Leading Learning

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

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Staying Out of Solutions

This week, I pick up the story of Sandra’s efforts to improve teaching of polynomials. Two weeks ago, I wrote about trying to get her some help from the math specialist working at the central office. When I called the assistant superintendent of instruction, she was rather intrigued by the factoring problem. She put me onto Antonio, someone who works in curriculum and instruction and was a legendary high school math teacher before moving over to the central office. I spoke briefly with Antonio and was impressed with his enthusiasm. That afternoon I provided an e-introduction between Antonio and Sandra, asking Sandra to follow up.

When I arrive at my office a little after 7:00 a.m. on Monday morning, hoping to take care of e-mail and voice mail before the day heats up, Sandra is pacing in the entry with a big smile on her face. “David, I had this great meeting with Antonio last Friday after school. We talked for about an hour and a half all about the factoring problem and the importance of Algebra 1 as a gatekeeper course. He was fantastic. He’d actually seen this method—the box method—of factoring before, but said he’d never tried it. He is interested in seeing how it might work with students and he had dozens of other ideas about how to strengthen our teaching in Algebra 1. I’m so excited! I can’t wait until our next Algebra 1 team meeting on Wednesday.”

Not wanting to dampen Sandra’s enthusiasm, I’m worried that she will fall right back into the trap of bringing a solution into her team meeting before her teacher colleagues have even acknowledged that a problem exists. “Come on in and sit down. Sandra, I’m so pleased that you had a good meeting with Antonio. I was really keeping my fingers crossed because often the central office can be unresponsive to teacher needs. I’d heard Antonio was different and I’m glad you’ve validated that. Let’s talk about a strategy for your Algebra 1 team.”

“What do you mean?” Sandra asks. “Let’s start by doing some quick-and-dirty analysis of the attitudes and capabilities on your team.” Sandra says, “Ok, well a bright spot is Kathy, my special education partner in the Algebra 1 inclusion class. She’s willing to try anything and she often takes what we do in my class and uses promising strategies with her self-contained math class.” “Sounds great,” I say. “How about Fred, Jane, and Carol?” Sandra groans, “They’re really tough. Fred engages in daily countdowns to his retirement three years away, Jane is a re-purposed typing teacher who got her math credential to save her job, and Carol often misses meetings.”

“I know it’s tough, but let’s try to de-personalize the situation and think about their interests. They all want to have a good day in the classroom, right?” “Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” says Sandra. I continue, “Let’s try a thought experiment. You can label each one of them as either comfortable with the current situation, in denial that factoring is an important teaching and learning challenge, or they are in a stage where they are trying to make changes and improvements, but aren’t sure where to go and/or aren’t having any success. Easy handles for the three are complacency, denial, and confusion.” “Sure, David, that’s easy. Fred is complacent, Jane is in denial because doesn’t understand factoring all that deeply herself, and Carol is just AWOL, so I don’t know. Kathy is the only one who I would say could be described as in the confusion stage.”

At this point, it is important for me to be supportive in my roles as principal and instructional leader. I need to be realistic and acknowledge that Sandra is working with a weak team without letting that be her excuse for her steamrolling the team or just giving up. I’m now into full coaching mode, trying to get Sandra to break the habits of an eager young teacher who believes she has the key to success in her hand. She may be right, but being right will not do her any good if she is unable to bring the more veteran teachers along.

“From what you are telling me,” I say, “you’ve got one willing ally and three others who need a major mind shift if your collection of teachers is going to come together as a team and improve the situation in Algebra 1. Do you remember the last time we spoke I told you I’d hoped that the curriculum and instruction department could help you mine the benchmark assessment data to see if there was evidence that factoring is a central problem?” “Of course,” Sandra says. “Did you and Antonio discuss that?” “Yes, in my excitement about his enthusiasm for working with me, I forgot about this. He said that the benchmark data would probably show a correlation between factoring and overall success on the assessments. He even thought we might be able to demonstrate correlations to Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus. The problem is that no one has ever asked for the data this way before, so it might take him a while to get it.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Sandra, this is great news. I would like you not to try to move too far with your team until you have the data from Antonio, assuming that he will be successful in getting it. For now, please put the box method aside. Journal about it to yourself, if you like, but I urge you not to bring it up with the team until they are ready to hear about it again. What makes sense to me for this week is that you will meet with the team and update them on your discussion with Antonio—without mentioning his enthusiasm for the box method—as a way of preparing them to engage in some data analysis when he has something for you to look at.” “Ok, but that sounds like a pretty short meeting to me,” Sandra replies. I respond, “I also suggest that you begin the discussion with them that we started a couple of weeks ago. You don’t have to get very specific, but you can tell them that through the spring you will want to engage them in a deeper investigation into Algebra 1 performance. Notice I’m not saying ‘factoring’ because they haven’t agreed that that is a problem.” “Sure, I get it. I’m starting to see a path forward.”

“One more thing, Sandra. You need to speak with Carol about missing meetings. Would you like my help?” Sandra thinks for a while and looks unhappy for the first time in our brief meeting. “Carol is just so brusque and nasty. I would like your help, but I don’t want to seem as though I need it.” “Ok,” I say. “I’ve made clear my expectation that every teacher will participate on at least one course team. Try catching Carol to remind her about the meeting on Wednesday. If she doesn’t show up again on Wednesday, then you will need to confront her and request via e-mail a meeting with the three of us. I’ll let you run that meeting in my office and I’ll be there to verify my expectations for all faculty. You’ll be in charge to the greatest extent possible.” “I’m not looking forward to that,” says Sandra.

Sandra goes off to prepare for her first period class and I open up my e-mail, thinking, “If it comes to a three-way meeting with Carol, it will not be fun.”


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Using Data to Motivate Change

Before Sandra, the Algebra 1 team leader, can make progress with her team, they need a reason to think about changing their classroom practices. When Sandra presented the factoring method, it came out of nowhere for most of the teachers in her group. One might have been asking inside her own head, “Why is Sandra telling us about this? Yeah, factoring is a problem, but kids either get it or they don’t. I don’t see why I should consider some new method just because she thinks it is a good idea.” My suggestion to Sandra that she work with a math specialist in our fictional effort to improve Algebra 1 performance is based on a belief that if teachers (or anyone) can understand student learning data and their role in influencing it, then they may be motivated to make change. To move ahead, Sandra must step back and think about what motivates people to change (or not).

Kurt Lewin (1947) made the claim that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. As an organizational behavior theorist, he thought a great deal about how interpersonal forces push people in various directions. He used the metaphor of freezing and un-freezing to explain how change happens. We can imagine the Algebra 1 team frozen in their tried and true method of factoring that they had learned as students and always taught as teachers. Sandra had an epiphany when a student who had moved to her school from another state showed her a different method. Sandra started to un-freeze because she saw the simple logic behind the method and how it might be easier for students to grasp and remember. In Lewin’s terms, she moved in her un-frozen state to a new position—in this case with respect to factoring. But what we so easily forget in our enthusiasm for a new solution is that those around us have not had the same un-freezing experience. Sandra presented the new method to a room full of icebergs and there was little discernable effect.

If Sandra is able to show the Algebra 1 teachers data indicating that an inability to factor polynomials is a root cause of D’s and F’s in Algebra 1, she may be able to use that as a “heater” to un-freeze the teachers on her team. Why? Because the teachers want their students to succeed, which in turn reflects positively on them. Presumably, student success is their reason for teaching. The problem for Sandra is that her teachers may simply see factoring as another in a long list of concepts, tools, and algorithms that some students “get” and others don’t. Presenting concrete information about the role of factoring in student success can serve to spotlight the process and draw teachers’ attention.

Sandra’s leadership challenge in un-freezing the team is a little more subtle, however. She cannot walk into a future meeting, present the data, and tell them that it proves factoring is important. She will need to help them work through the data in a manner that they voluntarily share her perspective—become un-frozen as she is—and therefore motivated to make change. Her goal is to create changed perspectives so that the teachers are more amenable to addressing the puzzle of teaching factoring more effectively.

Weisbord (2004), an intellectual descendent of Lewin’s, elaborates the problem of un-freezing and moving to a new understanding by claiming that there are four different mental states in the process of change. The figure below demonstrates his four stages.




Adapted from: Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weisbord argues that people who are content with or in denial about the present situation are very unlikely to make any changes. They have constructed a reality that suggests to them there is no reason to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Osterman and Kottkamp (2004), as I mentioned in my last post, explain how presenting data makes contentment or denial more difficult and therefore opens up individuals to considering change. Weisbord maintains that people must move out of their contentment or denial before change or improvement (what he calls renewal) can happen. There are no shortcuts, though. Confusion is a necessary stage prior to achieving renewal. Thus, anyone starting out in contentment or denial will first need to move through the stage of confusion before getting to renewal. This is a major red flag for Sandra. If she is successful in presenting data that teachers find compelling, as they un-freeze and start to move they will likely become somewhat demoralized in their confusion. This manifests with teachers in many ways that are rooted in a fear that trying something new may produce worse results for students. There is no do-over. The year rushes on and it is possible for many reasons that trying a new factoring method will generate even worse results than before, with possible long-term consequences for students. Sandra’s instructional leadership ability will be greatly tested if she is successful in moving her teachers into confusion.


Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics, Part 1: Concept, method, and reality in social sciences: Social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1, 5 – 41.

Osterman, K., & Kottkam, R. (2004). Reflective practice for educators: Professional development to improve student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited: Dignity, meaning, and community in the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.