High-Performance Instructional Conversations: How To Make Change Stick

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How can instructional leaders help teachers make deep and lasting changes to their practice?

In a post-observation conversation between an administrator and a teacher, the focus is typically on feedback. But what if we need to look beneath the surface? How can we get at the beliefs and thinking that shape teachers’ practice, so change can take root?

From Authority to Autonomy

By virtue of administrators' positional authority, teachers may readily agree to make changes. But does this actually lead to better practice? If we want teachers to grow as a result of these interactions, we must take an interest in what happens after the conversation is over.

To change practice, the real focal point of our change efforts should be teachers' thinking and beliefs.

Often we're concerned with follow-through—we wonder if teachers will do what they've said they'll do. But follow-through is only possible when the behaviors teachers are agreeing to align with their beliefs about what will work.

If we want to change practice, then, the real focal point of our change efforts should be teachers' thinking and beliefs.

Ultimately, teachers decide for themselves how to approach their work each day. While we may strive for alignment with a common instructional vision and provide opportunities for collaboration, professional autonomy is both essential and unavoidable. Teachers must make their own decisions about how to best meet the needs of their students.

How can we ensure that teachers are motivated to make changes to their practice that will improve student learning? And when we want to make a school-wide change, how can we authentically get everyone on board?

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) identifies three factors that impact motivation:

  • Autonomy: The ability to make one's own choices.
  • Competence: The sense that one is skilled and effective.
  • Relatedness: The sense that one is connected to others.

Since teachers are alone with students most of the time, they naturally have the autonomy to make their own instructional choices. Administrators who attempt to restrict this autonomy by compelling teachers to use approaches they don't believe in will quickly discover the limits of their power.

The reality is that teachers must decide for themselves to change their practice. Change often threatens teachers' sense of competence in a specific area, because it requires a switch from familiar practices—with which the teacher is skilled and confident—to unfamiliar, unpracticed skills.

Teachers may have received training on a new practice, yet still hesitate to implement it due to a lack of confidence that it will lead to better results for students. They're not asking "Is this best practice?" They're asking "Can I pull this off with my students? Or should I stick with what I've always done?"

Teachers develop a sense of what will work based in part on their relationships with others. If a teacher observes their colleagues succeeding with a new approach, they will be more likely to believe that the approach is worth trying.

But this social sense-making can be a double-edged sword: if teachers have been commiserating about their doubts, fears, and gripes about a new practice, adopting that practice is a socially isolating act that will threaten their sense of relatedness.

How can instructional leaders capitalize on this understanding of SDT to facilitate change?

The Vector for Change: Evidence-Based Conversation, Not Feedback

Feedback can be useful for improving skills, but it doesn't address teacher thinking and decision-making, which are essential for making change stick. As social creatures, we make sense of potential changes through conversation.

As social creatures, we make sense of potential changes through conversation. 

But to understand a change, we must first understand our present situation. School leaders collect evidence during a teacher observation that can inform their post-observation conversations, but they can also use the evidence-gathering step to better understand their teachers’ instructional decision-making processes. Leveraging this knowledge will promote tangible shifts in practice.

A Practical Example

Imagine an interaction between an instructional leader—let's call her Amanda—and a teacher we'll call Steve.

Amanda wants Steve to adopt a project-based approach to learning, and to cut back on his extensive use of lecture. But Steve is convinced that making this change will undermine student learning. "If they don't have the background information, they won't be able to do the work!" he argues. "So there's no way I can lecture less and expect students to learn more."

Amanda knows she can pull rank and compel Steve to implement a project-based curriculum, but she's more concerned with ensuring that the change ultimately benefits students. So she commits to truly getting Steve on board—not just getting him to comply.

Amanda knows that Steve believes lecturing is more effective than project-based learning. She knows this belief must change before Steve's teaching practices can truly come into alignment with her vision.

She also understands that Steve's decision-making is partly social. Amanda knows that if Steve is going to make changes to his practice, she'll need to see it in the classroom, not just talk about it in philosophical terms on professional development days. He may need coaching and feedback to develop the necessary skills.

Finally, Amanda knows that Steve needs more than feedback. He needs to be guided through the real-world implications of the change in his own classroom, so he can truly believe that it will be an improvement. If Amanda wants to help Steve switch from lecture to project-based learning, the first hurdle is belief, not skill.

Steve believes that lecturing is part of what makes his teaching effective. However, he probably doesn't have a very detailed cause-and-effect model in mind, and this is where classroom observations can become a game-changer.

When Amanda visits his classroom, she can collect evidence about how students are gaining new knowledge and understanding. She might observe one group during an activity, and record specific quotes that illustrate the learning process.

Then, during her conversation with Steve after class, she can bring up these quotes.

"So Steve, I heard Janelle's group talking about the neutralization reaction, and they said 'So, the hydrogen ions from the vinegar neutralize the baking soda...are there ions in the baking soda?' What do you think they understand about ions at this point?"

If Steve replies "Oh, we've already covered that in lecture, so they get it if they've been paying attention" this could open the door to a discussion of Steve's underlying beliefs about how learning takes place.

She might ask "Which students seem to learn best from lecture? Which kids seem to struggle with the concepts until they've worked through them in groups?" to further probe Steve's thinking and beliefs.

As an instructional leader, Amanda is learning more about how Steve makes instructional decisions, and this knowledge is essential for leading change that goes beyond compliance. 

Through further evidence-based conversation, Amanda can help Steve identify times when non-lecture activities resulted in "Eureka!" moments for students, and identify times when lecture didn't work as well as he had hoped. And ultimately, she can help Steve believe that he’s capable of making the shift to project-based learning.

New Roles for New Results

In the example above, Amanda is no longer trying to provide feedback to convince Steve that his lecture-based approach is ineffective. She's fundamentally changed the roles in the conversation:

  • Instead of talking about Steve—and whether he's a good teacher—they're talking about what happened in the classroom, and what resulted in learning.
  • Instead of Amanda as the boss and Steve as the subordinate, they're both professionals solving a problem together—the problem of how to maximize student learning.
  • Instead of Amanda making the decisions about what Steve needs to do differently, Steve is developing new beliefs about how he can best reach his students.

In these new roles, Amanda is learning more about how to effectively guide her staff to adopt new practices, and the more she engages in evidence-based conversations with teachers, the better she’ll be able to address the barriers of belief so change can take root.

Your Turn

In your career as an educator, how have professional conversations shifted your thinking? When have you resisted a change that you didn't believe in, and what was the outcome?

In your work as an instructional leader, what beliefs are you working to change, and what evidence from classroom observations might address those beliefs in your conversations with teachers?


About our Guest Blogger

Justin Baeder is Director of The Principal Center and host of Principal Center Radio. He helps instructional leaders transform their productivity, multiply their impact, and speaks regularly at conferences and professional development events.

Read more from our guest bloggers

Topics: Instructional Leadership, Guest Blogger, Teacher Observation, Feedback

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