Ten Pieces of the PD Puzzle: (Part 5) The Likelihood of Success Via Likely Followers

In our last piece, we talked about the value of starting a change initiative by going “all in” to support our Willing Starters. Without them, nothing starts (at least not willingly). But without the next group, the Likely Followers, nothing continues.

Likely Followers may be harder to identify than almost any other group. There are several reasons for this, but let’s just all agree for now that human beings are complex and that those of us who display different tendencies may be a little harder to figure out than others.

So it is with Likely Followers. Which is, by the way, why I use the word “likely” with this group. Nothing’s for sure here. These folks are just more likely than others to be part of the next group to take up the current change.

To give you an idea of how complex this can be, let me tell you a few things about my own complex feelings about change.

Why I’m Not the Willing Starter People Think I Am

I’ve been an educational software developer, education consultant, and small business entrepreneur for almost 30 years. From that you might conclude that I’m a Willing Starter with regard to technology in general, to ed tech in particular, and especially to the newest teaching practices.

But I’m not. Not at all. Especially the technology part.

I’m a Likely Follower on teaching practice. Specifically, I follow known practice or, in the absence of known practice, I follow scientific research on learning — research that is sometimes 100 years old. I’m especially fond of longitudinal studies and meta-studies because of the extra degree of confirmation they offer.

I’m not comfortable (nor do I feel qualified) conducting research experiments on children, especially very young ones. So I’m inclined to follow master classroom practitioners with good track records. I’m also attracted to high-quality research (or, as I’ll discuss below, proven models).

Once I see that something works, I’m ready to dive in. I’ll even expand upon what I’m doing by applying my creativity to develop new and related practice. (That’s the fun part for me! But even this is not truly starting in my estimation; to me, it’s another way of following.)

I’m a Deliberate Decision-Maker on my personal and professional use of technology. My wife thinks it’s hilarious that I’m afraid of installing system upgrades. But I am.

I new buy new technology when it first comes out. You’ve never seen me waiting in line at an Apple store for the next iPhone, and you never will. But I did just get my 5th iPhone: the 7s—four months after its release and only after the operating system was revved a second time.

I always run two or three OS versions behind on virtually every device I have. (I have not updated my new iPhone since I got it.) Why? Because I have a lot of work to do and I need a strong guarantee of stable system versions and application compatibility on a variety of devices to maximize my productivity.

Like most Deliberate Decision-Makers, I will easily forego the latest whiz-bang capabilities on the bleeding edge of tech for less powerful but more stable tools.

This is exactly how Deliberate Decision-Makers feel about their teaching. Even when they know that what they’re doing probably doesn’t work as well as it could, they’d sooner choose the Devil they know than the Devil they don’t. I’m that way about my use of technology—and I’ve been a tech entrepreneur and product documentation specialist.

Here’s a tip when working with Deliberate Decision-Makers: For Deliberate Decision-Makers, their perception of the potential “pain” change has to exceed the known “pain” of dealing with things the way they are. Want to help a Deliberate Decision-Maker, take the time to understand their pain points — and to help them see how the change you’re working toward is the key to reducing that pain.

Finally, and this surprises people the most, I’m definitely a Principled Non-Participant on the use of educational technology with students, especially primary age kids.

This does not mean I am against education technology. As a technologist and software developer, it fascinates me. I follow it closely.

But in reading the research, observing in classrooms, and using quite a lot of it in my work, (not to mention developing some of it, too) I haven’t found anything that helps kids learn as well as working with good teachers — and some technologies, like e-book readers, have unintended negative effects, especially with prolonged use.

This should give you a key insight into how to deal with Non-Participants. Once you know the principle I’m holding onto (my belief in the inherent superiority in teaching of human beings over machines), you can concentrate on helping me change by showing me how a particular piece of technology might help kids learn dramatically more if I used it. But if you you can’t do that, good luck getting me to change.

As a Likely Follower in the area of teaching practice, as soon as my principle is addressed, I no longer have any reason to be a Non-Participant.

Start Me Up

Obviously, there’s something in my personality that‘s about starting things. But how does that get expressed in my work in education? Where, in all of this, am I a Willing Starter?

I love bringing proven models of problem-solving from other disciplines over into education when I see that the same problems need solving. That’s where I’m more than happy to go first. Keep in mind, however, that I’m “starting” by following a proven model. The starting here is about applying it in a new context.

This is where I’ve had my biggest wins, the ones that just aren’t possible doing any variation of the same things we’ve always done in education. What pushes me to be a starter here is the potential for extraordinary results that have never been achieved with educational methods.

I am definitely a Willing Starter when it comes to interdisciplinary knowledge transfer. For example, the set of pieces I’m writing here is based on the work of social scientist, Everett Rogers, in an academic area he created based on his theory of the Diffusion of Innovations.

The Rogers model I’m using here has nothing specifically to do with school improvement or teaching growth or better academic achievement. And yet, when applied to professional development, it accomplishes all of these things far more effectively than anything I know of in education.

I’ve had great success with Rogers’ works because I’m applying it in its context as a theory of organizational change. All I’m doing, really, is thinking of a school as an organization. That means I’m free to drop many of the traditions associated with “school” that typically hinder positive change.

The fact that Rogers started his work in 1952 as a theory about why Midwestern farmers adopted new types of seeds for growing better corn is interesting, but it doesn’t stop me from drawing the connection between farmers growing crops and teachers growing kids.

The original cross-grade, cross-curricular writing strategies I created are based on concepts from computer programming, information theory, and linguistics.

Since 2011, I’ve been out in front on Lean and Agile Schools, the application of Lean and Agile product development practices to teaching and learning.

I’m the co-developer with software specialist, Amr Elsamadisy, of a form school culture change called The Culture Engine.

I’ve also been successful in fusing the science of human performance assessment and the psychology of human motivation together into a an original approach to grading that has produced unusually positive results in classrooms all over the world.

I’m a Willing Starter in the application of interdisciplinary ideas. When I take something from the technology sector, the social sciences, organizational development, or psychology I’m working with things that have been proven — often for many decades by many different people. That’s exactly the proof someone like me — someone who is a Likely Follower at heart—needs to move forward.

So What?

Why did I just tell you all that about myself? Because I wanted you to see how complex it can be to identify people in groups outside of the Willing Starters, who identify themselves by volunteering to start.

The Willing Starters may represent just 10%-15% of our school, perhaps even less. We can’t run a successful change initiative on that. That’s why it’s crucial to pull in the Likely Followers.

To do this, however, we have to know who they are.

As I hope I’ve shown with my examples, a person who seems like a Likely Follower in one area of his or her work may not be a Likely Follower when it comes to changing other parts.

The Talk

No, I’m not referring to an uncomfortable conversation with a teacher behind a closed office door. I’m referring to the kinds of things Likely Followers are likely to say, to us and to others, when the subject of new practice comes up:

  • “I’m eager to learn!”
  • “If someone will show me how, I’ll give it a try.”
  • “I’m excited about the possibilities.”
  • “I think this will be good for our students.”
  • “This looks like it could be helpful.”

Are those idealized statements? Sure. But they represent things Likely Followers have said in my presence and, more to the point, when I observe the behaviors of Likely Followers, it’s as if their actions speak in terms similar to these.

The Walk

We gain a deeper understanding of our Likely Followers by looking for people with certain traits, behaviors, and attitudes that separate them from Willing Starters and Deliberate Decision-Makers.

In general, Likely Followers are:

  • Optimistic. Followers are willing to attempt new practices as long as they are shown how because they tend to be “glass half full” people. If they feel they have support from others who have been successful, they’ll suspend just enough of their disbelief to give something new a shot. Having observed a leader or received equivalent training, they will take it upon themselves to try new things and to report their experiences back to the people who are helping them. The key learning here is this: As soon as Likely Followers decide to follow, we have to make sure we’re providing 100% of the support they need to be successful. Sounds daunting, I know, especially if we’ve got a large school on our hands. Remember, however, that we’ve distributed our leadership role to the Willing Starters. Once they’ve validated the change, it’s in their best interest to have more people adopt it, too. Many folks like this in education are, of course, natural teachers. They like teaching other teachers as much as they like teaching kids. So they do most of the work here — and they’re usually thrilled to do it.
  • Trusting. Likely Followers tend to trust the opinions of leaders and other recognized authorities about new practices. Given reasonable explanations and examples, Likely Followers tend to accept the judgments and conclusions of the people they’re listening to and take appropriate action to align their practice accordingly.
  • Supportive. Likely Followers support the implementation of new practices as long as they know that leaders and Willing Starters support them personally and without reservation. This is yet another reason to go “all in” on our Willing Starters first. If we weren’t “all in” for our Willing Starters, our Likely Followers may not trust us enough to feel comfortable following. Likely Followers are also eager for their leaders to break new ground; they appreciate the progress their leaders make; and they sincerely appreciate the help their leaders give them.
  • Open. Likely Followers are enthusiastic about receiving coaching and other support from leaders. They don’t shy away from feedback. They do their best to apply actionable feedback and to follow the models leaders provide. They don’t hide in the shadows.
  • Curious. Likely Followers seek out information about new practices that leaders are behind and that Willing Starters are implementing. They ask good questions, and they don’t stop asking until they’re clear about the knowledge they need to begin implementing new practices successfully.

A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION: We should never treat this like a rubric, or a checklist, or a profile. If we do, we risk locking ourselves into a limited view. This can only lead to prejudice and poor decisions. We can, however, use it to get a sense for who our Likely Followers are likely to be.

All lists like these are reductive. All human beings are infinitely complex. As the poet, Walt Whitman wrote: “I am vast; I contain multitudes.” Respect differences, invite surprises, be curious, and express to people a sincere interest in learning about who they are.

The Trick

Fortunately, we don’t have to go it alone. In fact, we shouldn’t. At this point, we want to begin distributing our leadership of a new change initiative to others, specifically to our Willing Starters.

Virtually every Willing Starter I’ve worked with has a colleague or two who, while perhaps not quite as adventurous, has a deep respect for and trust of their less risk-averse friends.

Our goal is to leverage these relationships by asking Willing Starters to identify Likely Followers for us.

At the beginning of the change initiative, when the Willing Starters volunteer, one requirement is that as they begin to achieve success, they begin sharing this information with their two or three closest colleagues, the people over whom they have the most influence.

That’s the key with Likely Followers: they need to feel the influence of someone they respect — especially someone just like them.

Do’s and Don’ts

We must never use any form of coercion or manipulation here. If we do, we risk losing all of our Likely Followers at once — thus ending our change initiative immediately.

Well-intentioned influence, in all its forms (the simpler and more transparent the better) is the key. This is something we all do naturally. The best way to influence people about trying something new in school is probably going to be just like way we do this outside of school.

For example, if we read a book and we think our friends would like it, too, we probably mention that, right? If we find a great place to go to dinner, we probably tell a few folks, don’t we? If we find a piece of technology that makes our lives better, we share that, too, right? This is the kind of influence I’m talking about.

Influencing others is a natural human behavior. In fact, there’s good evidence that we can’t not do this because we all crave the validation of watching someone else do something we’ve done based on our recommendation.

Now I’ll Try to Influence You

I don’t know if you respect or trust me enough yet to be influenced by me or not. But I’m gonna give it a try as I wind up this piece.

I want to influence you to identify and develop your Likely Followers. I want you to boost the percentage of successful practitioners to about 30% — just above critical mass. This is the crucial point in the adoption curve where change can move forward by itself, or at least with far less leadership effort.

While our Likely Followers will be the hardest group to identify, the work it takes to identify them is well worth the effort for several reasons:

  • Sustained success is impossible without Likely Followers.
  • Once we find them, and put our Willing Starters in charge of supporting them, we will have successfully distributed the leadership completely for a particular change.
  • The behavior of Deliberate Decision-Makers and Principled Non-Participants depends almost entirely on how well Likely Followers do.
  • Our Willing Starters need a bit of a break from leading the charge; a new group of enthusiastic practitioners following right behind is the perfect thing to keep them feeling good and growing.
  • We’ll get to know a part of our staff that few school leaders ever get to know well. These are often the “nice people who never cause trouble”, the people who are reliable in their work without calling attention to themselves, the people we never really pay that much attention to because we don’t think we need to pay attention to them and they don’t call attention to themselves. But we have to pay attention to them because they are, in some sense, the linchpins of any successful, sustainable change.
  • By finding them, and helping them get started, we make an incredibly important point: none of us has to be a “SuperTeacher” to switch successfully to better practices.

Even though our Likely Followers don’t appear to be as important as our Willing Starters, they are ultimately more important in the long run.

We can find Willing Starters in every part of our life. But it’s the finishers following up from behind who typically are the key to getting the job done.

Because of their willingness to follow, Likely Followers tend to be strong and consistent finishers as long as the people who go before them stick with them to the finish. Willing Starters sometimes aren’t great finishers, but they do much better in this regard when they work with others — especially followers to whom they feel some direct some responsibility.

Ultimately, persistence is one of the fundamental traits of successful leaders and successful communities of all kinds. Working well with our Likely Followers, then, is one of the fundamental skills of successful school leadership because they, more than any other group, embody persistence in the context of change.


Next Up

We’ve covered a lot of ground and we’re half way home. Take a well-deserved break and pick up the trail after you’ve had some time to digest what we’ve talked about so far. These first five pieces of the PD puzzle are more than enough to improve your odds of success. If you’re a Willing Starter, get started!


Get to Know Me!

I’m the Founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consultancy providing professional development in literacy, assessment, and student engagement.

I’ve written many books over the last 30 years. I like to think I’m always getting a little better, so my favorite is my latest: Be a Better Writer. This book has been a lot of fun. Through it, I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people. It feels good, too, to have won 7 or 8 awards for it now, including a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award and a YALSA nomination from the American Library Association that I’m really proud of.

Since 1995, I’ve worked in hundreds of schools, with thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of students. My teaching ideas are used in over 120 countries. More than two million teachers have downloaded materials from my website.

I’ve written over a thousand articles on education and related topics. My short-form writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Psychology Today,Edutopia, Getting Smart, Education Post, and a number of other publications.

I’m also an education technology expert. I started with music education product development in 1987 when I worked on the first release of the Finale Music Publishing System. I also created the the Petrucci PostScript music font for Finale’s initial release. A few years later, I started my own small educational software company, again with a music emphasis. Our first product, Music Mentor, won a few awards, got a few good reviews, and eventually helped us to an acquisition by our publisher, Midisoft Corporation. Here’s a fun video with neat musical score based on Midisoft’s Recording Studio product that I contributed to.

Most recently I worked for 18 months as a Product Owner on the Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Infrastructure project, an enterprise reference platform for Student Longitudinal Data Systems. I also published the first article on the use of Agile methodologies in education for InfoQ in June of 2011. My ed tech work now is in product development consulting and helping schools and districts use technology more effectively for teaching and learning.

I’m very excited this year to be expanding my practice globally through Skype video teaching and coaching sessions. I never thought I’d like teaching online, but I do. I’m also connecting with educators state-by-state and internationally through several Facebook teacher support groups I’ve created.

I also produce and curate educational content in my education newsletter, and on Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest .

If you want to get a sense of what my life was like way back in college, check out this album of Country Western novelty songs from my old band The Twangbabies.

You can contact me at stevepeha@ttms.org. I’d love to hear from you. Seriously. I’ve just started a new publishing company and most of what I do is write all day. It’s great work, but it’s lonely work, and I’m always happy when someone gives me a good excuse to take a break.