You’ll sometimes hear it said in hushed and half-apologetic tones, mostly by policymakers, funders, or central office officials: “change is just hard for people.” Usually they are explaining why a funded program or state mandate or new idea from the superintendent’s office isn’t taking hold in classrooms. They are re-enforcing the notion that teachers, as a group, resist change. Implicit in the comment is that teachers are, at best, “old school,” and driven by years of inertia. At worst, some higher-ups believe teachers are “lazy” or “worn out.”
The research unequivocally shows that teachers enter and stay in teaching because they want “to make a difference” for their students. Regardless of whether they are novice or veteran teachers, most care deeply and personally about the young people in their charge. Most teachers are well trained, have pedagogic and content expertise, and are guided by the wisdom of their experience. Education fads and “silver bullets” have come and gone, and teachers are still standing. For the most part, they believe—in good faith—that what they’re doing works best, and they need a coherent argument and compelling evidence to change what they do. Thank goodness for that.
So what does this mean for school reform and new program implementation?
The education sector is abuzz with innovations and new ideas: tech integration, blended learning, personalized learning, problem-based learning (PBL), STEM, STEAM, and in some religious schools STREAM. Notwithstanding reformers’ inclinations to speak in oversimplified and exaggerated, bifurcated terms—“teaching today is frontal and traditional and needs to be more personalized/innovative”—there are new ideas in the field that are being introduced to teachers and schools with the necessary respect for teachers’ expertise.
The AVI CHAI Foundation has, since 2012, been making a wide variety of grants in the area of blended learning, which you can learn more about here. Our focus is on helping teachers use technology to promote personalized learning in their classrooms and assisting teachers in using systematically collected student data to drive their instruction. But this post isn’t about the advantages and risks associated with blended personalized learning. Instead, it’s about the changes we are seeing (and not seeing) in classrooms.
In many schools implementing blended learning, the most obvious observable changes are changes in classroom structures rather than changes in instructional practice. So, for example, as teachers work to implement blended personalized learning in their classrooms, we are much more likely to see success implementing the classroom design and routines necessary in the “station rotation” model than the differentiated instructional practices that foster deep learning for all students and grant students agency in their learning. Within a classroom, we’ll see students moving seamlessly from the computer station to the collaborative project station to the teacher-led small group station; however, we’ll also see the teacher employing the same pedagogic practices she would have used with a group of 20 students, except now her group has only 5 students. If, before the intervention, teachers were unable to make such moves as (a) responding to the social-emotional dynamics of the group, (b) formatively assessing students in real time and adjusting the lesson to address the incoming data, (c) designing the lesson based on clarity of instructional purposes, (d) slowing the lesson down at the right moments to give students time to productively grapple with difficult concepts, (e) scaffolding the lesson, or (f) providing corrective feedback (to name a few), she or he is unlikely to be able to make these pedagogic moves after the intervention.
The point is this: our interventions do exactly what they are designed to do. If they only focus on structures and routines, they aren’t likely to influence teaching practice much. In the cases where teachers’ practice is refined and reflective, this may not matter. But in cases where teachers need opportunities to develop and improve, most interventions will still leave them wanting and needing more.
So, how can we maximize the possibility that classroom or school interventions will lead to better teaching?
Here’s a start:
- Keep instructional improvement as the central goal, and make sure the goal is clearly understood
- Help teachers collect and analyze student data of all kinds
- Give teachers time to collaborate and work together to implement the new intervention
- Use teacher professional development time carefully and effectively
- Offer teachers access to ongoing support
- Provide ample and sustained opportunities for peer, mentor, or supervisor observation and feedback
While it’s true, as Erica Brown also pointed out in her recent EJP blogpost, that over-emphasis on “innovation” can undermine good teaching, it is also true that teachers and schools should always be exercising their innovation muscles. But they should be innovating—in both large and small ways—with the central, deliberate purpose of improving teaching and learning.
 As I write this, our nation continues to learn more about Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis, two teachers who willingly gave their lives to protect students during the tragic school shooting in Parkland, FL. Such actions by teachers, protecting students from gunfire with their own bodies or exposing themselves to fatal danger to enable students to get to safety, are not unique to this most recent school shooting. Six adults were killed in Sandy Hook. One in Columbine. And the list goes on.