Education Opinion

Contemplating the Nature of Change in Institutions of Learning

When change is imposed, it is natural to resist. The resistance is greater when the intentions aren't clear or accepted. It is a fait accompli.
Digital illustration by Vinod Nair, 2019.

Change is inevitable, yet we resist it. Not knowing what is around the bend makes us anxious. Hence, we preoccupy ourselves with the future in the hope that we are ahead, that we survive, that we capitalise, or that we stay relevant— evolve or fade.

Educational institutions shape society and are subject to these forces. These institutions need to keep constant watch on the shifting goal posts (Christensen, 2008) at the end of the field. However, in doing so, are they losing sight of the ball?

In institutions of learning in Malaysia, change is a top-down phenomenon. The leadership tends to wield influence not only in administration but also teaching and learning. Some would argue that they have a disproportionate say in the teaching and learning strategies used in modules (or courses) across the institution, despite never having taught it, or understanding the nature of the discipline, student, programme or school.

When Institutions of learning rush headlong into adopting models of learning, dragging their pliant faculties kicking and screaming in silence, the outcome is not the result of an evolved process. Rather, it is one that has been imposed on them replacing their existing approach and strategies, which have taken years to fine-tune. Change of learning modalities, technologies or innovation that come through a process of evolution rather than revolution are often more sustainable and likely to be well integrated. As much as we desire an instant fix, change of that nature may not be sustainable, and may be superficial at best.

Should institutional change be a top-down process: the vision of one individual driven by a coterie of learned supporters with a mandate instituted as their key performance index? At what point does the process become a disingenuous replication or blind adherence to a diktat rather than an embrace? The individuals required to drive change within large institutions are in an unenviable position since they are often confronted with the hard truth that wholesale change runs the risk of turning individuals into unthinking followers who acquiesce rather than truly welcome what is being asked of them.

Digital illustration by Vinod Nair, 2019.

Effective change is infectious, due to its relevance and key persons who form living examples of implementation, whom educators can identify with, derive confidence or support from so that they too can do better (Black and William, 2001). Change of this kind is intrinsically driven out of curiosity or the need to grow, even though slow, it is enduring and genuine.

Progressivists believe that progress, and change are fundamental in education and in life; the dispute, however, is in the rate, frequency and manner of change. Ambition is good, but the zeal must be tempered with a human-centred approach. Cajoling and the strong arming of educators, programmes and schools into adopting philosophies in the guise of strategy by including it as key performance indicators or other means would result in shallow implementation or its specious use.

People are different, disciplines are different, learning theories, strategies or approaches that work in one discipline may not necessarily work in another; similarly technologies and learning models that work in one discipline can’t be supplanted to another and be expected to work in the desired fashion. Educators “will not take up ideas that sound attractive, no matter how extensive the research base” (Black and William, 2001). It has to be relevant, applicable or beneficial in their eyes. Therefore the ‘blanket’ prescription of learning modalities followed with expansive and extensive training programmes and workshops will not amount to much if the educator sees no advantage in it. A lack of say or choice in the decision making process leads to disenfranchisement and an us versus them phenomena. Alas, educational businesses and leaders of educational institutions are an impatient lot. Their goals and motivations are influenced by rankings, statistics and the bottom line, and thus it would be an inefficient use of time to wait for acceptance of an idea, and impractical to decentralise decision making when seeking institution-wide coherence in policy and direction.

So what is the way forward? In a the field where the goal posts are continually shifting, the focus ought not to be on the goal but perhaps on the ball (read: learning). If all indices measuring learning effectiveness are very good to excellent, then the option to adapt should perhaps be with the educator, programme, and/or school, as opposed to the leaders of educational businesses who maybe motivated by ideas or philosophies that do not necessarily align with the effectiveness of learning at a module or programme level. Of course, this is a pipe dream, or is it? At this point in time, grouses are clear and present among educators in learning institutions, the solution on the other hand remains elusive as ever. How do we bridge the gap between the wants of the leadership of educational businesses and the needs of educators. Presently the upper hand is, as it has always been, with the leadership.

Whatever the circumstances, educators know that to resist change is futile, to acquiesce without question is a mistake, but when it comes to institutional change, the herd mentality may be a necessary skill set for the sceptics and dissenters alike. Conform or begone!



Black, P and William, D. (2001). Inside the Black Box. Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Retrieved from:

Christensen, C. M. (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change The Way The World Works. New York, NY: McGraw Hill