of Israelis to reach a sufficient level in the English language so as to meet the challenges of the next millennium. Universities may have exerted pressure for change due to academic demands. The Chief or local English inspectors may have likewise expressed desires for change based on their familiarity with current educational and language acquisition theories, as well as with the needs of the local student population.

On the bottom-up level, schools may have put forth a plea to implement an innovative approach to language teaching congruent with the approach utilized for teaching other school subjects. Moves initiated by bottom up stakeholders towards changing the English curriculum may also include efforts by parents who regard mastery of the English language crucial for purposes of social mobility, and may thus push for early exposure. Students may have also argued that the present standards of the matriculation are unsuitable for their future needs. And, of course, teachers may have felt the need for change and innovation due to an apparent lack of compatibility between teaching programs and/or materials, students’ needs and classroom realities, or discontentment with methods imposed on the system for a variety of reasons. 

The impetus for change can often be located in a number of sites simultaneously, for seldom do any of the above described initiatives operate in isolation. Such, I believe, was the case in the resolution to introduce a new curriculum for the teaching of English in Israel, whereby forces at different levels contributed to the decision-making process. Interaction between top-down and bottom-up forces in the implementation of innovation has in fact been found to be one of the factors which contributes to the potential success of the change process. ( Hargreave, 1994)

Planning for Change

Once the change has been initiated, it evolves into a plan which will be introduced to the system. It is worthwhile noting at this stage that even meticulous planning of the change process does not guarantee smooth implementation. This is due to the fact that innovation does not follow an orderly course of events since it never operates in a vacuum. (Everad and Morris, 1990; Hargreave, 1994). On the contrary - it is fraught with contextual variables, some of which can not be foreseen, making the management of change an immensely “messy” multi-faceted and chaotic process. (Markee, 1997).

Curricular innovation cannot therefore be launched without consideration of the local context, especially the prevailing practices, beliefs and expectations of the English teachers, the agents of change. This assumption is certainly reflected in the approach followed by EFL professionals in Israel who are engaged in the implementation of the new curriculum in both pre- and in-service frameworks. It is also in accord with current research findings as to the paramount significance of teachers’ Background, Assumptions and Knowledge  (BAK) in the teaching process. (Woods, 1996). Following such an approach implies allocating time for sessions in which individuals describe  personal influential background factors and share and discuss their beliefs and  assumptions. These personal “teachers’ stories” will in turn be associated with, and critically compared and contrasted with, the newly introduced notions, thus creating a meaningful learning experience for the parties involved.

Innovation is disruptive for it poses a threat to key meanings, relationships, our status and view of ourselves, our habits and routines. (Everard and Morris, 1990). This may result in feelings of bereavement over loss of the familiar and known which is left behind to start anew. In terms of the Standards Curriculum, feelings of loss and helplessness may occur in a number of instances. Consider the veteran English teacher, proficient in and accustomed to the teaching of grammar structures in the progression spelled out in the 1988 English curriculum. Sudden change of both the conceptualization of grammar teaching and the lack of dictated sequencing are bound to cause uncertainty, as are new unfamiliar terms such as “standards” and “benchmarks”. The approach is domain rather than skill-oriented, and requires knowledge in the assessment arena. Areas of expertise not explicitly mentioned in the previous document, such as appreciation of language and culture, need to be mastered. Emphasis is placed on teacher autonomy, on independent planning and decision-making for many of the components are not specified and left to the teacher’s discretion. Such freedom is liberating yet intimidating. Former feelings of confidence, positive self-image and esteem may now be endangered as part of the change. Hence individual or group resistance is often a natural reaction to the change proposed. 

Resistance may take different forms. It may be expressed by total passivity on the part of the teacher, relying on the inertia of other parties, presupposing that the innovative spirit will disappear soon enough, as it has often times before. Another common resistance strategy is accentuating the negative, emphasizing the impracticality of the new curriculum and its adverse repercussions.  The teacher may also question the very legitimacy of the change, arguing in favor of the previous curriculum and state of affairs and  against the proposed futile disruption of the system.

Conclusion:  How to Facilitating Change

What steps can be taken to ease the process of change and make the transition less painful? First and foremost, refraining from an underestimation of the complexity of the process practitioners at all levels are experiencing, and recognizing the legitimacy of the feelings delineated above. Second, building on the invaluable previous knowledge that teachers have, and using that knowledge to embrace the new knowledge; realizing that many of the changes outlined in the new curriculum have been taking place for the last few years, initiated by either top-down or bottom-up forces, or both interactively. Issues such as starting age, heterogeneity of learners and the need to cater to it, awareness of different learning styles and alternative assessment have been part of our reality as English teachers for quite a while, and have demanded our attention and expertise. This recently acquired knowledge along with the previous experience, wisdom and insight gained throughout the teacher’s career, will now serve as a solid basis for further professional development. 
Finally, since the management of innovation is so very disruptive and convoluted, teachers must be provided with ample time to comprehend, discuss, doubt, question, and express anxiety and frustration. Such a process will hopefully be accompanied by an integration of the essence of the document with the personal background, assumptions and knowledge of each one of the teachers, thus creating a sense of ownership--making the change their own.
 

Sources Cited:

  1. Everard, Bertie, and Geoffrey, Morris. 1990. Effective School Management London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.
  2. Hargreaves, Andy. 1994. Changing Teachers, Changing Times. Toronto: Oise Press.
  3. Markee, Numa. 1997. Managing Curricular Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Sarason, Seymour B.  1996. Revisiting “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change”. New York: Teachers’ College Press
  5. Woods, Devon. 1996. Teacher Cognition in Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ofra Inbar is a member of the writing committee of the new  Standards for Pupils of English Curriculum for Israeli schools. She is a lecturer in the English Department at Bet Berl College and in the School of Education at Tel-Aviv University.ofra_in@netvision.net.il