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.

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