Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

Some years ago I learned that a research based, evidence informed teaching pedagogy, that would vastly improve learning outcomes for all students, was readily available for all teachers to pick up and adopt immediately. Imagine it? A road map for effective teaching had been provided and was just waiting to be utilised. If only. The unfortunate reality is that this pedagogy is still only of interest to academics and a small group of dedicated teachers. And it’s this disconnection between the research and everyday practice that interests me the most these days. That is, my focus has gradually gone from exploring the features of “best practice teaching” to exploring the beliefs and attitudes of teachers that appear to be stopping them from taking up this amazing offer. My attention has shifted from education practice to one of human psychology. I wonder if it will ever be possible to get a sufficient number of teachers on board to create a “tipping point”? If so, what will it take to make that happen?

Experience tells me that, by and large, teachers are in the business of teaching because they care. It’s a “calling”. There is immense satisfaction in having a positive impact on a child’s education during their formative years. But these days I am more inclined to think that the potential to have a positive impact on student learning is, to a large degree, being squandered. So why is it that teachers would spurn the opportunity to make a positive impact on the students they are teaching? I am not the only teacher receiving the regular memo or attending professional development courses that implore teachers to help fix an education system that is failing so many students. The only difference seems to be that, upon receiving these requests, I started a personal inquiry into how I could make this happen. And let it be known that it was personal by default, not choice.

I found out as much as I could about this ‘magical’ pedagogy. I immersed myself in the research and began to trial it in my classroom. I had to. I had no choice. I had students in my class who were bright and articulate but were unable to engage in the standard learning programme that was expected to be delivered. The only alternative would have been to exclude them from the classroom. But that would be akin to giving up on them. Our judiciary system seems to work in that way. I definitely don’t want our education system to be the same. So I chose to meet these students where they were at. But I had to change my practice in order to get them to where they needed to be. It soon became apparent that this new approach worked for them and for every other student in my classroom. I liked what it was delivering. The children liked what it was delivering. It was delivering exactly as the research said it would. By that, I mean there was significant learning growth taking place. Better still. I had become aware of it and aware of what I was doing to make that learning happen. It was at that point that I felt compelled to share this experience; this new reality.

As well as benefiting the students, it has made my life as a teacher less stressful and more satisfying. But in other ways it’s been harder. Biases are hard to recognise, let alone shift. Teachers are not immune to this reality. It’s naive to think teachers would be any different to the general populace. When I started changing my teaching practice, based on the research and the evidence that was being presented to me, I naively anticipated my achievements would be fêted. Quite the opposite was the reality. It became apparent that applying a tried and tested, yet unfamiliar pedagogy, sets you on a collision course with the prevailing forces of the “status quo”. The default setting is to “shoot the messenger”. The silence, the lack of curiosity, the absence of critical discussion can be deafening. “How dare you challenge our beliefs about teaching or about the children in my care”, can be conveyed equally effectively, in subtle and less subtle ways. But regardless of how it is conveyed, it takes a personal and professional toll. Meanwhile, this incredible pedagogy that I witness on a daily basis never strays beyond the four walls of my classroom. Not for want of trying I hasten to add.

Once again, I sought solace in Hattie’s research. He says, “the biggest collective impact on student learning (effect sizes 1.3+) happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence”. That’s the theory. As you will have noted, making that happen in reality has proven to be a significant challenge. To do so teachers would need to leave their beliefs and biases at the door. And in order to do that, they would have to be aware of the existence of those biases in the first place. Maybe Hattie is as naive as I am. Back-slapping and high-fives is evidence of a cooperative environment. This should not been confused with a collaborative environment. Rigourous, managed debate, centred around evidence of learning growth is the hallmark of collaboration. Those with the most compelling evidence are the voices that need to be encouraged to share. An environment needs to be created that allows ideas to be tested in order for the best learning outcomes for all students to be achieved. Strong, confident, informed leadership is a prerequisite. And high expectations. Likewise, a no-fail and supportive approach needs to be in place to ensure all teachers are able to participate in the journey too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our education system, like our political system, is very resistant to making any material changes. It’s called inertia. Tinkering at the edges is currently as good as it gets. Fads and fashions come and go. Compliance and process are valued ahead of innovation and achievement. But the point needs to be made that unlike politicians,  teachers are in no need to be looking for votes. Teachers are well-paid professionals. They are impartial. They owe a duty of care to offer the best outcomes for all their students and need to be prepared to be challenged. Politely and professionally. They need to be reminded that they are in fact required to deliver best learning outcomes for all. To do so will require best teaching practice. Qualities of being caring and showing good intentions need to be converted into great learning outcomes for all.

At least I no longer assume that change will come automatically, be easy or, be championed by every teacher. There is unlikely to be a safe and easy pathway. But on the positive side I do think I have uncovered the circumstances that allows for the disconnection between research and practice. Beliefs and biases – that is now the focus of my attention. Wish me luck.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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3 thoughts on “Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

  1. I agree with the idea you raise that beliefs and biases sit beneath that teachers and leaders actually ‘do’ on a daily basis. Dylan Wiliam states that it’s harder to change a teachers belief than for a golfer to change his strike in mid swing, than for teachers to change their default routine practices learnt before the age of 18. Wiliam declares that the education sector has much to learn from Weight Watchers about habits, beliefs and biases. Changing mindsets or hard wired thinking is impossibly challenging.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Janet. I think we are witnessing a challenge that underpins every problem in the world – personal to political – your Weight Watchers example is very pertinent. I have said it before but I think Hattie (and fans like myself) are a little naive to believe that the evidence will be sufficient to tip the balance against a very powerful force like habits, beliefs and biases. But does that mean we shouldn’t try??? I hope not.

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  2. Pingback: Evidence-based teaching, not disobedient teaching. | Ease Education

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