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Finding "New Cheese" Requires Adjustment to Change

Voice of ExperienceChange is the most difficult force educators must come to grips with. So many education mandates fail because teachers are the most important -- but often least consulted -- stakeholders in their success. Max Fischer wonders if the recently enacted No Child Left Behind Act will meet the same fate as so many mandates before it. Or, will it be the one that succeeds because it included all stakeholders for the ultimate benefit of students? Included: Seven stages to accepting change.

Max W. Fischer

Several years ago, after sharing a personal career dilemma, a colleague loaned me a delightful little book, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it is an analogy dealing with people's resistance to change. The book tells the story of four tiny characters living in and around a maze. Each character is trying to find its ultimate source of individualized contentment (or "cheese"), which has the maddening habit of unexpectedly relocating from time to time. Just like real people, some characters in Who Moved My Cheese? react better to change than others do.

Throughout the decades, public education has had to deal with many changes as it sought to be all things to all people. From the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 to its more inclusive follow-up in 1997; from the cry for attention from those lobbying for gifted students to calls for greater sensitivity to the learning styles of all student populations; from the initial proficiency tests of the early '90s to their high-stakes, pass-fail descendants; from the rise of bilingual education in some parts of the country to its demise in other regionspublic education has been a veritable vessel of change. And educators have been its sailors, clinging to the mast of best practices as we navigate the capricious waters of societal evolution.

As if things weren't chaotic enough, even our battery of best practices has been fluid. Learning centers were all the rage when I started teaching. Cooperative learning used to be called "group work." Today, differentiation is in vogue -- if it's not supplanted by standards-based instruction to accommodate proficiency testing.

I guess it's true that the only constant in education is change.


Whether change in educational institutions is externally or internally driven, reaction to that change passes through several predictable stages. In the mid 1980s, I became familiar with the work of Hall, Wallace, and Dossett at the R&D Center for Teacher Education at the University of Texas. Their idea, the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM), was based on the premise that educational change is dependent on each individual's personal perception of the change (innovation). The more the change alleviated individual concerns, the more the innovation actually became interwoven into the fiber of the institution. The CBAM identified seven stages of a teacher's adaptation to change. They are:

  • Awareness: Little concern or involvement with the innovation. (What is this?)
  • Informational: Interest in learning more details about the innovation. (How can I find out more?)
  • Personal: Concern about the demands of the innovation and uncertainty about his or her ability to meet the demands required by the change and his or her role in the change. (How will this affect me?)
  • Management: Attention to the best use of processes and tasks of the innovation and the best use of information and resources. (How can I make this work for me?)
  • Consequence: Attention to the impact of the innovation upon students within his or her influence. (How is this affecting my students?)
  • Collaboration: Coordination and cooperation with other teachers about the innovation. (How can I work more closely with others using the innovation?)
  • Refocus: Exploration of the possibilities for greater benefit from the innovation. (I have another idea along this line that would be more helpful to all.)
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The first three stages involve "self," concerns that an educator might encounter with initial exposure to a change. Overcoming those concerns, a teacher then would move toward implementing the change, monitoring its effect on students, and working with others in achieving maximum benefit from the change.

From the work of the originators of CBAM, and from my own personal experience using their questionnaires with district staff, the key to the acceptance of change lies in the Personal stage. Even if an educational innovation had been in place for years, if the personal concerns of those responsible for instituting that change were not adequately addressed, the innovation would be a hollow shell of its full potential.

In a study I did in 1986, teachers indicated that, even after ten years of mainstreaming learning disabled students into the regular classroom, they had not progressed beyond personal concerns to fully embrace the mandated change. After a decade, no sense of innovation management or collegial collaboration had emerged. Why not? At that point in time -- for financial or other undetermined reasons -- the district had not yet recognized the existence of severe behaviorally handicapped (emotionally disturbed) students as a separate entity within the district's special education umbrella. Without any acknowledgement of those students' unique needs, or training for teachers in how to deal with them, in the minds of the teachers, the high maintenance of those students was impairing the education of not only the mildly affected learning disabled students, but that of the regular ed students as well. Yes, the overall concept of mainstreaming was legally in place, but it was by no means accepted.

Educational transformation has usually proved challenging. A plethora of federal, state, and local edicts over the years has often mirrored the experience my district had with mainstreaming. Those mandates were laboriously detailed by non-educators who were oblivious to the nuances of dealing with real children in a classroom setting. District administrators, obliged to comply, worked the system to conserve precious monetary resources.

But there could be a light at the end of the tunnel -- the light leading the "No Child Left Behind" locomotive. Not since Sputnik orbited the heavens in the late 1950s has the federal government demanded such a retooling of the American educational establishment's engine.

Back in the '50s, a 50 percent national dropout rate wasn't as much of an issue as keeping up with the Soviets scientifically. Today's comparably meager 14 percent dropout rate, on the other hand, threatens to leave behind hundreds of thousands of students in a future dominated by skill-oriented vocations.

No Child Left Behind requires that teachers adjust their personal attitudes in order to maximize the effectiveness of the mandate. Like the characters who were most successful in adjusting to change in Dr. Johnson's book -- those who subsequently found their new "cheese" -- the most effective teachers are taking a proactive stance by looking for opportunities within NCLB to improve student learning.

Meanwhile, if NCLB is to succeed, district administrators and state education officials must listen to legitimate concerns from the pedagogical frontline. They must nurture staff input and allow teachers a voice in decision-making and in their own professional growth. Without that vital component, it is unlikely that most teachers will ever make it past the "Personal" stage of accepting change.

Probably no national institution has as awkward a time grappling with change as public education does. The fabric of public education is interwoven with uncountable strands representing every aspect of our society. When one strand is pulled, it causes other threads in the framework to move in opposite directions, often muting eventual change. In the pursuit of the implementation of NCLB, every adult in the equation will need to balance the quest of their own personal "cheese" with the realization that the ultimate goal is for the children to get theirs.


Hall, G.E., Wallace, R.C., Jr., & Dossett, W.A. A Developmental Conceptualization of the Adoption Process Within Educational Institutions. Austin, Texas: Research and Development Center for Teacher Education, The University of Texas, 1973.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 04/25/2003
Updated 01/31/2005