In the last decade, most school managements and every government official we met, referred to the teachers’ “closed mindset” as the problem.
We were asked, “tell us how you can change their mindset, how you can motivate them to embrace and change practice”.
This constant refrain intrigued me, and my reflections and work over the years have led me to a current model of an approach to the problem that everyone was rhetorically speaking, seeking.
This approach, always a tentative draft format, is based on 10 years of working in hundreds of private and aided schools as well as government projects and with organizations that work with government. It is backed by 30 years of working in education and 500 years of experience drawn from my colleagues and my larger professional learning community. It is strengthened through interrogation by an almost daily analysis of what is leading to Adhyayan’s successes and failures over the years.
I present here, the way we currently understand how to motivate teachers to embrace and change practice –
1. Do not expect teachers to change their practice until you can change your practice as leaders in the system.
It was the deeply reflective Chris Argyris who categorically pointed out – “The first step is for managers at the top to examine critically and change their own theories in use”. A favourite Gandhi quote is “be the change you want to see”. It is so easy to expect that “others” must change and so hard to lead by changing your own practice if you are steeped in it.
The worst thing the system leaders can do is indulge in double speak. An example of double speak is when leaders say “we want teachers to teach in a way that children want to and can learn”; and then demand when visiting the classroom that teachers should ensure children copy answers into their ‘copybook’ and exhort them to teach to the test.
The leaders who are successful in running schools in which children are engaged, go into classrooms to observe the difficulties that their teachers experience in teaching their students. As instructional leaders, they provide them with targeted professional development. They listen to their teachers’ challenges and help them become reflective about their practice by collecting and looking at real and useful data.
Unless leaders change their practice of sitting in an office, dealing with files and administrative tasks, meeting with parents and summoning errant students, and begin daily learning walks throughout their school including the classrooms, they will not have the data or the authenticity to expect any teacher to change either mindset or practice. Change must definitely come from the top!
2. Identify the players in the eco-system who are integral in bringing about change; ensure everyone has a significant role and knows it.
Kotter argues for a “holistic, long-term approach needed to see the change through successfully”. He argues that it is important to take into consideration, every single person in the organisation who will be involved in delivering, or affected by, the change.
Within a school system we identify all stakeholders who need to be included in the school self-review and improvement process. Not just teachers. Not just students. Everyone.
Experience has taught us that when one teacher alone changes practice, other teachers in the staff room find ways of belittling or blocking the success of the practice.
There are equally high chances that the school leader finds the practice ineffective because of the initial period of difficulty when implementation begins, and either gently or bluntly, suggests that the teacher revert to previous practice.
When working with a school on ensuring student growth as well as achievement, we were discussing the imperative need for students to understand the content. A middle leader in the school said a teacher had “tried this once”. Her experience was that the parents reacted strongly because the teacher had not provided any written classwork, preferring to use worksheets and research by the students as a means of discussing a topic. The angry parents frightened the teacher so much that she never ‘tried anything different again’. Her example is an illustration of what happens when schools and individuals change practice without taking everyone along.
Leaving parents, students and the wider community out of the picture when attempting to change an entrenched system comes from the belief that “it is impossible to influence them” and the safe “anyway they do not need to know”.
Schools who believe in involving all stakeholders and are willing to go through the pain of explaining what they are changing and why, tend to have greater support and greater success. They care to share the journey with all, are open to feedback, notice small successes and celebrate the achievement of milestones related to the impact of the change on their students’ learning and ability levels.
The change process that doesn’t leave anyone out and also ensures that all have a stake in and a say in what is happening, is more likely to succeed. Don’t forget to keep everyone in the loop on what is happening. Plan large and structured events in which the entire community comes together, learns together, and shares their learning.
3. Do not dive directly into action. Plan how you will continuously weave learning into the action, for yourself and for everyone else, especially before you begin.
“The lessons for developing leaders in a culture of change are more tortoise-like than hare-like because they involve slow learning in context over time.” is Fullan’s way of warning us that we shouldn’t undertake a plethora of activities at the grassroots in order to look like we are solving the problem.
If you visit any government department in which the Secretary’s office is full of new people with new ideas and initiatives, you will know what this means. The people in the school are grist for the mill, constantly at the receiving end of a bewildering variety of ‘training’ programmes that lead nowhere but must be carried out, attended and ticked off. The impact of this multitude of “do-gooders” on the teachers, students and leaders is rarely assessed.
Consider the site of change as being the school, and the right to decide what needs to be done or not done, as the fundamental right of teachers and the school leader. Structure the work in such a manner that it requires you and all those who need to change their practice, to review, discuss, analyse, dissect, synthesise, evaluate and agree on what good looks like as well as the nature and direction of the change.
Well begun is half done, goes the adage. Begin with what do we need to learn, know, understand. Then having done so, expect and ensure that a target is set, that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound.
Support everyone to work towards the target. Introduce what everyone needs to know that is new to them. Find ways of encouraging the practice of new skills. Develop norms for feedback from peers that ensures everyone has a buddy and no one feels left out. Celebrate the smallest of successes so that it increases the confidence of those who are learning.
Confidence comes from a sense of knowing what has to be done. It is tied in with a sense of efficacy. And both, confidence and efficacy, are developed by reflective practice.
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