I have a confession to make – I can’t drive a manual car. Despite numerous efforts from friends and family, I didn’t feel the benefits were worth the effort. Why learn to do something a different way, when I could already drive effectively? This is how many teachers feel when presented with a new way of doing things as a teacher.
In this post, I’m going to look at why changing teacher behaviour can be so difficult and suggest some strategies that school leaders can use.
Are they aware that there’s a problem or that there could be improvements?
When providing professional learning, we are asking staff to change what they think about something and their behaviour. What we know about change is that for it to happen, the teacher needs to be contemplating it (Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005).
Have they been presented with the evidence that there is a need for this new theory or technique? Do they agree that there’s a problem?
Often, we can be fooled by poor proxies for learning such as student compliance (not necessarily actively learning), above average assessment scores (can hide the fact that there is a large gap between the top and bottom) and students completing work (not necessarily that it has been understood).
Start with the evidence. Present data that shows there is a problem and that change is needed in order to improve. As Viviane Robinson (2018) tells us, we need to engage them with our Theories of Action, rather than bypassing them in the decision-making process.
Do they perceive that they understand the new concept/technique?
When professional learning is provided to teachers, it will fit within their existing ideologies of what constitutes good pedagogy. This is based on their previous experiences, background knowledge as well as “their biases, expectations and explanations about how people learn” (Spillane, Reiser and Reimer, 2002). Research suggests that a teachers’ mental models may hold the key to determining whether they make significant changes in their practice or continue with business as usual (Toole, 2001).
Where does this new idea fit within their current understanding?
Often we over-assimilate and interpret new ideas within existing frameworks and so make only superficial changes to practice when much deeper changes are required (Muijs et al, 2014). People pay more attention to information that is relevant to their current schemata, and are less likely to have correctly remembered information that is inconsistent (Leithwood et al, 2004).
Ollie Lovell gives a great example of how we can over-assimilate ideas in this article on the split-attention effect.
Another cognitive bias that impacts on our perception is the Dunning-Kruger effect (where we believe we know more about something, than we do), which I have written about here.
Like when we teach our students, professional learning providers need to constantly check for understanding. Are there any misconceptions? Do they understand the essential mechanisms or are they over-assimilating the ideas?
What level of knowledge do they actually have on the concept?
Teaching is essentially a series of actions. Therefore, the only way we can know if a teacher has truly learnt something is by observing them do it. We want teachers to be able to apply their learning in the classroom by using their improved mental models to make better decisions.
As you really get into the Science of Learning, you realise how much every little aspect can be broken down. However, school leaders need to focus on making tiny shifts in practice, rather than wholesale changes to avoid cognitively overloading them.
To support this aspect, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has come up with the model – See it. Name it. Do it. This is all about making abstract concepts, clear for teachers to understand. Bambrick-Santoyo writes about going granular and “painting a picture”of the technique. This process is evident in teacher guides like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion and Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli’s Teaching Walkthrus.
👆These are some more slides from my PL session on worked examples. Knowing about over-assimilation means that we need to address common misconceptions and provide examples and non-examples.
Jim Knight in The Instructional Playbook also suggests developing One-Pagers that summarise information about a teaching strategy. Tom Sherrington and David Goodwin’s Five Ways To.. the Booklet and Jamie Clark’s One Pagers are some great examples available for free.
Is this new technique to be performed in the classroom or out of the classroom in the lesson preparation phase?
This area is easier to change due to the fact that there is less pressure for teachers to perform with fluency and not feeling like there are 30 students ready to pounce if a mistake is made.
This phase is more about changing the way they do something or how they think about it. For example, sequencing concepts in small steps requires teachers to purposefully look at every step a student needs to take in order to understand the upcoming concept to be taught. So, the change happens in how they structure the learning sequence, rather than changing their behaviour inside the classroom.
The other advantage is that school leaders can perform a gradual release of responsibility and actually be there in the “We do” phase. Leaders can provide scaffolding such as protocols to follow or a template. This can be more difficult (although not impossible) to do in the classroom.
In The Classroom
If the new technique needs to be applied in the classroom, then we need to deliberately practice it. We are aiming to develop a level of automaticity so that we can still be responsive to the reactions from our students.
The difficulty here is that if we don’t perform with a certain level of confidence and pace, our students will sense it. This is another reason why teachers need to have a strong understanding behind the theory of the new technique and have thought about it at that granular level. The stronger our mental model and plan of how it will be executed, the easier it will be to perform.
Many explicit instruction programs such as MultiLit, Spelling Mastery and Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness provide teachers with a script to follow. Naturally, this causes a lot of angst from teachers because they claim that it takes away their creativity.
However, what the script provides us with is a clear model of what to do, that has been developed by experts. It’s providing support for novice teachers and allows them to develop their fluency without having to try and remember every step that they need to take throughout the lesson. Routines and engagement norms that are consistent across grades and schools, also improves the chances of students being able to attain and retain the new learning.
Using your knowledge of where the teacher(s) at, provide the level of support that is needed. The bigger the change, the more support they will need e.g. scripts, templates and protocols. If it still an abstract concept, they will need to observe it first.
Are we asking teachers to break a habit or is it just a different way of doing things?
In his book, Habits of Success, Harry Fletcher-Wood says that, “Habits make teaching easier, but make change harder.” There is the perception that it can be harder to shift the practices of more experienced teachers. This is probably due to habits being more ingrained in what they do.
Novice teachers are usually less set in their ways (although the Dunning-Kruger effect can still get them) and potentially more adaptive. However, they will probably have less content knowledge, so teaching performance with the new technique will not necessarily be more effective, than the experienced teacher.
We could provide the best, most evidence-informed PL, but if the teacher decides it’s not for them, then there is little chance of making meaningful changes. Sustainable change will only occur if they feel a sense of autonomy.
A couple of the mechanisms from EEF’s report on Effective PD for Embed Practice are:
- Prompting action planning: It needs to include at least one of the context, frequency, duration, and intensity of the technique.
- Prompting context-specific repetition: This is where teachers are intentionally rehearsing and repeating the behaviour in the same context as it would be in the classroom.
We need to understand that breaking habits is hard and inevitably we will experience dips in performance that James Clear calls the “Valley of Latent Potential.” This is often when we give up and why observations and accountability measures can be vital.
During observations, Doug Lemov (Practice Perfect) encourages us do things like ‘shorten the feedback loop’ and ‘correct instead of critique.’ These strategies can help teachers better understand what the key mechanisms are for the technique.
Do we require students to learn a new routine?
To make changing teacher behaviour even more complex, we also have to deal with the fact that we might be needing to change student habits at the same time as teacher habits! For example, a teacher might be working on “Cold Calling”, but their students have the habit of putting their hand up when a question is asked.
We need to explicitly teach the new routines. Model what it looks like and doesn’t look like, practice it, explain why it’s important and follow up with rewards and sanctions.
The school climate and environment
Do teachers feel safe to take a chance and potentially fail?
Within evidence-informed schools, school leaders and teachers must also establish and build effectiveBrown and Greany, 2018
learning environments in which the development of evidence-informed practice can flourish.
Robinson et al, 2008 highlights the need for principals to promote and participate in the learning and model the behaviour we want to see from our teachers.
Lack of time and workload issues
One of the biggest tensions I have struggled to deal with is asking teachers to commit to their learning, when I know how hard it can be to focus after a full day teaching (as often PL sessions are provided after school).
Kraft & Papay (2014), suggest that working conditions are associated with the difference between teachers plateauing in effectiveness or improving continually. School leaders can’t just say that PL is a priority, they need to show it. We need to make time for teachers to learn, observe, collaborate and reflect on their practice.
Change in teacher beliefs and attitudes
This can be another tough take for professional learning providers, Guskey (2002) found that the change in teachers’ beliefs and attitudes often doesn’t come until after a change in student learning outcomes. So, it doesn’t matter how great the PL is that you deliver, you might still receive skepticism from teachers because they still need to see the proof that it works.
Six elements that we need to consider when trying to change teacher behaviour are:
- Awareness: Are they aware that there’s a problem or that there could be improvements? If not, we need to start with the evidence and have them agree that there’s a need for change.
- Perception: Do they perceive that they understand the new concept/technique? Where does this new idea fit within their current understanding? They may over-assimilate the idea, so we need to check for understanding and correct any misconceptions.
- Knowledge: What level of knowledge do they actually have on the concept? Need to go granular and paint a picture of the technique.
- Lesson Phase: Is this new technique to be performed in the classroom or out of the classroom in the lesson preparation phase? To support teachers, provide the appropriate level of scaffolding to aid the implementation.
- Teacher Habits: Are we asking teachers to break a habit or is it just a different way of doing things? We need to prompt action planning and practice.
- Student(s) Habits: Do we require students to learn a new routine? If so, explicitly teach the routine.
Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get Better Faster: A 90-Day Plan for Coaching New Teachers. Jossey-Bass
Brown, C., & Greany, T. (2018). The evidence-informed school system in England: Where should school leaders be focusing their efforts?. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 17(1), 115-137.
Fletcher-Wood, H. (2021) Habits of Success: Getting Every Student Learning. Routledge; 1st edition
Guskey, Thomas. (2002). Professional Development and Teacher Change. Teachers and Teaching. 8. 381-391. 10.1080/135406002100000512
Kraft MA, Papay JP. Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience. Educ Eval Policy Anal. 2014 Dec;36(4):476-500. doi: 10.3102/0162373713519496. PMID: 25866426; PMCID: PMC4392767.
Leithwood, K., Seashore, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). Review of research: How leadership influences student learning.
Muijs, D., Kyriakides, L., Van der Werf, G., Creemers, B., Timperley, H., & Earl, L. (2014). State of the art–teacher effectiveness and professional learning. School effectiveness and school improvement, 25(2), 231-256.
Prochaska, J.O. and DiClemente, C.C. (2005). The Transtheoretical Approach. Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration. (pp. 147-171) United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, USA.
Robinson, Viviane M J. (2017) Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (Corwin Impact Leadership Series). SAGE Publications
Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of educational research, 72(3), 387-431.