Change Vs. Stasis: A Core Tension In Teacher Development
"This job you’re doing is so hard that one lifetime isn’t enough to master it. So every single one of you needs to accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal." - Dylan Wiliam
As teacher educators, it's important to be clear about our aims:
- Teacher change...
- ...contributing to improved student learning....
- ...that sticks.
To ensure that teachers are able to continuously improve their practice, we need to reflect on how we think about teacher development. I will make the following arguments:
- Ideas about being 'expert' or 'novice' are not particularly helpful as guides for teacher educators. Instead, we need to focus on the idea of supporting every teacher to make positive changes to their practice.
- At its heart, teaching has certain characteristics that promote stasis over change. In fact, stasis is vital for effective teaching. Understanding these characteristics - and how to mitigate them - is the essence of what it means to be a teacher educator
- Helping teachers to change is about disrupting stasis and then helping teachers to bring about a new balance. There are five important catalysts that help us do this.
Part 1: The problematic idea of expertise in teacher development
Many teacher educators - myself included - fall back on using terms like 'novice' and 'expert' when discussing how best to design teacher training. This is because we don't have better language to describe the idea that some teachers are more effective at 'causing' student learning than others. The terms are also prevalent in the literature on teacher development (Berliner, 2004; Schempp, Tan & McCullick 2002; Westerman, 1991).
It's right to say that the purpose of teacher education is bringing about teacher expertise. The terms 'novice' and 'expert', though, aren't helpful when thinking about how to design training that promotes change. Thinking about teachers as 'experts' can lead to the idea that some teachers don't need to change. That they are in some way 'finished'. This isn't true: all teachers need to get better.
Expertise is thought of as being domain specific (Berliner, 2004). A teacher can perform 'expertly' with one group of students but not with another. They can be an 'expert' at behaviour management with year 9, but a 'novice' at managing the behaviour of students in year 2. A teacher can be an 'expert' at teaching Macbeth but a 'novice' at teaching Hamlet. Expertise is not a quality that is applicable to the entirety of a teacher's practice. In fact, teacher expertise is complex and composite.
Key Idea: For teacher educators, referring to teachers as 'novice' or 'expert' obscures the reality of teaching practice. No matter how we label teachers, we need to focus on helping everyone to get better.
Part 2: Stasis in teacher development
Helping teachers to get better is difficult to do. Historically, much of what we've tried in terms of professional development has had a limited impact (CUREE, 2015; TNTP, 2015). A key reason for this is that as teachers, we need a stable, solid 'way that we do things' to function in the classroom. This is called stasis.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines stasis as: "a state of static balance or equilibrium". Stasis is the idea that the ways we think about and do our jobs - our mental models and habits - are balanced, stable and resistant to change.
Stasis is essential for teachers, or any other professionals, to function efficiently in a demanding environment. How can we deal with our difficult year 8s on a rainy Friday afternoon if we are required to deliberate over every problem that arises? We cope because the ways we think about and act in the classroom are - on the whole - a stable and balanced system.
Stasis can help us to teach more effectively by freeing up cognitive resources required for responding to unique problems. The issue is that it also acts as a barrier to improvement.
The Benefits of Stasis
The more stability we achieve in the way we do things, the less mental resource we have to deploy. Getting our 'energetic' year 9s to focus after lunch was significantly less stressful and energy-sapping the hundredth time we did it than the first.
As well as making our lives easier, stasis frees up cognitive capacity to respond to the nearly infinite previously unfamiliar situations that sometimes arise in teaching (Feldon, 2007). If I always fall back on the same method of explaining why Macbeth falls prey to the Witch's prophecy, I have more mental space free to identify and address the fact that a particular student doesn't know what a witch is.
Stasis is necessary for sustainable change: to be able to change in a manageble way, we need the majority of our practice to be stable. Only then are we able to tweak, pay attention to and practice embedding a change. If we try to change everything at once, nothing changes.
The Challenges of Stasis
While achieving stasis in our mental models and habits benefits us in terms of cognitive resource, stasis doesn't necessarily correspond with effective teaching. I'm sure all of us have experienced aspects of our practice that we are sure aren't optimal, but that we continue to use in an automatic and unconscious way in the classroom. Often we go into the classroom intending to change, and then continue along the same path.
Stasis acts as a natural barrier to continued improvement. This is because the more entrenched our habits and ways of thinking become, the harder these are to change (Wood & Neal, 2007). Equally, achieving change when our ways of doing and thinking are static have associated costs in effort and attention (Mccrea, 2020).
The Core Drivers of Stasis
1. Environmental Complexity
In the classroom, countless events happen simultaneously (Sabers, Cushing & Berliner, 1991). As human capacity for attention is limited, our ability to focus on all of these is severely constrained (Endsley, 2006).
To protect ourselves from the complexity of our environment, we are required to be selective about what we perceive and ignore. Our ways of seeing as teachers can become fixed very early in our careers (Miller, 2011) as we rapidly adapt to the challenges of the classroom. If we are habituated to ignoring aspects of the classroom it may be important to see, it can be very difficult to make a change in this area of our practice. The patterns of what we see and ignore perpetuate stasis.
A newly qualified teacher, John, is trying to determine what his students don't quite 'get' about Lady Macbeth's character transformation in Act V of Macbeth. Lots of students seemingly hold different misconceptions. A couple of students are chatting at the back, and another has got out of her seat and is wandering around. Someone is at the door wanting to make an announcement, and the projector just switched itself off. John is so focused on teaching the content in his lesson that he fails to see that a student has left her seat. If he fails to see this, he can't address it.
2. Domain Complexity
Teachers are continuously faced with problems that have multiple contextual variables and solutions (Feldon, 2007, Spiro et al., 1988). It's impossible for teachers to consider all of these every time we are faced with an issue, so having a stable and static 'way we do things' is an important short-cut to enable timely action.
Should John stop teaching to deal with the projector and the visitor? If so, what should his students do? How can he address the fact that lots of his students seemingly hold different ideas about Lady Macbeth? What should he do to address the pockets of disruptive behaviour that are bubbling up? A requirement to think in any detail about any of these issues would be paralysing.
3. Robust, Naive Mental Models
When we enter teaching, we already have a static view of what the job is and how we should go about it. This is because we've already experienced thousands of hours of teaching as students (Kennedy, 2019). On our very first day in the classroom, we already have stable but highly naive model of teaching. While we watched our teachers doing, we had no insight into their thinking.
John went to a grammar school, where his favourite teacher (English) sometimes allowed the class to talk amongst themselves while working and even while he was teaching. John has adopted this relaxed model in his own teaching, without an insight into how much work his teacher did to be able build a classroom culture where students can be trusted to keep their discussions and comments relevant.
4. The Absence of Comparison
Without guidance, many teachers believe that the current solutions to the challenges they face are optimal (Kennedy, 2016). This may be because understanding that we need to get better is a comparative process: if our mental models are static, then we have nothing to compare our classroom practice to.
John doesn't understand that ensuring the full focus of his students while he explains the central ideas of his lesson will mean that students are less likely to develop confusions. He doesn't see that allowing students to chat during independent practice can cause problems with their attention. He hasn't ever seen a teacher do things in a different way.
5. Entrenched Habits
Finally, within teaching, there are three factors which drastically increase habit formation: 1) Frequent repetitions of the same actions, 2) Time or performance pressure, and 3)Stress. All of these are endemic features of teaching (Hobbiss, Sims & Allen, 2020). Teaching is a pressure cooker of rapid habit formation: we all develop habits that aren't necessarily optimal and are hard to break. This can perpetuate teacher stasis.
During his explanations, John is in the habit of getting progressively louder and faster as he starts to sense students becoming restless. He ends up almost shouting over students. He's been doing this ever since his first week as a teacher, and has now performed this pattern of actions many hundreds of times.
Key Idea: Developmental stasis is both essential and problematic. Stasis acts as a natural barrier to improvement. There are significant pressures on teachers that promote stasis and make change very difficult.
Part 3: Bringing about teacher change
"For teachers, enacting a new idea is not a matter of simple adoption but rather a matter of figuring out whether, when, and how to incorporate that new idea into an ongoing system of practice which is already satisfactory, and may also be largely habitual" (Kennedy, 2016).
Working with teachers in a way that helps them to change their practice requires consideration of three elements:
- Stasis: Current mental models and habits relating to an aspect of practice: "This is the way I think about or do X."
- Disruption: New knowledge about an aspect of practice: "There may be a more effective way of thinking about or doing X."
- Balance: Integrating new knowledge into mental models and building new habits: "This is now the way I think about or do X."
Helping teachers to change requires disrupting the stasis of their practice, then helping them to find a new balance that integrates the change.
Each stage in the process is equally important in bringing about change that sticks. If we don't work with teachers to disrupt the stasis of their current practice, we won't initiate change. If we don't help teachers to balance their practice, then change will degrade; teachers can slip back into former patterns of thinking and doing.
Fig.1 Teacher habit change process
As teacher educators and coaches, we can better engage teachers in this process when we understand the catalysts that can create disruption and promote balance. There are (at least) five important catalysts for teacher change. In later posts, I will consider the evidence for each in detail, and the specific coaching 'moves' that relate to them.
To outline them, we will look at an example:
- John has a habit of getting progressively louder and faster as he starts to sense students whispering or talking during his explanations. He ends up almost shouting over students and fails to address the disruption.
The Five Catalysts of Change
- Develop Awareness: The rapid, accurate ability to perceive salient aspects of the classroom environment
- Set Goals: A teacher's drive and desire to bring about a change to their practice in a particular area
- Establish Steps: The strategic 'action-levers' that teachers pull in order to achieve their goals and influence the learning of students
- Develop Insights: Knowledge of important 'mechanisms' of student learning; helping teachers to re-examine familiar events in a different way
- Build Habits: Automatic behavioural responses to environmental cues.
- Awareness: Helping teachers to see what is happening in their classroom. John may be unaware that this is happening. If so, we need to direct his attention accordingly
- Goal: Helping teachers to want, focus on and stick with changing an area of their practice, above others. John may believe that his current strategy is optimal. He may feel overwhelmed by the idea of change, or by other challenges he faces
- Step: Helping to establish new mental models around more effective strategies a teacher can use. Making the change bite-sized. John may not know that using a 'self-interrupt' can be an effective method of cutting off student disruption. He may not know how he could adapt this strategy for his context
- Insight: Understanding the likely impact of current practice on student learning, and the mechanisms that potentially underpin this. John may not realise that failure to address disruption perpetuates a social norm of low accountability. He may not comprehend the importance of attention for learning
- Awareness: Perceiving the environmental cues that help identify when to use the new behaviour, or helping to design new cues where these aren't 'naturally occurring'. John will need to 'scan for' and perceive students disrupting his explanation; we may need to engineer more artificial reminders for him to change
- Goal: Committing to making the changed behaviour a lasting part of practice, including sticking with it over other goals. John may not achieve the step the first time he tries he. He may need more support or practice to enact it successfully
- Insight: Understanding the mechanism by which the change may help students to learn more effectively. John needs to know that using a self-interrupt directly confronts the behaviour in a way that has a low impact on the attention of other students, and without potential for a confrontation
- Habit: Working towards making the change into a habit so that it can be used successfully in situations of high cognitive load; linking existing cues to an improved habitual response; following up to check the change has been made. John needs to practice the change until he's unlikely to fail to perform it in the classroom.
Teachers' systems of practice are like snowflakes; you never find two that are exactly alike. Helping John to achieve lasting change may require all five change catalysts to help him create disruption and promote balance. On the other hand, a different teacher may simply require help balancing a change through replacing an entrenched habit with a more effective one.
Key idea: As teacher educators, we need to identify and use change catalysts to create disruption and promote balance in teachers' mental models and habits. Different teachers may require different catalyst combinations.
Most people probably recognise that each teacher is different, and that the terms 'novice' and 'expert' don't fully capture this. Using the terms has been a useful rule of thumb to identify ways to coach teachers. I propose the change catalysts as a more helpful and nuanced system for thinking about tailoring our approach to a teacher's need, while also simplifying the dizzying thought that each teacher may need subtly different interventions to bring about change.
Thinking about teachers as ‘novices’ or ‘experts’ obscures the nuanced challenges each teacher faces in making a change. This is why Instructional Coaching is such an important practice: coaches are in a unique position to be responsive to what individual teachers need, when they need it. We need to think about how we help coaches diagnose and deliver the change catalysts that teachers need to keep getting better.
With thanks to Arielle Boguslav and Peps Mccrea who gave valuable feedback on lots of the ideas in this post.
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