Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

Group Inertia: Where Promising Ideas Go to Die

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Blogger’s note: When I started this blog last year I was worried about being able to keep it up. As you can see, my concerns were warranted. It has been nearly 10 months since my last post. My apologies to anyone who might have been waiting for the next one. I am committed to doing better.

Two people responded to my April 27, 2014 post (though they did so to me personally, rather than by leaving a comment) with essentially the same frustration. Having read my vignette from research they wanted to know what might have been done to make the learning experience more meaningful for teachers and more impactful on student learning. In response, I’ve decided to put on my principal’s hat for a few weeks. What I am about to say may seem simplistic to some, but it represents how I think about these kinds of problems from a principal’s perspective.

I’ll begin where the story left off with an imagined dialogue between the chair of the teacher collaborative team, who I’ll name Sandra, and myself. Let’s imagine that Sandra made an appointment to see me and walks into my office:

“David, I just don’t know about our effort to work with collaborative teams. I presented my Algebra 1 team with a great new way of factoring polynomials and they just sat there with no response. Only Mary, my special education co-teacher, and myself even tried to implement the idea. No one wanted to talk about. This is just so discouraging. It feels like such a waste of time.”

I respond, “Do you want to improve the situation or disband your Algebra 1 team?” “Of course I want to improve the situation,” Sandra replies, “I really believe in the power of collaboration to improve teaching and learning.” “I do, too,” I say. “As principal, I am striving to make this a powerful lever to improve student learning and overall school performance.”

Sandra, in her eagerness, short circuited the collaborative team process by presenting a solution to a problem about which no one had thought seriously. This is a common difficulty for energetic teachers (or anyone, for that matter) who want to make a difference and are convinced they have a good idea. Short on time and strong in their passion to implement ideas that have caught their imagination, teachers and administrators often fail as advocates for their pet ideas. The result can be resignation that change will never happen, or private trial and error in one or two classrooms. My challenge as principal would be to help Sandra see that she needs a different process to bring along teachers who presently are disengaged from her team. But I cannot simply tell her what to do. I need to help her discover a new path and I need to provide the time and resources she needs to follow it.

“Sandra,” I begin, “What is the problem your factoring method was intended to solve?” “What are you talking about? Of course the problem is that many Algebra 1 students cannot factor polynomials, preventing them from succeeding in this course and beyond.” “Ok, I understand, but that is only the student’s problem. What is the teaching problem?” “Oh, you mean pedagogy, I guess,” Sandra replies. “I hadn’t really figured that out. I just know the students cannot do it.”

Sandra has fallen into a trap that has been set by more than a decade of high-stakes, high publicity accountability. The way into the trap is a bit convoluted, but it starts with the disaggregation of student data. Knowing which clusters of students are not meeting standards is certainly helpful. Some districts, such as the one featured in the research discussed in the last post, insist that teachers understand and work on the achievement of individual students, another potentially positive step. But now the trap is set.

With a sharp focus on student achievement, teachers we have observed in our research tend to think and talk about students alone. They ask, “What does the student know and what is she/he able to do?” and “Why didn’t the students absorb what I taught?” Good questions, but the next one is equally important, and rarely asked. When teachers know that students are not succeeding on tasks such as factoring, an important question follows: “What could change in my teaching that would improve these students’ knowledge and skills so they can perform the task?” In fairness to Sandra, she tacitly asked that question and explicitly answered it with her new factoring strategy. So, why didn’t the other teachers go along?

No one joined Sandra in the new factoring method because they did not see or agree with the link between the problem and what Sandra proposed to solve it. Skeptical, or perhaps never even interested, they endured the meeting and dispersed to their classrooms, doing what they always do. Sandra’s new method requires effort and may actually fail, thus reducing motivation for anyone else to move away from their more comfortable routines in the absence of compelling reasons to do so.

I believe that what Sandra needs is a longer timeline and an inquiry-based approach to collaboration in order to address the complex teaching problem of factoring polynomials. She may benefit from a strategy I will begin to describe in my next post.

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