Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Developmental Redesigns: Making Change a Reality

Whether you're redesigning your traditional developmental math curriculum, developing an emporium, or trying a pathways model (MLCS, Quantway, Statway, Statpath, etc.), the goal is change.  Real change that is successful and lasting.  And that's not easy to come by.  I'm in my fifth year of redesign that is lasting.  It's not easy.  Change never is.  But along the way, I've noticed some things that set apart successful redesigns from those that fizzle.

1.  Successful redesigns hinge on good follow-through.

I cannot stress this tip enough.  Many schools and especially administrators get very fixated on a new idea and grants to support them.  New ideas are great and energizing, but the newness will wear off.  What's left is work, and that's not the fun part.  Grant funding will not keep the momentum going, but people can.  It's just like a person who loses a large amount of weight or runs a marathon:  what sets them apart with their success is that they started and kept going.  When things got boring or hard, they kept going.  And both boredom and struggles are unavoidable with redesign.  This leads to the second aspect:

2.  Disagreement is unavoidable.  How it is dealt with makes the difference in success or failure.

This is a difficult one to stomach.  I really struggled with this on a personal level.  It's very hard to work well with colleagues for years and suddenly be on the opposite side from them.  We've weathered the storm at my school, but it was no small feat to do so.  When you upset the apple cart, people will notice and they will voice discontent.  Change can be very uncomfortable.  Because even though a system is unsuccessful, there is something innately comforting in the familiar.  As humans, we crave consistency and fear the unknown.  I've often said that I like being a guinea pig and am happy to try anything, even if it fails.  Many faculty do not echo this mantra.  And that's ok.  You can fall into groupthink quite quickly if no one gives a dissenting opinion.  You need a variety of perspectives to have the pragmatism that's necessary to make logistics work.  However, some instructors are very opposed to trying new things for fear they will fail.  The outcome of failure always comes with risk.  But so can success.

So those very nice and well meaning colleagues can become barriers.  What is hard is what remains unspoken.  Often it's not only the fear of failure that causes instructors to object to a redesign.  It can also be the unwillingness to write new materials or tests or the anxiety of having to learn how to use a new computer system.  These concerns are rarely voiced, but they often sit at the root of inertia.  To overcome these issues, it's important to make change as easy as possible with as many support structures as possible for faculty.  Make master courses in MyMathLab that instructors can copy.  Offer multiple training sessions.  Show tools like testbanks and other instructor resources available with your text.  Create materials that reduce faculty workload during the change process.  These ideas won't always solve every problem, but they will reduce many.  And above all, create some process to assess and improve all implemented changes.  If instructors know that things will change if a policy or course is not working, they will often be less anxious.  I said often, "nothing is set in stone."  And I kept my word.  We still meet as a task force and tweak policies and courses.  The process of improvement never really ends.

The other alternative is to pursue departmental peace at all costs.  That's attainable but change will not come with it. 

3.  Real change comes from doing some really different.

We had hoped, like many schools, that if we just did X or Y that success would come our way.  Like trying out an attendance policy or using online homework.  And the reality is it's not enough.  It's akin to saying, "I want to lose weight so I'm going to try eating one salad a month."  It's certainly not going to hurt you, but it's not going to make a dent in the problem.  When our redesign really took off in terms of pass rates and outcomes was when we instituted our 8 week modules and required MML across the board in addition to the changes in place like standardized policies, adjunct training, and new placement procedures.  The modules were very hard to create and implement but they made a real difference because they were really different.

Likewise, MLCS takes work to throw in the mix because it's a true change.  It has to be approved at a school and possibly a state.  But more than that, it takes a mindset shift from "developmental math is algebraic manipulation" to "developmental math is about preparing students for the courses they will take."  Not everyone buys into this philosophy.  That's why I believe in adding pathways courses into the traditional slate of courses, instead of replacing them.  If you've got a school that is totally on board with replacing your traditional courses, have at it.  But most aren't.  Again, a lot of very nice and well meaning instructors cannot part with the idea of factoring, adding rational expressions, and rationalizing denominators before taking a college level course.  It's a large change that not everyone supports.  Instead of forcing pathways on students or instructors, allow them to be an option.  If they become the favored option, they'll grow and the number of traditional course offerings will naturally shrink.  But that would be a natural consequence to what people in your school want.  So it can work.  Forced change is sometimes necessary, but all changes cannot be forced. 

Basically, it comes down to how much do you want things to get better?  Are you willing to experience some discomfort and disagreement?  Are you willing to try new things even if they aren't guaranteed to work straight out of the gate?  Are you willing to learn new content or a new system?  If you are, you can see true improvement and growth.  It won't come day 1 and it won't be easy, but it can happen.  The alternative is assured:  continue working in a system that does not work.  As Robert Kennedy said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."

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