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Why we’ve got the idea of buy-in wrong in professional development

Many conversations I have with school leaders looking to improve teaching and learning run along the following lines:

“We’re trying to get teachers to use some new techniques, but want them to buy-in to these more – how can I persuade them that the strategies we’re introducing are a good idea?”

“We’ve introduced low-stakes practice as a regular feature of our professional development across the school, but are struggling to get our staff on-board with the process – how can I improve motivation and engagement in our PD?”

These often lead to attempts to do this in practice such as:

  • Providing free tea, coffee and snacks at professional development (PD) sessions.
  • Framing professional development around areas identified to be in greatest need of improvement.
  • Creating competition within staff – e.g. ‘who can do the most peer-observations this half term?’

The idea that we need to ‘convince’ people that a new idea is worth adopting feels natural – as teacher educators if we can get teachers on-board they will be more motivated to make a change to their practice, right?

I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward. In fact, I think there’s more than one problem we’re trying to solve here.

The first problem is simple: if teachers do not believe that our professional development is useful or important, anything we do in PD is unlikely to help improve their practices.

Why is this?

Attention is a pre-requisite for professional learning

If teachers do not see the benefit in a given PD session, or in making a change to their classroom practice, they are unlikely to improve, no matter what inputs, mechanisms or approaches we employ.

If teacher learning is just learning (Fletcher-Wood, 2017), then this should come as no surprise.

On a cognitive level, we think about and process new information in working memory, often by making sense of how that new information relates to our pre-existing ideas, concepts and practices. Under the right conditions this will hopefully lead to changes to long-term memory, embedding some new knowledge and/or skills.

However, just because working memory capacity is available doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used (Shell et al., 2010). If working memory is the bottleneck to learning, then attention is the gatekeeper.

Just like with students in the classroom, if staff do not attend to the new ideas and approaches we introduce in a PD session, then it should come as no surprise that a lack of teacher learning is the outcome.

So, our first problem is largely a question of orienting teachers’ attention, and attempting to communicate value.

And sure, some of our existing practices might indeed help us to do so:

  • Providing refreshments for staff as goodwill to recognise the pressures on teachers’ limited time and resources and the end of a long day can certainly help to ‘get them in the room’!
  • To direct teachers’ attention and convey the importance of new ideas, it might be useful to highlight areas of common challenge – the problems teachers are facing in the classroom – in order to catalyse some curiosity to find out about potential solutions.
  • Likewise, introducing an element of competition might stimulate an initial surge of interest and build some investment in the outcomes of a session.

However, despite these efforts, when people move beyond the initial excitement of the possibilities of a new idea, their motivation can still wane.

This is because there’s a second problem at play: how can we build teachers’ motivation to engage in effortful professional learning or changes to their practice over time?

‘How can we get more buy-in’ is the wrong question to be asking

The very concept of ‘getting buy-in’ – implying the need to persuade, cajole or encourage – is insufficient to solve our second problem.


Because external regulation is not always the best way to foster people’s motivation.

Self-determination theory suggests that people have three fundamental psychological needs that foster their levels of internal, intrinsic motivation:

The need for competence: feeling successful and capable

The need for autonomy: feelings of agency and control over your choices and decisions

The need for relatedness: feeling positively connected to those around you

Ryan and Deci, 2020

These drive the levels of effort and energy people exert in the absence of external pressures – for instance, teachers’ motivation to engage in low-stakes practice towards the end of a PD session, or, the likelihood that they will continue to think hard and work on making challenging changes to their practice following a session.

So, how can we better support teachers to sustain their engagement in our teacher development work?

How to build motivation that lasts

  1. Build competence

Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by feeling competent and successful in role. When planning PD sessions, consider highlighting existing strengths in practice and using these as jumping-off points for ‘getting even better’.

Or, consider how to secure classroom ‘wins’ for teachers to build feelings of success and competence, in turn shaping teachers’ attitudes and beliefs (Guskey, 2002).

E.g.: At the early stages of coaching one-to-one, setting easy to enact action steps that will have immediate and noticeable impacts in class can be hugely powerful in helping teachers see the usefulness of the coaching process.

  1. Build autonomy

We are most motivated to work on the things that we choose to. When planning PD sessions this might involve working with staff to feed in their views about the aspects of teaching that they want to focus on.

Or, consider framing new approaches around their purpose. Sharing the rationale for new approaches can help teachers understand and internalise choices about making changes to their practice.

This is particularly effective when focused around helping teachers achieve their individual goals and overcoming the challenges to those goals in their classrooms.

E.g.: Focus on a shared purpose such as ‘getting a better idea of pupil understanding before they work independently‘ rather than a specific formative assessment strategy, then support teachers to develop a change that suits their context..

  1. Build relatedness

Establishing an inclusive and respectful professional environment is key to building relatedness. If setting up coaching, avoid underestimating the importance of building and tending to the relationship between coach and coachee. For instance, you might support coaches to initially establish the relationship through well-planned contracting conversations.

Or, consider how to foster teachers’ connections with colleagues. Teaching is a largely individual activity, and setting up supportive structures can help to mitigate this.

E.g.: Set up teachers with ‘buddies’ to work with on their PD goals, separate from those involved in their line management or appraisal.

Caveat: The role of culture and conditions

Supporting teachers to make sustained changes to their practice is far from straightforward, and the impact of these approaches, whilst valuable, will be inextricably linked to the wider climate for professional learning.

In future posts I’ll be exploring how teacher educators can develop the culture and conditions that help teachers most benefit from their ongoing professional development.

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.

  • Fletcher-Wood H (2017, October 8) Teacher learning: it’s just learning. Improving Teaching.
  • Guskey T R (2002) Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice8(3).
  • Ryan R M and Deci E L (2020) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology61.
  • Shell D F, Brooks D W, Trainin G. et al. (2010) The Unified Learning Model: How Motivational, Cognitive, and Neurobiological Sciences Inform Best Teaching Practices. New York: Springer Science.

Thanks to Steve Farndon, Vicky Ribbons and Ryan Yung for helping to develop, challenge and refine my thinking on these ideas, in addition to the wonderful Cohort 4 of Ambition Institute’s Teacher Education Fellows.

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