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Use Design Thinking to Mitigate Bias and Resistance to Change

Yesterday, I had the chance to visit with my undergraduate advisor from Northwestern, Professor Michael Roloff.  We chatted about a number of topics, but one point has kept me thinking all night. In his organizational communications course, Roloff now challenges his students to consider multiple threats to change. Beyond the overt resistors, he asks his students to think about the latent ones -- the passive-aggressive individuals who may seem to agree on the outside (or at least be complicit) but then refuse to budge. Leaders may believe that their new direction has been received because of a lack of outward rejection; however, while these latent resistors may not voice their opposition to the leadership, they do express their disdain and distrust for change with their colleagues and peers.

As Roloff spoke, I thought about the amount of latent resistance that occurs in schools and asked what strategies he suggested for addressing it. "You can't." He told me. "It's latent."

However, I do remember my days in his classes and realized that if I kept listening, then something would trigger a new set of ideas. A while later, he mentioned the issue of projection bias and that is when I circled back around to a possible solution: opportunity to learn.

Given the assumption that learning is based on past experience (Ertmer & Newby, 1983), and that new knowledge cannot be created without foundational mental models based on those experiences (Gee, 2008), then maybe the solution to latent resistance is creating non-threatening opportunities to learn. In an earlier post, I wrote about using the Extraordinaires game as a means to teach design thinking and to create these new opportunities.  Few teachers have aliens, giants, or mermaids as part of their curriculum, so working with these characters removes threats to their teaching and also reduces concerns about failure. However, even more important, working with the Extraordinaires really forces participants to engage in empathy. Which brings me back to Roloff's point about bias.  According to Liedtka (2014), engaging in empathy mitigates cognitive bias which could reduce latent resistance.

In her article, Liedtka (2014) describes three forms of cognitive bias that may have a significant impact on schools and their ability to implement change.  First, she describes projection bias. This occurs when a teacher, administrator, or even a student uses their prior experiences to imagine the future.  In situating their thinking within their perceptions of the past, they ultimately limit their ability to develop new ideas or objectively assess new opportunities. Within the context of schools, we often hear about "change overload" or "implementation fatigue." Individuals project that "no one else" wants to take on one more thing.  These sentiments could be further attributed to an egocentric empathy gap.  This form of bias causes individuals to assume that others hold the exact same views and perspectives as themselves (Liedtka, 2014).  Finally, the hypothesis confirmation bias causes individuals to seek out ideas or explanations that align to the views which they already hold (Liedtka, 2014).  

While it is one thing to acknowledge that these biases may thwart efforts at implementing change within the context of school, it is a different challenge to actually do something about it. As Roloff said, it is difficult to address something latent. And yet, as I think about what leads to resistance to change - especially with technology - perhaps bias plays a significant role.  Maybe previous efforts with technology had failed in some way, leaving teachers reluctant to try again.  Maybe they assumed that "everyone else felt the same way" about this initiative, so they just gave up trying to make any changes or learn the technology. Finally, despite the presence of change-agents and early adopters, maybe educators seal themselves into insular teams and then collaborate in their resistance to change.  Hypothesis confirmation bias essentially freezes them in place.

Coming back to Roloff's point that latent resistance cannot be directly addressed, maybe the challenge lies in creating the opportunity to learn before the resistance occurs. Over the past few weeks, I have used the Extraordinaires in professional development workshops to create new opportunities before addressing any ideas of change. Participants have the chance to engage in a new kind of learning and reflect on the experiences in a non-threatening way before considering how to apply it in their classroom practice. While I recognize that this game does not apply to all contexts, perhaps leaders would do well to create similar non-threatening conditions for learning before introducing new initiatives. Maybe then, the resistance can be mitigated before it even forms.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1937-8327.1993.tb00605.x

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural Perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. A. Moss, D. C. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. H. Haertel, & L. J. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn. Cambridge.

Liedtka, J. (2014). Perspective: Linking design thinking with innovation outcomes through cognitive bias reduction. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 32(6), 925-938. doi:10.1111/jpim.12163

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