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Theories of Change


This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

This Foundational Concept provides brief overviews of four theories of change. These are: (1) the Concerns-based Adoption Model (CBAM), (2) Improvement Science, (3) Kotter’s Model of Change, and (4) Lewin’s Three-stage Change Model. It also points to another Foundational Concept that presents a fifth theory of change, Implementation Science.

Concerns-based Adoption Model (CBAM)

The human element is critical to the success of an initiative for change. People respond to change differently because they look at it from their own perspectives and in view of their own prior experiences. They also implement changes (e.g., the use of new tools, practices, and resources) differently. Responding to these insights about how people experience change, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin Research & Development Center for Teacher Education developed the Concerns-based Adoption Model (CBAM) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The model offers a conceptual framework that helps reformers navigate the human element as they work to implement new education programs and practices (Hall & Hord, 2015).

CBAM gives education leaders several strategies for implementing change in consideration of the concerns of school personnel. Uncovering these concerns helps leaders provide better support to those working on the front lines of reform, ultimately making the success of new initiatives more likely.

Three key ideas support this work: Innovation Configurations, Stages of Concern, and Levels of Use. Innovation Configurations give staff a roadmap to successful program implementation by presenting a model of what fully realized execution looks like. Attention to Stages of Concern helps leaders directly support staff depending on their readiness for change. Levels of Use measures allow leaders to determine how thoroughly staff members engage with a new practice or initiative.

Together, these three key ideas from CBAM enable change leaders to chart how staff members are engaging with change initiatives. Using these tools, leaders can better support their staff members and develop ways to help promote more effective implementation. The diagram below illustrates the interconnectedness of CBAM’s components.

The Three Key Idea in The Concerns-Based Adoption Model

The Three Key Idea in The Concerns-Based Adoption Model

Source: Adapted from American Institutes for Research (2015)


Implementation Science

This approach, which shares some key ideas with Improvement Science is described in its own Foundational Concept.


Improvement Science

Many education reform initiatives regularly fail to produce lasting improvements. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching argues that such reforms are often not flexible enough to work across the variable contexts comprising the U.S. education landscape. This lack of flexibility makes it difficult to scale up improvement efforts. To address the issue, the Carnegie Foundation draws on lessons from the fields of industry and healthcare. Their model—Improvement Science—applies a scientific approach to the problems of educational improvement. It focuses on the complex nature of education systems and, in particular, their variability across contexts.

Improvement Science relies on disciplined inquiry and self-study carried out through Networked Improvement Communities (NICs). This system of disciplined inquiry involves rigorous measurement and data analysis. These practices enable those engaged in the improvement process to study their efforts while they are ongoing. Such self-study is done through iterative Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles (see the diagram below). Going through these cycles and making small changes based on feedback, enable improvers to adapt improvement initiatives to the local context and avoid large-scale failures. This approach helps interventions that are grounded in research and evidence to be more responsive (and therefore more likely to succeed) than one-size-fits-all types of reform.

Under many reform models, the identification of evidence-based practices and determinations about how to implement them come from researchers. The expectation is that practitioners will carry out what researchers prescribe. Improvement Science, in contrast, bridges the research-practice divide by locating improvement work within a community of practitioners. With this model, educators become improvement researchers. As researchers, they evaluate implementation as it occurs deciding what works within their own context, and what doesn’t. These practitioner-researchers join others (at other sites) in a network of improvers called a NIC. A NIC fosters cross-context learning, thus accelerating the improvement process. One school or district can learn from the experiences of another school or district and avoid their mistakes. A NIC enables research and development (R&D) work to be carried out across multiple contexts, thus making the work of scaling up easier. Diverse settings are more likely to provide answers to the many questions and problems that arise during implementation. Improvement Science adheres to six principles, listed below.

Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle

Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle

Source: Adapted from Grunow (2015)

  1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.
  2. Focus on variation in performance.
  3. See the system that produces the current outcomes.
  4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.
  5. Use disciplined inquiry to drive improvement.
  6. Accelerate learning through networked communities. (Bryk et al., 2015, pp. 172-3)

Improvement Science also bears some similarity to another new reform strategy: Collective impact. Collective impact holds that large-scale reform is not possible with the efforts of individuals alone. Such reform requires collaboration between many individuals and groups across different sectors.

Kotter’s Model of Change

Organizations require both stability and change. Stability permits day-to-day management and predictable outcomes, while the flexibility to change enables an organization to adapt to constantly evolving circumstances. But, change requires agility, and most organizations with traditional management structures aren’t agile. Agility is important, however, because it enables organizations to make the most of the opportunities available to them while also dodging threats. John Kotter, a prominent expert on leadership and change, offers a research-based solution to this dilemma. His theory of change shows how organizations support change through a different structure than the one they use to promote continuity.

Kotter is an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and a cofounder of Kotter International. He began his career researching leadership and organizational change and, based on this work, developed a model to guide organizations through the change process. His eight-step model first appeared with the publication of Leading Change in 1996 and over the next 20 years was developed and expanded, especially in the 2012 Harvard Business Review article “Accelerate!” and the 2014 book of the same title.

According to Kotter, change requires an accelerating process through which a guiding coalition of change agents identifies a clear focus for change and sponsors the change among a widening group of colleagues. To mobilize the effort, the guiding coalition looks for what Kotter calls “a big opportunity.” This opportunity becomes the central challenge that an expanding organizational network seeks to address. The box below lists the eight steps in Kotter’s most recent version of the model.

  1. Create a sense of urgency around a big opportunity.
  2. Build and evolve a guiding coalition.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers.
  6. Generate (and celebrate) short-term wins.
  7. Sustain acceleration.
  8. Institute change. (Kotter, 2014, pp. 27-34)

Lewin’s Three-stage Change Model

Kurt Lewin was an influential social psychologist during the first half of the 20th century. His work pioneered many new concepts, especially those related to group dynamics and action research. In his study of groups, Lewin (1947a, 1947b) noted that human interactions are balanced and constrained by social conventions or forces. This balance amounts to the social status quo. Changing the status quo means acting in opposition to the forces that maintain it, a difficult proposition. Thus Lewin set about studying how these social forces can be changed successfully. His model, which became a classic of the field, has since been applied to organizational change—organizations are, after all, groups of people.

According to Lewin, changes often produce short-term effects but are unable alter the status quo for the long term. Lewin’s observations offer insight into how we might produce lasting change and actually shift to a new status quo. Lewin observed that permanent changes occur according to a process of “unfreezing, moving, and freezing” (1947a, p. 34). After Lewin’s death, his observations of change in groups became the foundation for the “changing as three steps” model (Cummings, Bridgman, & Brown, 2016). In this model, Lewin’s steps are often reconfigured as “unfreeze, change, and refreeze.”

The model frequently uses the metaphor of an ice cube. For example, if you want to change a cube-shaped block of ice into a cone-shaped block of ice, you must first unfreeze it to make it malleable. In order to make an organization more malleable, however, you must challenge the status quo—the organization’s underlying structures and assumptions. Successfully challenging the status quo demonstrates why it needs to change. Having convinced people of the need for change, the next step is to enact policies or interventions that take a new direction. These changes move the organization forward, allowing it to respond effectively to evident challenges. For a block of ice, this would be the work of melting it and placing it into a cone-shaped mold. As applied to organizational change, the model recognizes that change is disruptive and that time and communication are key factors for success. Finally, at the last step—refreezing—those supporting the change need to make sure it becomes institutionalized (i.e., well-entrenched and long-term). For a block of ice, refreezing is a process of solidifying. For an organization, refreezing involves internalizing the changes within the organizational structure. See the diagram below for a graphic that shows the three steps in Lewin’s model of change.

Lewin's Model

Lewin's Model