Change vs. What Worked in the Past

So, I’m at this Standards Setting meeting in Atlanta this week.  I’m working with people I’ve never met before.  As we settle into our assigned seats, we begin the small talk:

I introduce myself (since I seem to be one of the last ones to arrive).

Others at the table introduce themselves as well and before long we’ve found some common ground (many of us are in a coaching role) and start building a professional relationship.  I love this part of attending professional learning sessions at a state (and national) level.  “All of us are smarter than one of us.”  By day two of our work, you would think we worked at the same school.  Our conversations, while still mostly professional, are much more relaxed.

During one of our breaks, we begin talking about some of the teachers we work with who are “stuck in their ways.”  The question bouncing around (at least in my head) is “Why?”  Why are they so stuck?  As we talked at our table, the “reason” that seemed to dominate the conversation was one that many of us have heard before:

The teachers “reason” is that teaching this way has worked for the past “y” years so why should I change now?

Our conversation then takes an interesting turn.  A “what if” turn.

What if Apple thought the same way.  How would our world be different?  Would we still have iPads, iPhones, Apple TV, etc.?  It’s unlikely.  We’d probably have something that looks like this:

First Apple Computer

because what worked in the past should be good enough now, right?

What if Ford Motor Company thought the same way.  How would our driving experience be the same?  I doubt we’d have radios, or even seat belts.   Our new ride may look like this:

1910Ford-T

because what worked in the past should be good enough.

What if we wanted cataract surgery?  How would that look, if the surgeons of today had the same attitude about what works best?  Did you know that cataract surgery goes back to ancient Egypt?  Would you rather have Lasik or have a surgeon come at you with one of these?

Ancient Eye Surgery

If the only thing keeping you from changing is because it’s the way you’ve always done it, then it can’t be the best.  We’ve been growing and changing the way we do things because we are always searching for the most efficient way, or the more cost-effective way, or the safer way, or the way that will improve our lives.  Have we done that for students.  Is the way you’re teaching mathematics what’s best for your students?  Is your pedagogy guided by what’s proven through research or just what you’ve done for years?

Our conversation ended abruptly because we had to get back to work on standards, but as I met and reconnected with others at the workshop, this same conversation came up multiple times.  My thoughts on this are below, but I hope others chime in here with their own thoughts on this.

Steven Leinwand wrote something several years ago that I think relates well to this.  What he wrote was (and I’m totally butchering this, I’m sure) that we shouldn’t expect more than 10% growth/change per teacher per year.  On the flip side of that, he also said that teachers should strive for more than 10% growth/change per year.

This is something I’ve really tried to work on in my coaching role with teachers.  When learning something that seems daunting to a new or veteran teacher (moving toward a standards-based, student-centered approach to teaching mathematics for example), I suggest teachers choose one thing, one piece of what we’ve discussed that they think they can become really good at over several months, rather than trying to make everything fit at once.

Letting teachers know they are not expected to become experts all at once is great, but following through is even more important.  Without constructive feedback, teachers will likely fall back to their comfortable habits.  Just like teachers need to really listen to students, coaches need to listen to teachers.  We need to model what we expect.

If we don’t, we may end up with this 20 years from now:

5 comments

  1. This is so true! I’m dealing with that big time now as we’ve adopted a new curriculum. Whereas I’m trying to see how and if it fits with my beliefs on math, others hate it because it’s different and bears the “Common Core” name. I love you analogy. I’m going to try to keep that in mind when I want to fight off change.

    1. Thanks Christy! It really all boils down to best practice. It doesn’t matter what the curriculum is or what the standards are. As long as we’re using our best practice and continuing to grow professionally, I think everyone wins – especially the students! Oh, I just read an article from Educational Leadership: Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse from March 2006. While it’s not exactly what my post was about, it does have some great ideas for leaders to build positive professional relationships. It was really very powerful. Thanks again for your comments, and stay strong fighting the good fight!

  2. I love the analogy as well. The quote from Steven really hit home for me. When my work is done this year, if teachers at my school have changed 10% I should consider it success? Wow…

  3. I completely relate to your post. You have put it in very clear terms and I am including you and Graham and Jenise…among others in my “Math Leaders to Learn From” discussion with Math Education students! Thanks for all that you (ALL) do to support teachers..We NEED you!

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