Inciting Grassroots Change

Inciting Grassroots Change

Shannon Chance
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch063
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In higher education, policies and strategic plans often achieve fewer positive outcomes than their makers intend. Motivating teachers to innovate is remarkably difficult. Pleas issued by accreditation agencies and professional organizations, asking teachers to implement pedagogies that develop transferrable skills like collaboration and self-directed learning among engineering students, have gone largely unaddressed. To help leaders achieve change, this chapter analyzes one case that accrued positive results. It studies how change unfolded at a postsecondary institution in Ireland and discusses factors that enabled learning on the part of individuals, small groups, and their college. In this case, a grassroots effort by teachers was matched by institutional support that, although poorly understood by the teachers, built their capacity and set the stage for change.
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Achieving meaningful and lasting change within an educational organization requires that diverse constituent groups engage and buy into the transformation. Often, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) implement policies with the intention of influencing how learning and teaching will occur. Such policies are generally not as effective as their authors intend. Affecting the values and behaviors of teaching staff presents a challenge, and leaders must generally provide vision, policies, resources, and moral support to achieve change. As the results of this case study suggest, however, projecting too strong a sense of ownership from the top may actually deter individuals at ‘the bottom’ of the institutional hierarchy from participating—at least in a decentralized institution like the one under analysis. Sparking enthusiasm of grassroots champions and equipping them to help inspire and motivate their colleagues is crucial. Grassroots initiative that is matched by top-down support offers the best chances for successful transformation; having a clear and identifiable champion at the top may not be as important as having clear and identifiable champions at the bottom of the power pyramid.

The empirical study that provides a foundation for this chapter investigated the transformation of one academic program. In the transformation, teachers sought to implement student-centered teaching and assessment practices. The empirical study investigated “organizational culture,” which Birnbaum (1988) described as “a powerful way of looking at how people in institutions create social reality through their interactions and interpretations” (p. 72). The study was conducted in an engineering college in one post-secondary institution in Ireland. It illustrates that crystallizing a sense of ownership at the ground level is crucial to successful change. There, grassroots change by a small group of individuals working together provided inspiration for transformation at the program and college levels. Seeing and talking with other people who were implementing change was a crucial aspect of deciding to change themselves. Leaders in the college apparently sensed this and helped shine the spotlight on their progress. The grassroots change process involved researching, creating, debating, testing, and sharing new pedagogies and then institutionalizing them into the program curriculum. Today, changes this small group pioneered help form the basis for a new common core for all engineering majors at the institution.

Members of this small group perceived the shift in course and program design as something of their own making. They saw themselves as part of a larger group of colleagues working together to improve the learning environment for their students. They were encouraged to address specific apprehensions and barriers to change by receiving constant messages of support from one particular member of the group—who they say “evangelized” for the use of innovative methods. Participants in this study got engaged because they wanted students to work in groups. They want to provide fair assessment and timely, relevant feedback to students. They enjoyed each other’s company and determined to work together to address specific doubts that were keeping them from implementing the ‘best practices’ they had studied and discussed.

In the process, a skilled mentor who had implemented similar changes (in a different subject area but within the same institution) guided them. However, because there was no visible proponent of the cause at the top of the organizational chart, they saw this change as their own. This perception may hold a key for other leaders who hope to foster similar change, particularly in institutions with weak hierarchy and a strong sense of collegiality (Birnbaum, 1988). Rather than focus on projecting a strong sense of ownership from the top, academic leaders may be well advised to share the spotlight—carefully creating a grassroots culture of change around issues and values they aim to spread.

Although the faculty members saw the transformation as grassroots, the growth of knowledge and skills that enabled it resulted from policies, affirmative messages, and support mechanisms provided over a decade by the administration. Support included professional development workshops and seminars, teaching fellowships and awards, newsletters and publications, speeches, and new degree programs in “learning and teaching.” For the case study, interviews were conducted with eight key players who implemented change at the program level. These individuals said they would have liked more support and a clearer vision. Yet a number of them were motivated to participate because they felt the change was their own.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Higher Education Institution (HEI): This is the term used in Europe to designate organizations providing higher, postsecondary, tertiary, and/or third-level education.

Organizational Culture: A “way of looking at how people in institutions create social reality through their interactions and interpretations” ( Birnbaum, 1988 , p. 72).

Organizational learning: “An organizational entity learns if, through its processing of information, the range of its potential behaviors is changed” and “more organizational learning occurs if any of its units acquires knowledge that it recognizes as potentially useful to the organization” ( Huber, 1991 , p. 126).

Problem-Based Learning (PBL): PBL assignments typically present challenging, open-ended, and ill-defined problems for students to address, typically in groups. Emphasis is on teaching students effective processes for collaboration, decision-making, and self-directed learning.

Collegiality: Three important aspects of collegiality are having the right and ability to participate in institutional affairs, being part of “a congenial and sympathetic company of scholars in which friendships, good conversation, and mutual aid can flourish,” and a sense of equality and worth among various disciplines ( Bowen & Schuster, 1986 , p. 55).

Student-centered Learning: As opposed to focusing on content and how it is delivered (i.e., traditional teaching-focused approaches to education), student-centered approaches focus on achieving outcomes and developing new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors within each student.

Servant Leader: A leader who sees his or her primary role as helping others.

Phenomenographic: A type of research that uses interviews to study the experiences of individuals and identify patterns. During analysis, the researchers distill a set of categories that encompasses all aspects of the experience described by research participants. Emphasis is on creating as much difference as possible between categories but simultaneously identifying all aspects that are crucial to understanding the participants’ lived experiences.

Phenomenology: The study of human experience from a first-person point of view. Researchers typically conduct interviews with people who have experienced the phenomenon under investigation. They ask questions that are open-ended and non-directive in order to understand as much as possible about the raw experience, rather than what the individual thought about the experience.

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