Contextualizing educational change: A reappraisal of content and context in educational change

Sijko Jan Wierenga

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

94 Downloads (Pure)


Despite our deeply rooted belief that education should be changed, the diffusion of well-intended initiatives for change within the Dutch national educational system, and even within individual schools, appears to be rather problematical. The argument, stated in the introduction and developed further in this thesis, is that this problem is caused by a neglect of both content and context. Chapter 1 substantiates this argument by analysing current academic discourse about new public management, an ideology that has influenced educational change heavily until now. This discourse can be characterized by a lack of concreteness in combination with an often missing focus on the work practices of executive professionals in organisations. A number of explanatory models within the organizational sciences, despite their – mostly – implicit use of causality, have a weak or missing link with the observable reality. As a result, these models are of limited use for predicting the success of educational change efforts. We need a rethinking of educational change. The CC approach, developed in Chapter 2, may be useful for this rethinking. It rests heavily on the work of the cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, as he states that any domain within social sciences should be naturalized by establishing connections with one or several neighbouring natural sciences. Applied to educational change – and organizational sciences in general ‒ change should be naturalized in order to establish causality, by creating connections with cognitive science. The cognitive-contextual approach to educational change, developed in this thesis, is an attempt to do so. In this thesis this approach is elaborated into an implementation test: the CC method. Preliminary versions of the CC method have been used in two case studies, undertaken in Dutch schools of secondary and vocational education. The CC approach gives both content and context an important place in educational change processes, in at least two ways. Firstly, the CC approach requires an elaboration of the abstract terms in which many change initiatives, centrally defined changes in particular, are normally described. The results are concrete prescriptions on the level of concrete teacher practices. Secondly, teachers have often developed practices that they value positively, reflecting their idiosyncratic and convenient way of dealing with the challenges of teaching. These practices are burned into a partially automatic whole of actions and reactions. As a consequence, even with their active support and cooperation it is questionable whether experienced teachers will change their work practices as long as the cognitive relevance of their current context is not decreased. In order to increase the chance of success in these cases, not only should the relevance of the change content be sufficiently high, but the relevance of current practices should be decreased deliberately and simultaneously as well. The CC approach provides an analytic framework to estimate this cognitive relevance of both change content and teachers' current workings practices. The CC approach has consequences for NPM-inspired initiatives, including in areas other than education, such as youth care and various government institutions. I would suggest that NPM reformers use the CC approach to get to grips with the complexity of both the initial situation (context) and the future situation (content). I invite NPM researchers to leave behind the world of abstractions and to embark on this fundamental return to the observable reality, in order to really improve public services.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Veenswijk, MB, Supervisor
  • Kamsteeg, FH, Co-supervisor
Award date13 Apr 2022
Place of PublicationApeldoorn
Print ISBNs9789082150117
Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2022


  • Educational change
  • Organisational change
  • Organisational Anthropology
  • Contextual approach
  • New Public Management
  • Public Value Management


Dive into the research topics of 'Contextualizing educational change: A reappraisal of content and context in educational change'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this