So-called education reformers—myself included—constantly propose new plans, programs, and policies to fix whatever supposedly ails public education.

These ideas often fall flat because teachers aren’t buying what the reformers are selling.

For any change in a school to be successful, the teachers in that school have to buy-in and execute it well.

Too often reformers forget to understand the progress that teachers are trying to make. They ignore what would motivate teachers to make changes in their classrooms and schools.

Instead, reformers just feel if they can reach the “innovators” and the “early adopters,” as the first users of a new innovation are called in Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory, then they can figure out how to “cross the chasm” and reach the early and late majority of teachers. Or school leaders and policymakers decide they can just impose the change in a top-down fashion.

But innovators and early adopters are not a personality type. They are individuals who are facing some particular struggle and then decide to change and adopt a new behavior. And compelling someone to change doesn’t mean they will do the change well.

If we can understand the struggles teachers are facing in their context, their desired outcome, and what causes them to change behavior, then we can design better solutions that teachers will want to pull into their classrooms and schools—and not be forced to adopt. That means we can likely also help far more people be an “innovator” or an “early adopter.”

In recent research, we talked to teachers who had made substantial changes in their classrooms to understand those different contexts, struggles, and desires for progress. The teachers may have adopted blended learning to personalize learning for their students, moved to project-based learning to better engage their students in deeper learning, or added technology to the classroom, for example. But in all cases, they made a significant change to how they were teaching.

As Senior Research Fellow for Education at the Christensen Institute, Tom Arnett; President of The ReWired Group and Adjunct Fellow at the Christensen Institute, Bob Moesta; and I chronicled in our recent white paper, “The Teacher’s Quest for Progress: How school leaders can motivate instructional innovation,” we found four reasons why—or what we call “Jobs to be Done” that explain why—teachers change what they are doing. The Jobs to be Done theory identifies the causal reason people make change. It goes beyond what people say they want to understanding what will actually lead them to do something different.

In many cases, we found that the teachers making changes were doing so for reasons quite similar to the motivations for why the education reformers had designed an idea in the first place.

But because reformers and school leaders haven’t taken the time to understand why teachers see something as a priority and the progress they want in their classrooms and lives with their students, they often make a school initiative coercive.

Doing so often forces teachers into one of the four Jobs we uncovered—“Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” Teachers experiencing this Job are like Cindy, one teacher we talked to. Before leaving the teaching profession to be a stay-at-home mom, Cindy had loved teaching, getting to know her students, and designing creative ways to engage them. But when she came back to teaching, she was told that she was going to have to use computers to do blended learning. As a technology neophyte, this made Cindy anxious.

Cindy stayed with blended learning because the rest of the school was doing the initiative. She wanted to show her new colleagues that she was trying. She went through the motions and had her students use the computers a few times a week. Needless to say, this is not the enthusiasm nor execution for which one would hope when implementing something new.

Better was to implement something new in a circumstance similar to Rachel’s, another teacher we talked to. Rachel’s principal asked her to be part of a county leadership team working on project-based learning, a topic about which Rachel knew nothing. But after five years of teaching 5th grade at her school, she was ready to take on a new challenge and develop a reputation with all her colleagues by contributing to the broader school, not just the students in her classroom.

Teachers in a circumstance similar to Rachel’s—ready to embrace a change because of a desire and ability to contribute to the broader school—were in what we called the “Help me lead the way in improving my school” Job. People who experience this Job are not “early adopters” because they are enthusiastic about a particular initiative or technology, but because they want to contribute to something school-wide.

The other two Jobs we uncovered were also more positive places in which to implement something new with a teacher. They were “Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable” and “Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student.” Trying to get someone in the “replace a broken instructional model” Job to do something that felt incremental or tinkering was unlikely to gain traction, but asking someone in the “Help me engage and challenge more of students” Job to do something transformational was likely a non-starter because it would feel overwhelming. And neither cared about the impact on the whole school per se.

Understanding these dynamics should help school leaders understand how to design initiatives for different teachers’ goals, as well as then position them. School leaders and reformers must develop a more nuanced understanding of what drives teachers to change—and then plan accordingly.

If we understand teachers’ circumstances, their struggles, the progress they desire, and what will make them anxious or excited, we stand a much better chance of making progress together.

That progress is, of course, likely to be halted, marked with fits and starts, and different in different places. But it would be progress, which is a lot better than what’s happened with so many of the change efforts people have tried in the past.

This post originally appeared in Forbes.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.