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Behaviour change is not the purpose of professional development

The teacher professional development space can often feel like a toybox of next big things right now.

In particular, there has been an explosion in the use of low-stakes practice (often called deliberate practice), likely in no small part to the increasing popularity of instructional coaching.

The problem is, I worry that some of these approaches are founded on a troublesome assumption.

That is: the purpose of professional development (PD) is to change teachers’ behaviours.

And I’m not convinced that this is quite right. To show you why, consider an example.

The problem in practice

  • A PD session introduces a new approach called ‘Cold Call’. This is modelled to teachers in a range of contexts, who then plan Cold Call questions, before practising delivering these to one another.
  • In the following weeks, the PD lead visits a range of classrooms. In some, teachers have not changed their questioning approaches.
  • In others, teachers are using Cold Call, though the school leader feels that it may in fact be a less suitable questioning approach than alternatives in a number of cases.
  • The school leader is concerned. Some teachers have not changed their teaching behaviours, whilst others don’t seem to be using the new approach appropriately.

It’s tempting to conclude at this stage that the problem being faced is the ‘Knowing-Doing gap’, where teachers understand a new technique in a PD session, yet fail to translate this into changes in their classroom practice (Knight et al., 2013).

The issue with this? Teacher education is unlikely to be accurately summed up by a single well-defined problem to be solved.

In fact, I’d argue that our well-meaning attempt to define the problem of teacher education simply – as the ‘Knowing-Doing gap’ – unavoidably leads to the solution of ‘low-stakes practice’ to build teachers’ fluency in new teaching techniques:

The problem: The ‘Knowing-Doing’ gap

So teacher educators should: Help make behaviour change more likely

By: Low-stakes practice to build fluency

I can’t help but feel that developing expert teachers has to be more complex than that.

Teaching expertise is more than a check-list of strategies

One of the desirable effects of PD is likely to be teachers doing something differently in their classrooms so that children learn more. But, is this simply a question of the automation of new behaviours?

Mary Kennedy argues that a ‘strategy-first’ focus poses an obstacle to teacher development:

“When we define teaching by the visible practices we see, without attending to the role these practices have in the overall lesson, [teachers] are likely to use their newly acquired practices at the wrong times, in the wrong places, or for the wrong reason.”

Kennedy, 2016

The reason for this is that expert teachers don’t think about teaching as the combination of a sequence of techniques.

Rather, they think about teaching and learning at a deeper, purpose-driven level (Berliner, 2004):

Expert teachers don’t think: “I want to do a Turn and Talk, and then a Cold Call, and then a Stretch it”

Expert teachers think: “I want to support more students to think harder about this concept. Then I want to find out what every student is thinking and reveal any hidden misconceptions”

Organising our teacher education efforts around purpose – rather than around strategies – means we can help teachers develop increasingly complex mental models about the teaching and learning process.

Such mental models inform teachers’ abilities to make judicious decisions in their classrooms about which strategies to use (or not to use!) and when, and how, to respond to the emerging events in the complex and unpredictable contexts of their classrooms (Hatano & Oura, 2003).

It’s not just an oversimplification to define the problem of teacher education as ‘behaviour change’ – it’s the wrong goal.

The problem: Equipping teachers to make judicious decisions to solve problems in their classrooms and catalyse student learning

So teacher educators should: Build teachers’ mental models

By: Organising professional development around purpose.

Notice that this is far less concrete than ‘introduce low-stakes rehearsal into PD sessions’. So how might this look in practice?

Practical implications

If our goal is to support teachers to solve problems and support student learning in their classrooms, then how new approaches are introduced, framed, and integrated into teachers’ work is the crucial detail.

  1. Start with classroom purpose. Centre this at the heart of PD rather than as a tacked-on afterthought.

By focusing on common classroom purposes, goals and challenges that reflect the needs of teachers, you shouldn’t need to persuade or try to get teachers to ‘buy-in’.

E.g.: Rather than framing a PD session around learning the ‘Cold-Call’ strategy, shift the focus to: ‘In many classrooms teachers are working and thinking far harder than pupils – how can we support more pupils to think harder for a greater proportion of the lesson?’

  1. Expose the thought processes of teacher educators.

Professional development is about more than getting teachers to replicate new techniques in class. Consider how to expose the underlying thinking that more expert teachers might do about when and how to use a given technique.

E.g.: Alongside a model of a new strategy, providing a narration of the various decision-making processes may help to build understanding of the purpose of the new approach.

  1. Ask whether you genuinely want (or need) teachers to consistently implement new teaching techniques.

If classroom purpose is situated front and centre of your PD efforts, aiming for all teachers to learn and enact the same technique might not be necessary or desirable.

E.g.: A lesson involving extended writing practice might not lend itself well to ‘Cold Call’, yet, a teacher could still generate a high ratio of pupil thought by using the alternative technique ‘Show Call’.

Note: we risk overloading teachers by introducing too many new ideas at once, so consider intentionally introducing, modelling and practising a range of complementary strategies over time.

What do you think?

How does this resonate with your experiences? Have I missed anything? There are plenty of nuances and details to dig into in future posts; let’s start a conversation and push this forwards! Find me here on Twitter or leave a comment below.

  • Berliner D (2004) Describing the Behavior and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society 24(3): 200-212.
  • Hatano G and Oura Y (2003) Commentary: Reconceptualizing School Learning Using Insight from Expertise Research. Educational Researcher 32(8): 26-29.
  • Kennedy M (2016) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 67(1): 6-17.
  • Knight B, Turner D and Dekkers J (2013) The future of the practicum: Addressing the knowing doing gap. In: Lynch DE & Yeigh T (eds) Teacher education in Australia: Investigations into programming, practicum and partnership. Tarragindi, QLD: Oxford Global Press, pp. 63-76.

Thanks to Steve Farndon, Sarah Cottingham, Ollie Lovell, Ben Karlin and Nick Rose for helping to push, challenge and refine my thinking on these ideas, in addition to the wonderful Cohort 4 of Ambition Institute’s Teacher Education Fellows.

1 thought on “Behaviour change is not the purpose of professional development”

  1. Hello Nick, great blog post. I thought you’d like to know that, at WalkThrus, we’ve been working aling these lines for a couple of years now with our Cluster Builder. And we’ve used the If >Then > So that causal structure with which to surface and clarify teacher thinking in what is, essentially, prediction (see Stanislas Dehearne on this).
    Also, we’ve been using Three-Point Communucation, a physical dynamic that is deliberately side-by-side with two people sharing the third point (a visual: here the WalkThru), as opposed to a face-to-face conversation that tends to trigger defensive reactions to receiving feedback.
    Another point: the use of the word Schema and Knowledge, while it can, and is, defended regarding procedural knowledge, I think isn’t helpful. Better to use the earlier distinction of Script (Minsky 1975) which more readily resonates with teachers as it doesn’t have the static, content-based identification of the term Schema. Especially — and I’m the main culprit— when visualised as a web of tree-like categorisations, which is the customary structure for content, as opposed to those depicting movement.
    I hope you found this useful in some way. Let know if you’d like some examples of the WalkThru cluster builder and how Tom Sherrington in particular uses them.

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