It’s Not About Blaming Teachers, It’s About Locus of Control

I keep writing about, and presenting about, how teachers need to teach differently… Pretty soon you'll start thinking that I'm blaming teachers for the challenges in our schools…

Most of what I write about in this blog is educational change, usually focused on instruction and/or technology integration (which, of course, is just a subset of “instruction”). But when you talk a lot about changing expectations for teaching and learning, and how teachers teach, and paradigms, and getting them to focus on the right thing instead of the wrong thing, and supervising for those changes, it's easy to start to think that I believe that teachers are the reason that schools aren't changing or that more students aren't learning.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First off, I write about the changes that need to happen and how to help teachers make those changes because they are things that most teachers have not experienced before themselves.

I believe that the rules for education have changed. The world of work has changed and we now need every child to learn in school what we used to only need the college prep kids to learn (well, actually what has changed is that we now need every kid to be college prep!). Second, new tools (laptops, tablets, cell phones, iPods, information access, personal broadcasting, the read/write web, multimedia, etc.) have changed how kids work, necessitating changing how schools have students learn (or risk becoming irrelevant to students).

As I described when Bea McGarvey came to Auburn, she points out that schools still do industrial age education, when we need an educational system for the information age:

During the industrial age, schools’ goal was to sort out talent and make the rest compliant. We got really good at that. But for this economy, the goal needs to be to develop talent in every child. That’s why we’re so frustrated: we’re trying to meet one goal with a tool that was designed for another…

It doesn’t matter how much we agree with the burning platform that our schools need to work for all our children, or how well we understand that the root problem is how our goals have changed and it isn’t “the teachers’ fault” (Bea says, according to Deming: 95% of the problems are not with the people; they are with the structure), the fact is, at some point teachers understand that they are good at a system designed for an old goal, and that they might not know how to do the system for the new goal…

So teachers are now working in an environment they didn't really experience as students themselves, and probably weren't trained for professionally. Even if teachers need to be the ones making most of the changes, the reason is that the rules have changed, not because they weren't doing a good job.

But even more importantly, we focus on teachers making the changes because teachers are the ones who can solve our challenges. They have the power, the locus of control. When we look at all the factors that impact our students being successful, the one we (schools, educators) have the most control over is teacher practice: what happens in the classroom.

And if teachers have to make changes for a new environment they haven't experienced or been trained for, and if they are the ones who have the power to make the changes, then we have to be very, very clear that we don't blame teachers. Nothing could be more inappropriate, nor unproductive for achieving our new goals.

Instead, what we need to do is support the heck out of teachers.

We need to provide teachers support to a level like we never have before. Side by side with an expectation to teach in ways so all students can learn a high status curriculum, and that makes use of the modern tools for intellectual work, we have to be making a promise to support teachers in this work, making clear we believe in our teachers, and that we know that they can do this hard work. We have to provide training, resources, and time. We have to let teachers try, and allow them to make mistakes, and also to get better – and hold them harmless in this important work. That includes sticking up for them and their efforts, even when (maybe especially when!) it doesn't go well the first time.

If we don't, we guarantee failure: for our schools, for our teachers, and for our students.

 

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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