Are there teachers in your school who drive you bonkers because they are so out of touch with current ways of doing things or resistant to trying new things? Turns out, that is perfectly normal.
Everett Rogers “Diffusion of Innovation” theory examines how and why technology and new ideas are adopted through a social system or culture. It has been widely adopted since its original publicaiton in 1962. Rogers explores the notion of how innovations are adopted in depth. I won’t go into every detail in this post, but here are some highlights:
Rogers proposes that four main criteria influence the spread of a new idea:
Innovation – This is a new idea, practice or object, such as a new software or a piece of technology. In education, this might also mean a new methodology, a new piece of classroom hardware such as a Smartboard or a new computer program to be used in the classroom.
Communication channels – This is the way that the message about the innovation travels from one person to another. Examples would include word-of-mouth conversations, tweets or presentations at a conference.
Time – This is the length of time that a person or group needs to adopt the new technology. The “rate of adoption” is the relative speed required by members of a social group to accept and implement the new technology. According to Rogers, individuals adopt new technologies at different rates.
Social system – A group of inter-related people who engage in joint problem solving to achieve a common goal. A social system may be as large as a country, or as small as a family. Most individuals are members of more than one social system simultaneously. Your school or non-profit organization is its own social system.
Individuals within a social system can be divided into categories that describe the rate at which they adopt an innovation:
Innovators (about 2.5% of a given social system)
These are the first people to adopt a new innovation. They are risk takers and are often the youngest in the group. The are likely to be from a higher social class.
Positive traits: They are often highly social and willing to interact with other innovators.
Negative traits: Their high tolerance for risk means they may adopt technologies that may ultimately fail. They often exhibit little discretion in adopting new technologies and are easily seduced by what they perceive to be “cool”.
In a learning organization: Teacher-Innovators may dismiss their colleagues who are Laggards as being “dinosaurs” or “out of touch”. They may be more impulsive and likely to adopt new technology because it is “cool” and not necessarily because it has deep pedagogical value.
Their wisdom may be deepened by making a point to see what else the Late Majority and Laggards can offer to both students and the school in ways that do not necessarily involve technology. Asking questions such as, “What wisdom do my less techie colleagues have that I do not have?” and “How are their teaching methods effective, too?” can help Innovators understand what the Late Majority and Laggards offer as teaching professionals.
Early Adopters (about 13.5% of a social system)
Right behind the Innovators, this group has a high degree of opinion leadership. They often have higher social status and advanced education.
Positive traits: More social than late adopters. More judicious in their choices to adopt new innovation. They understand that choosing new technologies wisely will help them maintain their position of influence and leadership.
Negative traits: More political than Innovators and may use their influence or social status to impose new technologies on those who are not receptive to them. May quietly scorn Laggards while openly trying to persuade them to adopt new systems.
In a learning organization: Early Adopter Educators are those likely to be in decision-making positions regarding the adoption of new technologies in a school. Their job may require them to “roll out” new systems and develop training for others in their organization.
Their wisdom may be deepened by understanding that there is more to professional practice than innovation. They too, may benefit from identifying and celebrating the positive contributions of the Late Majority and Laggards.
Early Majority (about 34% of a social system)
These individuals are generally slower to adopt new technologies, and will do so after the Innovators and Early Adopters.
Postive traits: Above-average social status and often have close contact with Early Adopters.
Negative traits: Seldom hold positions of opinion leadership, in terms of innovation.
In a learning organization: While they may not dismiss new technologies immediately, these are the folks who will likely require training to adopt new technologies. They are likely to accept that they need to adopt new ways of doing things and are willing to go along with whatever they are told to do. They may not get overly excited about innovation, but they are also unlikely to rock the boat and protest.
This group may hold a great deal of untapped wisdom and insight, but be less willing to speak up, due to their relative lack of authority. They may have great questions burning inside them that could provide excellent points of reflection, but may not ask them. If they do ask them, their questions may be dismissed by those with more influence. An organization may benefit from giving individuals in this group more “air time” and sincerely considering their contributions to disucssions and conversations about how a proposed new technology may or may not work.
Late Majority (about 34% of a social system)
These people are slower to adopt new technologies, and often do so after the average memeber of a social group.
Postive traits: More vocal than the Early Majority and may ask questions such as, “Why are we doing this?” or “What value does this new innovation bring?”
Negative traits: Skeptical, often have a lower social status and lower financial reserves. They have very little influence. They may have social contact with the Early and Late Majority and Laggards, but may struggle to identify with the Innovators or Early Adopters.
In a learning organization: Late Majority Teachers may frustrate the Innovators or Early Adopters and be seen as “nay-sayers” or “difficult” because they are less reluctant to jump on board with a new system. They are likely to question every new technology or innovation that comes into the school and demand that their colleagues and leaders rationalize the implementation with proven research about its effectiveness.
Rather than seeing these folks as troublemakers, there can be great value in listening to their questions and sincerely considering their point of view. They provide a valuable balance to those who may charge ahead with new innovations without thinking through the long-term implications. Others can learn to deal with them more productively by seeing the balance and perspective that they bring to an organization.
By requiring them to conform, individuals in this group are more likely to become entrenched in their opinions against new technologies or systems. The more you ask these folks to change, the more resistant they are likely to become.
School leaders may be able to develop deeper social relationships and trust with this group by not insisting that they adopt every new technology. Understand the value that they bring to students and to the organization by identifying and celebrating what they do effectively by just being who they are.
Laggards (about 16% of a social system)
These folks are the last to adopt an innovation. They are likely to be more advanced in age relative to others in a social system and have lower social status in the group.
Postive traits: Upholders of tradition and due to their relative age, they may have a deep understanding of the history of what has worked and why.
Negative traits: These individuals are the most likely to resist change. They have little to no influence or opinion leadership when it comes to getting others to adopt new ways (mostly because they are the last to adopt the new technology themselves.) By the time the Laggards have adopted a new way of doing things, the rest of the group has already moved on to something new.
In a learning organization: These are the teachers and staff members who are most likely to get left behind when it comes to adopting new tech. They may lament the loss of “old ways” or technologies that are no longer used such as chalk boards or AB Dick Machines.
They may frustrate the Innovators and Early Adopters and been seen as totally out of touch with current teaching methods and technologies. What they may have to offer is historical persective and a “deep wisdom” gained not over years, but over decades.
Given the chance to share their wisdom and expertise, they have much to teach younger and sometimes more impulsive people who are in earlier stages of their careers.
A gentle and appreciative approach often works well with these people. Show them in a sincere way that that what they have to offer matters. Listen to them and make a point to include their voice in your discussions about what works and why.
Diffusion of Innovation Curve
Here’s a visual representation of the adopter categories, which is commonly referred to as the “Diffusion of Innovation curve”. It was originally published by Rogers in 1962.
Reflective Questions for School Leaders and other Educators
If you look at your department, school or non-profit organization as a “social system”, as defined by Rogers, can you identify which of your colleagues might fit into the different categories? More importantly, do you see the value in seeking the input and wisdom of all of your colleagues and what they contribute?
Now think about your organization ten years ago… The teachers may have changed, but did the same culture of having some teachers who were “all gung ho” about doing things in a new way and others who thought “the old way is just fine, thank you very much” still exist?
Ten years from now, at a time when we can not even imagine what technology might look like in schools, will you still have folks who zoom ahead of the pack and others who like a more traditional approach? Better yet, if you are an innovator today, could you ever see yourself as a Laggard twenty years down the road?
There is value in having convesations with everyone across the continuum.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. Our world has progressed tremendously in that time.
What has not changed, however, is the idea that different people adopt technologies at different rates.
Our job as educators and leaders is to value the contributions made by all of our colleagues across the profession. Ultimately, our job is to help our students learn. There are many ways to do that. Some methods include the latest innovations and other methods do not.
As Rogers showed us fifty years ago, not everyone can (or should) adopt every new technology immediately. Having the balance brings value to our organizations and our professional practice.
If the answer to the question “Am I doing the best I can as a teacher today?” is yes, then we are doing the right thing as teachers, as leaders and as mentors to our students.
Orr, G. (2003, March 18). Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers (1995) (Book review). Retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://www.stanford.edu/class/symbsys205/Diffusion%20of%20Innovations.htm
Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.