In my work as a travelling teacher trainer, in amongst the enthusiasts with welcoming smiles, I meet plenty of teachers who are being compelled to sit and listen to me. It’s not as if they are being held forcefully against their will but you can be sure, given a completely free choice, they’d be doing something else – at least to begin with. Teachers’ bullshit detectors and defence shields are strong for good reason and I’m acutely aware that, unless leaders and trainers get the messages right, much of what we’re saying will bounce off. As I’ve explored in a recent about about professional learning – Teachers can only improve themselves. But how? – unless a teacher makes a personal choice and commitment to effect a change in their practice, it just won’t happen.
Even in a long-term process with multiple sessions and opportunities for discussion and debate, it can be surprising how resistant to change some people can be. At Oldham College, we’re entering into our third year of our award-winning Teaching for Distinction programme and recently we held a session with faculty and programme leaders to discuss the next steps including how to overcome some of the barriers people have faced in moving things forward. I’ve had similar discussions at Colchester Institute where we’re just starting out on a similar programme.
Here are some thoughts based on these sessions:
Exploring objections; not suppressing them.
A major learning point from Oldham is that it pays to hear people’s objections, to explore them and possibly resolve them – rather than creating a culture where you’re either on-message or off-message. It doesn’t help if someone harbours secret objections because they’ll resist change anyway – it’s better to know. What are the objections people have to elements of a new teaching and learning programme? Common examples include:
- Seeing it as ‘change’ rather than an improvement process based on existing practice.
- The ideas seem to come from outside or seem complex and unworkable – and therefore not relevant or practical in my subjects/with my particular students.
- Long-held beliefs in other models that feel right are held onto dearly: – learning styles, teacher talk being something to minimise, the inherent value of students doing things together (even if they’d learn more on their own).
- Some strategies appear to take time and, given the volume of the curriculum, there’s no time for them in my lessons – better to plough on as before and get through it.
- My outcomes are good/good enough so why do I need to do anything different?
- First hurdle: I tried it and didn’t like it – therefore not willing to persevere and get to a point of confidence and fluency with the techniques.
Each of these things might be a genuine reflection of how a person feels and it’s important for them to be able to say so. Some are harder to resolve than others but it’s really help to know where everyone stands.
It’s vital for the starting point to be Teacher A becoming a more effective Teacher A; we begin with the people we are; the people we’ve got. Any framework of ideas has to be reconstituted in the context of the team that is going to deliver it so that it is owned by them. They are not delivering someone else’s agenda; they are delivering their own. The goal is to get evidence-informed ideas about good teaching onto that agenda.
This links to another recent post: Teachers can only improve themselves. But how?
Clarifying meaning; modelling solutions
A common difficulty is that people will hear things differently and make sense of ideas in different ways. If we’re talking about cold-calling, checking for understanding or retrieval practice, we need to invest time in making sure we’re all talking about the same things. Misinterpretations are common. For example, if I say that questioning should ‘involve all learners’ – that means they should all have time to think about their responses and be prepared to answer; it doesn’t mean the tutor must ask every single learner an individual question every time. A solution we’re finding works extremely well is when tutors model techniques during sessions – including good examples and counter-examples. It means acting out questioning techniques or getting people testing out a feedback strategy as a group, before discussing the niche issues around implementing the ideas in their own setting.
Most importantly, this process requires giving time in the structure of the CPD programme to reflection and discussion. People do not simply implement other people’s ideas. They have to have time to reframe them as their own ideas – and it pays not to cut corners here.
Clarifying purposes and goals
It’s important to relate new ideas to a model for learning so that the purpose of using that strategy is clear. This type of feedback, retrieval practice or questioning is effective because……. explained in terms of a model for learning that is agreed on as part of the overall framework. This strategy is unlikely to be effective because……… based on research or the evidence from our own institution, typically outcomes are poor.
Goals are also part of this if we’re dealing with anyone’s idea of outcomes already being ‘good enough’. It can be important to be pitching beyond the confines of simple outcomes measures, qualification success rates and so on. There is always scope for greater depth in learning and more ambitious ideas about the level of excellence we can secure as we prepare students for life or deepen their understanding in the here and now.
Creating team alignment and momentum
Without doubt, a major force is the level of alignment that can be fostered in a team. As colleagues come together in support of a wave of improvement-focused activity, they generate momentum that helps to overcome all kinds of challenges. In teams where people feel part of something that they co-own, co-drive, co-lead.. the culture supports the adoption or exploration of ideas; where people have disparate view and are often at odds with each other, that can be harder. Also, if they align in a small team against the flow of the whole organisation, that’s hugely problematic. You can’t move forward until the cultural issues are attended to.
A tiered approach can be helpful in thinking of how to manage this, depending on how many of each type of response we’re dealing with.
I’ve found that, over time, lots of public show-casing of professional learning activities can play a big part in breaking barriers down where they exist – especially if a range of legitimate and effective responses are being modelled across a range of subject areas, maximising the scope for people seeing themselves as part of the process rather than sitting outside it.
The main overarching learning has been that, unless you attend to the inevitable inherent challenges of shifting practice across a group of people, thinking through problems and finding solutions, it just doesn’t happen. However, if you do things right, with a good plan and a good spirit, you can secure significant alignment and impressively rapid change.