Education is rife with bad practices. The effects of these practices are clear and have devastating outcomes. We use Whole Language and Balanced Literacy to teach reading, avoiding the evidence and Synthetic Phonics. This leads to students who can’t read. We have similar problems with how we teach math, and similar outcomes.
Unfortunately the consistently poor results of common educational practices have not pushed their promoters out of education or caused educators to take a serious look at research. What these poor practices have achieved is the complicating of thousands of lives, often along socioeconomic and racial lines.
The sad truth is that consistently poor results have not been enough to create anything beyond a sincere yet generic belief that education is not perfect and does, in fact, have problems.
Some individuals have done the soul-searching required to look at the evidence and change their practices, but the shame is that as an educational system we think the problem is outside, we think the problem is the others, and we leave our soul unexamined, our practices unchanged, our students condemned to a poor education.
This tragedy is happening because evidence alone is not enough to correct someone’s actions even if it can change their beliefs. Research from the article, Effective Messages In Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial in the journal Pediatrics found that correcting misconceptions does not necessarily lead to a change in actions.
“None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.”
By itself, evidence can have strange effects. It can cause an intensification of views or over-corrections. Evidence can even be rejected outright because it conflicts with someone’s underlying beliefs (confirmation bias).
So what is a concerned teacher to do? It is obvious that we cannot just hang our heads and say, “Oh well.” The futures of too many children are at stake. The correlations between educational attainment and life outcomes are too clear for us to merely be concerned about our own classroom. In fact, caring about social justice demands us to work for change (See the disparities in the table above, or better yet peruse the 2019 Kids Count Data Book). Which brings us back to the original question, “If facts aren’t enough to change a teacher’s practice, what can we do? How can we change the practices of other teachers so that all students have a fair chance to learn?”
We cannot abandon facts. For facts help shape reality. However, reality is not created from mere facts. Reality is crafted from a concoction of facts and emotions. But this is particularly tricky. I am not comfortable engaging with contentious issues using emotion. It can devolve into mere anecdotes that tug on heartstrings. It can feel like I am flirting with some type of educational prosperity gospel, “Just do this, and your students will excel, be creative, lovely, and wonderful!” Playing on emotions is what cult leaders do.
And even so, emotions matter. We should use them to our advantage without manipulating others.
We can do this by realizing that emotions are needed to make all decisions, even ones that seem to be just logical.
“Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had received brain injuries that had had one specific effect: to damage that part of the brain where emotions are generated. In all other respects they seemed normal – they just lost the ability to feel emotions.
The interesting thing he found was that their ability to make decisions was seriously impaired. They could logically describe what they should be doing, in practice they found it very difficult to make decisions about where to live, what to eat, etc.”
So, if we want people to change their actions we need to involve emotions, even when the data is clear. So, how do we use emotions in a non-manipulative manner?
We need to first get some type of initial investment, and then sustain it. Which is obvious if you pause and think about it. Too bad actually achieving this is not so clear or straight-forward.
I think this can be done in a similar way we get our students to become invested in learning. When we are passionate about what we teach, we are passionate in such a way that it draws students into the content. However, when we talk about how to teach (or politics or religion), our passion tends to turn divisive.
I think there are ways to harness our passion to make evidence informed teaching attractive to doubters. We need to tell a (true) story and not just spit out some facts about good pedagogy. This is challenging. (I am trying to write this blogpost to clearly convey the facts while appealing to emotion. It is taking much longer than normal and I am not sure how effective I am, but I’m convinced it is worth trying.)
When we turn good pedagogy into a story, we make our methods larger than a mere procedure. When we fail to personalize the issue, to make it a story we often come off as cold and calculating, as if we think educating a child is a matter of plugging in an equation. So, tell a story.
In the rest of this article I will use explicit instruction as my example because I think an easy to digest system of instruction with a proven track record that is based on cognitive science. For those interested, there is an absolutely excellent book about explicit instruction written by Anita Archer Ph.D and Charles Hughes Ph.D called Explicit Instruction: Effective And Efficient Teaching.
You: “I use explicit instruction because I want children to change the world with their creativity and ability to think critically. I use explicit instruction because I want students to have fun in school. I use explicit instruction because I want students to be both tolerant and understanding about other cultures/values.”
This also plays on the “others’ needs and goals from step #2. Everyone wants these things. Now they are intrigued.
Them: “Why does your approach to teaching produce those results? Does it really work better than what I have been doing?”
Now we can move on to step number three, “offering proof that socially desirable other people are already invested”. Basically this is an appeal to authority. Be careful! Remember! Use emotions, don’t manipulate. Appeals to authority can be useful.
You: “Here is what Professor X has to say about explicit instruction. She is very concerned about making education authentic and applicable to students.”
Doing this well involves knowing who you are talking to. Show them that your side shares many of the same goals as their side.
Them: “Oh, that’s interesting. So how does explicit instruction work?”
Now, hit them with the steps! Make it simple. Make it easy. Remember they are new to this and may not have a schema for explicit instruction. Give them small, easily applicable steps. Just like what you would do when you introduce your students to a new topic.
You: “Well, it’s basically like “I do. We do. You do.” You just need to make sure to fully explain and model something before having students work on it in groups or individually. This helps students apply what they are learning to real-life.”
By adding the last sentence and linking explicit instruction with real-life application, you are helping make it easier for the person to buy in. You are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one because you are showing them that explicit instruction is aligned with their values (Step #1 of sustained investment).
Them: “Oh, that sounds easy. I already use “I do. We do. You do. But doesn’t explicit instructions involve a lot of lecturing?”
You: “It’s great that you already use that method. The lecturing within explicit instruction always involves a lot of student interaction. It is never just teacher talk. For example, you briefly explain something and then you pose a question and students can work together to solve it. Then you can explain things a bit further and pose an application question where students again talk and work together to come up with an answer. All while clarifying and answering student questions yourself. So there is a variety of T-S, S-T, and S-S interaction. Explicit instruction is actually quite dynamic and it even encourages students to come up with creative answers.”
Them: “That is interesting. And it is a bit different than what I do.”
Here is where you can get them to give something they value, step #5. They likely value creativity, engagement, and critical thinking. Here you can, depending on the context of your conversation either encourage them to try it out in their classroom and/or share an accessible blogpost about it.
You: “Why don’t you try it out in your classroom I think you would see your students come up with some really creative answers, especially if you have them apply the skills your teaching to real-life. I’d love to hear how it went.”
By linking explicit instruction with creativity and “real-life” you are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one (step #1). A call to action includes step #2 of sustained investment. You are involving them in a public manner (in front of their students and in a conversation with you).
Hopefully this will segue right into step #3 of sustain involvement by creating evidence that explicit instruction is working. This evidence may involve more engaged students, higher achievement, changing student attitudes towards the subject, etc.
Then, the last step, #4 involves trying to cement the change and making it difficult to divest. For teachers, I think that the best way to do this is to point at the changes they saw when they began consistently using explicit instruction and to give more data (research summaries work great for this).
Now, will following this procedure always work? Of course not. But we know that simply telling people about research doesn’t really help. So let’s start our conversations by leading with the story of good pedagogy, don’t just jump to the procedure or statistical outcomes.The story invites those outside our circle to come in. Then, when real interest has been aroused, talk with or message them. Remember that the research is so persuasive to us, in part because of our experiences. Share your experiences and encourage them to apply good pedagogy. If we want them to see the educational light, show them the easy access points. Show them where good pedagogy aligns with their morals and views. Remove the barriers to good pedagogy and you might just change some minds. It might just change some students’ lives.