Change is Implicit? Or is it?

September 15, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

Does the way we think about how change occurs affect the way we think change could occur? Can we become more conscious of the assumptions that frame our vision of change? If we are more conscious of these assumptions, do we approach change differently?

Adrianna Kezar, Sean Gehrke, and Susan Elrod, in their article “Implicit Theories of Change as a Barrier to Change on College Campuses: An Examination of STEM Reform” published in The Review of Higher Education, explore these questions in their research on the changes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at 11 different college campuses in California. Through observations, interviews, training exercises, and annual meetings of 55 faculty and 22 administrators over the course of three years, the researchers both assess and seek to influence the way in which participants view change on their campus. Kezar et al. made their subjects aware of the assumptions they were holding and then examined how this awareness affected future conversations. The most prevalent implicit theories of change are that change is top-down or bottom-up, thereby ignoring the model of distributed leadership. Among the STEM participants, some believe that change requires funding (because in their fields, they associate “research” with first getting funding for projects), while some believe that data itself can convince others to enact change, and others believe that change has to occur at the departmental level. While the authors acknowledge that some of these implicit theories are based on evidence, they demonstrate that making implicit theories explicit can help push participants to think differently about solutions.

By contrasting implicit and explicit theories of change, this study raises intriguing questions about attempts to achieve change. How is the way we approach a goal or objective based on the assumptions we hold? Do we automatically think that some changes require senior leadership support? Do we automatically strategize for funding to enact changes where, perhaps, funding is not necessary? Do we look at personal and institutional change through a bent lens? Do international educators have their own implicit theories of change? How can we learn to uncover these assumptions?


Tamar Breslauer, NAFSA’s Senior Research Specialist, looks for interesting questions in the areas of global learning, internationalization and the contexts in which these exist and shares her findings through NAFSA Research Connections. To discuss the questions raised in this research and to share your reactions with others, please visit the NAFSA Research Connections discussion forum.


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