Liberal Education

The Path to Pedagogical Reform in the Sciences: Engaging Mutual Adaptation and Social Movement Models of Change

About This PKAL Series

Intended to challenge the higher education community to think strategically about how best to advance the learning and success of all students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), this series of articles presents a broad array of perspectives on cutting-edge issues affecting contemporary undergraduate education in the STEM fields.

In Liberal Education and other important higher education publications, we routinely read about effective innovations that are known to promote student success: assessment; engaged, integrative, and interdisciplinary learning; collaboration and partnerships; global perspective taking; among a host of others. The fact is, however, that such innovations often remain just that—innovations, rather than common practices. We certainly do not lack ideas for improving instruction in ways that help students learn more effectively, but we do lack ideas for spreading pedagogical innovations and broadening “ownership” of them on campus. One of the dilemmas that policy makers, campus leaders, and individual faculty members often describe with chagrin is the difficulty of scaling up successful innovations. Officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, admit they are discouraged because the results of most NSF-funded projects are not disseminated beyond the target faculty or institution. The NSF has relied largely on a research and development model of innovation diffusion: a key innovation is created and tested, and then the evidence of its efficacy is distributed; ideally, others will adopt the innovation based on the information about its value (Rogers 1995). But this model has proved wanting; faculty are not adopting the effective innovations.

In higher education, we tend to think more about the content of the innovation and less (if at all) about its implementation or dissemination. In this article, I describe two fundamental problems related to this dilemma: (1) we largely ignore models about how to scale up change and, therefore, tend to rely on isolated practices that are unlikely to lead to broader dissemination; (2) those who do adopt models of scale-up often look to policy literature for guidance and, as a result, advance dated approaches that are not well aligned with the higher education system. Next, I argue that two particular models—mutual adaptation and social movement—are much more likely to lead to widespread and lasting change in higher education, and I describe the key mechanisms that help facilitate these promising approaches to scale-up.

The need for greater intentionality and thoughtfulness

The first point, about a lack of thoughtful dissemination, I will address only briefly. Campuses have adopted a handful of strategies intended to encourage the wider dissemination of successful innovations, such as offering professional development workshops or providing seed funding. These dissemination strategies can also be found in proposals to the NSF and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) for the funding of projects that are intended to achieve broader scale. While professional development and seed money can be helpful in themselves, they are not being utilized in ways that attend to the entire change process. Professional development may help a faculty member better understand the change, but it does not provide either incentive to change or ongoing support for change. Seed money may provide incentive, but faculty members may still face departmental barriers that the funding does not help them overcome. One-off solutions to dissemination and support do not help achieve systemic change and scale-up.

Second, much of the available information about scaling up innovations comes from policy research and applied subfields like international or community development (Dede 2006). If educators do adopt a change model, it may not be one with proven success in education. Within policy circles, scale-up is typically understood to involve the application of an innovation that has been proven successful in one setting to a wide range of other settings (Healy and DeStefano 1997). It is assumed that success is independent of the implementation setting, or that successful innovations can be readily applied to other contexts without modification or alteration. It is also assumed that reform begins with small pilots, which are tested and then distributed without consideration of the actors or contexts of subsequent settings. According to these traditional models of scale-up, innovation is imposed externally and represents outside influence. Through funded projects, for example, innovations can be created and tested by faculty and then distributed to various sites—with little or no investment provided for implementation at the new sites.

There are several problems with these traditional models of scale-up. Cumulative evidence has shown that they are not effective in many situations, and that they are wholly ineffective in education—particularly in the K–12 context, where many such models have been applied. Without modification or adaptation, innovations are not easily transferred to other settings. School reform efforts, for example, are much more successful when they are modified to fit the particular school setting (Datnow et al. 1998).

Moreover, researchers now recognize that scale-up is more likely to succeed if the innovation was developed organically within a school or setting, rather than created at a lab or off-site location and imposed externally. For example, Healey and Destafano (1997) have noted that teachers, parents, and students should be involved in the design, development, and implementation of innovations intended to solve problems related to their own situations. Also, traditional models of scale-up are often rooted in an understanding of innovation as static and, therefore, readily applicable to different contexts, even as circumstances change over time. Yet, scholars in the development field have come to realize that communities are dynamic, and that the beneficial changes they bring to scale need to be organic and to change with circumstances (Samoff, Sebante, and Dembele 2003).

Another problem with traditional scale-up models concerns incentive or motivation. Many efforts at educational reform ignore whether or not there is interest within the community. Generic definitions of scale do not examine motivation or the interests of particular actors, and, as Elmore (1996) has noted, efforts rooted in such definitions are unlikely to be successful. Also, scale-up works better when individuals or groups working in local settings are connected to a network of others who are also involved in similar efforts. Through such networks, innovators can support one another and help resolve issues of implementation, motivation, and ownership. Networks can also provide the leadership needed to create and sustain change in particular settings.

These problems with traditional models of scale-up are powerfully demonstrated in Elmore’s (1996) evaluation of NSF school reform and scale-up efforts over twenty years. Elmore concluded that the incentive structure in schools works against any attempt to change core activities, and that reform efforts will never reach scale so long as the model of scale continues to ignore the need to alter basic organizational structures—i.e., the implementation context. He also concluded that the problem of scale will not be solved so long as incentives remain limited and innovation is viewed as an individual trait of charismatic innovators, rather than as a normative requirement of good teaching. Good practices should be openly and publicly debated on a regular basis, and educational institutions need to build structures that promote ongoing learning. In the end, Elmore noted, we need to recognize that the issue of scale is an issue of cultural norms and incentives that cannot be fixed with simple policy shifts, grant money, or pilot-tested innovations imposed through traditional scale-up models.  

In a similar critique, Coburn (2003) demonstrated that innovations in schools usually falter because they do not achieve depth or alter the norms of teachers. Even schools that successfully implement reforms have difficulty sustaining them in the face of competing priorities, changing demands, and teacher and administrative turnover. Too often, practices change, but underlying beliefs do not. Hence, once pressures to use the new practices have lessened or disappeared, people tend to return to old habits. Bringing deep, systemic changes to scale requires a thoughtful and systemic approach—and one that addresses the critiques of traditional scale-up models.

About Project Kaleidoscope


Since its founding in 1989, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) has been a leading advocate for building and sustaining strong undergraduate programs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With an extensive network of over seven thousand faculty members and administrators at over one thousand colleges, universities, and organizations.

PKAL has developed far-reaching influence in shaping undergraduate STEM learning environments that attract and retain undergraduate students. PKAL accomplishes its work by engaging campus faculty and leaders in funded projects, national and regional meetings, community-building activities, leadership development programs, and publications that are focused on advancing what works in STEM education.

In 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and PKAL announced a partnership to align and advance the work of both organizations in fostering meaningful twenty-first-century liberal education experiences for all undergraduate students, across all disciplines. This new partnership represents a natural progression, as nearly 75 percent of campuses with PKAL community members are also AAC&U member institutions. Together, AAC&U and PKAL apply their collective expertise in undergraduate learning, assessment, leadership, and institutional change to accelerate the pace and reach of STEM transformation.

For more information, visit

Models for scaling up change in higher education

Both mutual adaptation and social movement models address all the critiques of traditional scale-up models, and they have the potential to bring marginal pedagogical innovations to scale in higher education. Mutual adaptation involves a flexible process that is negotiated between developers and educators, and its design reflects local needs while still holding true to the original nature of the innovation (Datnow et. al. 1998). Because external groups are in place to provide the infrastructure, the mutual adaptation model can make available incentives and structures to support the improved practice at a relatively early stage. One way to achieve mutual adaptation is by creating learning communities through which educators deliberate on an innovation and work together to customize it for their particular setting (Senge 1990). Mutual adaptation enables external groups to champion an idea that they regard as beneficial to student learning but that might not have many internal champions.

The social movement model of change suggests that when people across varying sites decide to embrace a reform or innovation, they form networks, deliberate and discuss the innovation, work collectively, and ultimately create rewards and institutional structures to make it part of the system (Palmer 1992). This type of process works best when the implementation must confront an entrenched status quo, despite the presence of many internal champions. As flexible, context-based models for achieving broad implementation, mutual adaptation and social movement both create ownership, respond to local cultures and structures, and foster deliberation and network creation. Leaders seeking to scale up pedagogical innovations should focus on three key components of both mutual adaptation and social movement models: (1) deliberation and discussion, (2) networks, and (3) external support and incentives. (Table 1 summarizes these three key components of mutual adaptation and social movement models, and indicates whether they respond to the critiques of traditional scale-up models.)

Studies have shown that deliberation and discussion among professionals commonly lead to authentic change. Several of these studies have also shown that one of the main reasons change does not occur is that people fundamentally do not understand either the reason for a proposed change or the content of it. Therefore, it is essential that people be given opportunities to engage in ongoing discussion within the context of a deliberative learning process that helps them understand the necessity for change. Through such discussion, underlying norms and values can be changed, and people can come to accept new ways of doing things (Senge 1990). Deliberation and discussion can be used to address many of the challenges of scale-up. Those who undergo a deliberative learning process are likely to develop a sense of ownership, for example, and ongoing discussion can foster internal motivation. Organizations are not static, and organizational cultures can differ widely. One benefit of deliberation and discussion is that their inherent flexibility allows for adaptation during the implementation process in response to the changing needs of particular organizational contexts.

Networks connect people with similar ideas and provide change agents with the information and moral support they need to help move the change process along and sustain it over time. Moreover, the incentives provided by external networks can help compensate for a lack of internal incentives and support for innovation. Isolated individuals or groups are often unable to sustain change in the face of the status quo. By relieving isolation through connection with others engaged in similar efforts, networks offer a way to overcome this challenge. And discussions within such networks can help change agents adapt their strategies to context issues as they emerge.

PKAL Chart

Networks can be created both on and off campus. In seeking to change pedagogical practices, it is especially important to link up the individuals on campus who share an interest in the new pedagogical approach. Bringing people together across campus by establishing a center related to a particular change—a center on integrated technology, for example—is a strategy common to most successful mutual adaptation and social movement processes. Alternatively, an existing center on campus—a center for teaching and learning, for example—can be used to host events that bring together individuals with similar interests. An internal campus network can serve a variety of purposes: creating a coalition to support a change effort, helping people respond to local changes by fostering awareness of changes on campus, providing incentives for change, developing a communication system for spreading information necessary to implement a change, helping sustain the change over the long term as whole sets of people are connected to the initiative, providing expertise to brainstorm problems, and supplying human resources where they are needed.

External supports and incentives help motivate and sustain change agents in the face of entropy and even negative dynamics by providing funding, awards, and recognition. Endorsements and other forms of support from government agencies, foundations, and other influential organizations—e.g., accreditors, disciplinary societies, community organizations—can facilitate change and help achieve scale.

Endorsements can also make it easier to move beyond the true believers, to reach other faculty and staff who may need additional external motivation before fully embracing change. The innovation gains legitimacy through endorsements and support. In addition, some external levers can be used to contribute directly to sustainability by incorporating the change into a larger system of accountability.

One way to provide more systemic support and incentives is to establish a dedicated intermediary organization—i.e., an organization whose singular mission is to support and advance a particular reform or innovation. Such an organization is able to dedicate the bulk of its efforts to the priorities of the change, something a campus alone may not be able to do. Although charismatic leaders do occasionally emerge to champion a change on campus, colleges have multiple priorities and typically cannot provide the leadership needed to scale up a change. A more systematic approach that leads to the broad and successful implementation of an innovation is to obtain support from an external organization that is dedicated to advancing the particular reform. Intermediary organizations can provide vision, rationale, access to networks and communities of practice, technical support, established awards, and other resources. They can also provide legitimacy and credibility to campus initiatives, enabling leaders on campus to point to a national organization that supports their innovation.

This new approach exemplified

Rather than focusing on the development, testing, and dissemination of innovations—areas of focus that are inherent in traditional scale-up models—we need greater attention to professional dialogues and networks, incentive schemes, funding and seed money, professional norms, and the infrastructure of support. This new approach is exemplified in the most recent initiative of Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), a national intermediary organization that has been dedicated since 1989 to supporting and advancing reform and innovation in undergraduate programs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this initiative, called Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning, PKAL brought together twenty-eight campuses over three years in roundtables, conferences, webinars, and conference calls in order to encourage deliberation and networking.

The campuses exchanged ideas about strategies to advance interdisciplinary learning, wrestled with and vented about barriers, grappled with developing a common language for interdisciplinarity, and shared ideas for advancing campus change. PKAL’s facilitation of deliberation enabled conversations that would not naturally occur on campuses, and it afforded time for reflection—a rarity as people get caught up in their day-to-day work. Participants in the network discovered new ideas that would not have occurred to them in isolation on their own campuses. They also borrowed guidelines for interdisciplinary hiring and curriculum committee formation. Campus teams learned to frame their work in ways that are more acceptable to faculty with a strong disciplinary background. Through participation in PKAL’s  annual leadership institute and a project-specific leadership conference, faculty explored their role as leaders and change agents on campus, and developed strategies to foster change by creating new professional norms and on-campus coalitions for change. PKAL provided external incentives and support by reviewing campus grant proposals, by communicating directly with each campus president and various senior administrators about the importance of the project and the need for administrative support, and by connecting project campuses to other PKAL initiatives, networks, and dissemination mechanisms (national publications and conferences). Through these types of interactions and activities, PKAL facilitated mutual adaptation and social movement, which is difficult for a campus to do on its own without support.

In conclusion, campus leaders should think more systemically about change—not just about which intervention to adopt—and they should look beyond their own campus structures to intermediary organizations like PKAL for support.


Coburn, C. 2003. “Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond the Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change.” Educational Researcher 32 (6): 3–12.

Datnow, A., B. McHugh, S. Stringfield, and D. Hacker. 1998. “Scaling Up the Core Knowledge Sequence.”  Education and Urban Society 30 (3): 409–32.

Dede, C. 2006. “Scaling Up: Evolving Innovations Beyond Ideal Settings to Challenging Contexts of Practice.” In Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, edited by R. K. Sawyer, 1–37. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elmore, R. 1996. “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.” Harvard Educational Journal 66 (1): 1–26.

Healy, F., and J. DeStefano. 1997. “Education Reform Support: A Framework for Scaling Up School Reform.” Paper prepared for USAID, Advancing Basic Education and Literacy Project. Raleigh, NC: Research Triangle Institute.

Palmer, P. 1992. “Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Educational Reform.” Change 24 (2): 10–17.

Rogers, E. 1995. Diffusions of Innovations. New York:  Free Press.

Samoff, J., E. Sebatane, and M. Dembele. 2003. “Scaling Up by Focusing Down: Creating Space to Expand Education Reform.” Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Association for the Development of Education Africa, Arusha, Tanzania, October.

Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Adrianna Kezar is associate professor for higher education at the University of Southern California. This article has been adapted from an earlier, longer article on the topic published in Innovative Higher Education in February 2011.

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