Saturday, January 30, 2010

Random Thoughts on "Teacher Beliefs"

I have some thoughts on the professional development activity that Heartland consultants did yesterday. As I mentioned, I feel that when a staff collectively explores what their beliefs of education are, this is a much better time than what a majority of our professional development is spent doing. It not only leads to powerful conversations, but educators leave PD with a renewed sense of passion and vision. Which is probably 180 degrees from where they usually leave PD.

Julie Hukee, a Heartland mathematics consultant who led the session, mentioned this during the session:

When it comes to a teacher's beliefs and a teacher's actions, which changes first? Can you change your actions without changing your beliefs first, or must you go the other way around? And, how does that impact schools?

Think about that. Let's say your school is in a rut. Not bad per se. In fact, overall they are doing a more than adequate job. But the district is not moving anywhere; they're content to do things the way they've always been. After all, it has worked in the past.

This isn't the exception. This is the norm. And leaders at the state level look at this and say "We need to move these schools to provide a 21st century education". And thus, the Iowa Core is born.

But--and here's the real question--can those statewide leaders be confident that the Core will actually change schools? For, what if educators don't actually change their beliefs? What if they treat it like the other initiatives du jour that have been handed down? Will there be any true change in actions?

The obvious answer is no. Teachers must change their beliefs about education. A mandate by itself might have some temporary change in action, but it will fade if there is no accompanying change in beliefs.

So, the solution is obvious, right? Change the teacher's beliefs first, and then their actions will change. Not so fast, says Todd Whitaker. In his What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most, he says effective principals know locking heads over beliefs is counter-productive. Effective principals acknowledge that there might be disagreement over beliefs, but there will be an expectation with actions. Or in other words, "You don't have to agree with the policy, but you do need to abide by it".

I'm torn on this... I actually think Whitaker's right. Trying to change beliefs first is pollyanish. It isn't going to happen. But as Whitaker points out, with positive leadership and reinforcement, a teacher who changes actions often times does change beliefs. And even if they don't, the school as a whole doesn't suffer when the teacher performs the right actions, albeit grudgingly. I think a large percentage of schools' inertia comes from leaders trying to change beliefs first and getting nowhere... perhaps as large as the percentage from leaders not trying to move the school anywhere.

Unfortunately, I'm not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. That's why I like this activity. It creates a safe place to really explore a teacher's beliefs, to bring them out into the open and see what others are thinking, without being directly evaluative of a teacher's teaching. I'm trying to think of another way to truly change teacher's beliefs, and I'm drawing a blank.

There unfortunately was one nagging thought for me, though, and it only became more and more apparent as the data from the 43 consultants in the room came back. To me, for most questions, the answers were obvious. And it was as obvious to the other consultants as well. And yet, we didn't agree. The variance was huge.

So, if I sequestered all the statewide leaders behind the formulation of the Iowa Core into a room, gave them the paired statements, and said "According to the Iowa Core..." for each, do you think there would be agreement?

And, this is why teachers are frustrated.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Professional Development Opportunity: Teacher Beliefs

We had an excellent professional development opportunity today at Heartland, stemming around research conducted by Vicki Snider, a professor from UW-Eau Claire, working in conjunction with the Janesville Community School District. The research article, entitled Teachers' Beliefs About Pedagogy and Related Issues, uses a constructed instrument with phrases posed as diametrical opposites, and asked educators to rank their beliefs. I've placed a few of the paired statements below.

A couple of quick points. First, undoubtedly you will look at some of the paired statements and conclude they aren't true opposites. Also, as a few consultants mentioned this morning, there is some use of some charged words in the survey ("How can you be against authentic learning"). I can admit those up front with the understanding that it is difficult to create a well-worded pair, and those two quick points don't necessarily invalidate the discussion that takes place afterwards. Overall, Snider's instrument is well worth a district's time.

We conducted the activity using classroom response system clickers so we could analyze the data immediately, and I'd recommend a district or a building to do the same. After a quick introduction of the study (and how clickers work, if necessary), explain the scale that is used (a modified Likert-type scale). Then post the questions and have each teacher respond via the clicker.

Once you have worked through the questions, have teachers discuss the results that they found. If you would like, you can provide the dataset from Janesville for comparison sake.

The paired statements, by themselves, can generate very quality conversation, but there are a couple of other takeaways from the process of this discussion that I find interesting. I'll touch on those in another post.

Here are some of the paired statements:
The concept of learning style has little relevance for deciding how and what to teach vs. Individual learning styles should be an important factor in deciding how and what to teach

The best way to ensure success for all students is to provide authentic learning experiences vs. The best way to ensure success for all students is to teach critical skills and concepts directly and systematically.

Small class size in the early grades is the primary factor leading to higher academic achievement vs. Small class size in the early grades is not the primary factor leading to higher academic achievement

Accuracy and fluency in basic skills and factual knowledge form the foundation for conceptual understanding and critical thinking vs. Conceptual understanding and critical thinking should be emphasized even when students lack proficiency in basic skills or factual knowledge.

A great teacher cares about students and makes learning fun and interesting vs. A great teacher cares about students and produces high student achievement outcomes.

Ability grouping is inequitable and destructive to motivation vs. Ability grouping is necessary to foster success and motivation.

There is a best way to teach that will be effective with most students vs. There is no best way to teach all students; an eclectic or balanced approach to instruction is best.

Teachers should facilitate learning, rather than teach directly vs. Teachers should teach directly, rather than just facilitate.

Factors (e.g., home life, dyslexia) can prevent children from becoming functionally literate and mathematically competent, regardless of the school’s best efforts vs. All children (excluding those with severe disabilities) can become functionally literate and mathematically competent.

Instruction should start with teacher modeling and guided practice followed by practice and review vs. Instruction should be organized around meaningful activities and projects.

Experience is more important than education and training for becoming an effective teacher vs. Education and training is more important than experience for becoming an effective teacher.

Following a prescriptive curriculum stifles teacher creativity and reduces student motivation vs. Following a prescriptive, but well-designed, curriculum provides the best opportunity for effective instruction.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Your legislator needs a letter

If you didn't read this article in yesterday's Register, take a moment to do so. It forecasts a major shift in Iowa's educational structure.

You can see why legislators are considering this, as AEAs, without their direct contact with students, looks like the natural choice to save money. Same way a district looks to administrators, central office staff, and custodians when cutting to meet their budget. But, those same legislators could also understand that cutting their own clerical support is not going to make for a more efficient legislature.

Obviously, as one who earns their paycheck from an AEA, I'm distraught about this. Certainly, that's not to say that AEA employees would be losing their jobs, but "re-organization" is the time to lop off programs and services while becoming more streamlined, regardless of the gentle language that is coming out in the article.

So, the question is what will we lose in order to save this money? Will it just be the "extra layers of bureaucracy" that is referred to--the administrative jobs that can be magically eliminated without a loss in services? Do those even exist (and why haven't AEAs eliminated those already, then)?

Or will it be cuts in curriculum consulting? Professional development? Assessment services?

And, the second question is will districts see that saved money? Especially now that they will have to hire to handle those services internally? Or will it be absorbed by the state budget?

Will this new, spider-shaped organization, be efficient enough to keep Iowa's schools moving forward? Do we have any other spider-shaped initiatives going on right now, and how would we rate their efficiency?

Erik Helland is right, the devil is in the details.