Why Are Beliefs About Education Hard to Change?

gearThe beliefs that teachers and school leaders hold about education are arguably instrumental to their practice. These include beliefs about the purpose of education, beliefs about how people learn, beliefs about the nature of their subject (e.g. math wars) and beliefs about learners (debate to what extent learning outcomes are genetically determined: nature vs nurture debate).  In our activities, we often rush to strengthen educators’ knowledge and skills.  But shouldn’t we focus more on changing their beliefs? One reason is that changing our beliefs is hard and difficult to measure.

Why are beliefs so hard to change? Psychology might provide us with some answers.

According to Kahneman, we are prone to overconfidence. When making judgements, we rely on information that comes to mind, neglect what we don’t know and construct a coherent story in which our judgement makes sense.  90% of car drivers think they are better than average.  I don’t know of any similar research for teachers, but I’m pretty sure more than 50% thinks that they’re better than average.  Add to this the fact that uncertainty is not socially acceptable for a “professional”.

Secondly, we tend to surround ourselves with people who confirm our beliefs, gradually locking ourselves into ‘echo chambers’.  According to Yochai Benkler in his book “The Wealth of Networks”, individuals with shared interests are far more likely to find each other or converge around a source of information online than offline. Social media enable members of such groups to strengthen each other’s beliefs, by shutting out contradictory information and to take collective action.  Even people with fringe beliefs are likely to find like-minded souls online and see their views reinforced. In these ways can establish themselves and persist long after outsiders deem them debunked: see, for example, online communities devoted to the idea that the government is spraying “chemtrails” from high-flying aircraft or that evidence suggesting that vaccines cause autism is being suppressed.

Technology companies play an active role in constructing such echo chambers. In 2011, Eli Pariser, an internet activist, warned for a “filter bubble”. He worried that Google’s search algorithms, which offer users personalised results according to what the system knows of their preferences and surfing behaviour, would prevent people from accessing countervailing views. Facebook subsequently became a much better—or worse—example. Its algorithms are designed to populate people’s news feeds with content similar to material they previously “liked”.

Another explanation may lie in a general a loss of trust in institutions and distrust of experts.  The Economist recently ran a briefing on the emerging post-truth politics, in which the value of evidence seems to diminish in favour of so-called “authentic” politicians, who “tell it how it is” (ie, say what people feel). Teachers may trust their own experience more than published research, for example on learning styles, ability grouping or using grades.  One reason for this within the education field is that education experts often contradict each other,also because of the difficulty to generalise many findings across contexts and cultures.

Education is one of those domains on which everyone holds an opinion.  For most people, these opinions are based on their own experience and intuition about “what feels right” or “what ought to be true”.  Many feel that teaching boils down to common sense.  These opinions attract a lot of attention. An example is the regular stream of opinion articles lamenting the ‘crisis in education’, the fact that ‘education has not evolved for 100 years’ and that ‘it doesn’t equip our children with 21st century skills.’  Moreover, education seems to be particularly prone to ‘fads’ (one computer or tablet per learner, standardised testing, small class sizes), which often come from the burning desire to ‘fix education. Coming up with a ‘magic bullet’ is easier than changing the oil tanker that an education system is.

Context plays a role as well.  Research in Singapore showed that teachers pointed to contextual constraints to account for the inconsistency between their espoused beliefs and the teacher-centric teaching practice. Teachers may feel the pressure to cover the curriculum and get learners ready for examinations.  Parents may resist relatively new approaches like inclusivity and heterogeneous grouping and threaten to move their children to another school. Ongoing research in Free State, South Africa, shows no relation between teachers’ preference for a surface versus deep learning focus of teaching and learning outcomes, likely as a result of contextual factors. There might be, in other words, be a gap between the ideal world of educational research and real world of cash-strapped education systems.

Should professional development of teachers and school leaders focus on changing those beliefs?

The main argument to focus on beliefs is that sustainable changes in teaching practice are only likely to occur when teachers support the underlying rationale.  However, beliefs are not static. People do change their beliefs. But often gradually, not as a result of one workshop. Good insight in recognising and dealing with resistance, ways how change occurs, effective feedback and adoption of innovations should be important elements in the repertoire of every education advisor.

Mike Hulme’s book on climate change provides some useful recipes from complexity science:

Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

Using a variety of strategies (testimonies, research findings, inspiring stories of change) for a variety of beliefs and sensitivities for changing them.  Research indicates that the perspectives of administrators and teachers can differ significantly on this point. Administrators tend to perceive nationally normed standardised assessments, whereas teachers grant more validity to classroom observations (Guskey, 2007).

In a trajectory that aims at changing teachers’ beliefs, a possible succession of steps is:

  • Making existing beliefs explicit
  • Creating conditions in which existing beliefs can be questioned
  • Presenting the conflict between their old and new beliefs as challenging rather than threatening
  • Providing teachers with the necessary time to reflect on their beliefs, reconcile the new beliefs with their existing knowledge framework and teaching context.

Another point of attention is that we should take care to back up what we introduce in training activities with decent research findings and theoretical underpinnings, and discuss these and their implications with educators.  In doing this, we must help educators understand how to cope with the complexities of classroom life and how to apply theory and new findings in real classrooms where the relationship between theory and practice is complex and where numerous constraints and pressures influence teacher thinking.

Debunking Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Theory

A recommended education blog is that of Donald Clark.  In various blog posts, he debunks some popular educational theories, such as learning stylesKirkpatrick 4-levels of evaluation, left-right brain people and hot air-selling educational gurus such as Ken Livingstone and Sugata Mitra.  James Atherton formulates it perfectly:

So often in education, shallow unsubstantiated TED talks replace the real work of researchers and those who take a more rigorous view of evidence. Sir Ken Robinson, is, I suspect, the prime example of this romantic theorising, Sugata Mitra the second. Darlings of the conference circuit, they make millions from talks but do untold damage when it comes to the real word and the education of our children.’

Like in management, popular but unsubstantiated theories seem to be a predicament of education, where research struggles to find its way to the classroom and where consultants make a nice buck selling these theories to a captive teacher professional development public.


First, Maslow himself updated his model in 1970, but this updated model hardly found its way into the professional development circuit. Second, the model doesn’t stand the test of basic scientific scrutiny:

Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally at the time and when it was, from the 70s onwards, was found wanting. Empirical evidence showed no real evidence in terms of a strict hierarchy, not the categories, as defined by Maslow.

The self-actualisation theory is now regarded as having no real value as it is wholly subjective. The problem is his slapdash use of evidence. Self-actualised people are selected by him then used as evidence for self-actualisation.

An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict hierarchy. It is clear that the higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied. There are many counter-examples and indeed, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. Maslow himself, felt that the lines were not that clear. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel. A different set of people could be chosen to prove that self-actualisation was the result of, say, trauma or poverty (Van Gogh etc.).

Most sets of indicators for the well being of children are more complex, sophisticated and do not fall into a simple hierarchy. There are many such schemas at international (UNICEF) and national levels. They rarely bear much resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Indeed, research in economic development in developing countries shows that people frequently prefer investing in things like cellphones, local traditions such as marriages and funeral ceremonies and education, before their basic needs are met.

Extensive research on needs’ fulfillment and social well-being (Tay and Diener, 2011) shows little support for Maslow’s hypothesis:

Our analyses reveal that as hypothesized by Maslow, people tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs. However, fulfilling the various needs has relatively independent effects on SWB (Societal Well Being). For example, a person can gain wellbeing by meeting psychosocial needs regardless of whether his or her basic needs are fully met.

Another implication of our findings is that need fulfillment needs to be achieved at the societal level, not simply at the individual level. Although Maslow focused on individuals, we found that there are societal effects as well. It helps one’s SWB if others in one’s nation have their needs fulfilled.

More rigour in teacher professional development is certainly needed.  Frustratingly, in our first workshop in South Africa, university (!) lecturers came in with their materials on left-right brains and learning styles. On the positive side, it helps to weed out the lazy or incompetent providers from the quality ones.

13 Lessons to Take Away from the National Colloquium on PLCs

pic2On 18 and 19 September the Ministry of Basic Education organized a nation-wide colloquium on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Professional Development (ISPFTED) foresees the nation-wide implementation of PLCs by 2017. This colloquium was a first step towards that implementation. During the first day a wide range of speakers from academia, government, unions and subject associations provided input on international and local research, local experiences and various initiatives on PLCs.  On the second day, participants were invited to provide feedback on two draft documents: a policy document on subject committees and PLCs and a practical guideline on implementing PLCs.

Here are 13 lessons from the two days:

  1. Hardly anyone doubted the useful role PLCs could play in the South African education system.  However, it became clear that more conceptual and practical work needs to be done before PLCs can be rolled out nationwide.
  2. Any guideline on PLCs should clearly describe the concept. The prominent place of PLCs in DBE’s Strategic Framework 2011-2025 (ISPFTED) and the excitement on the ‘new’ concept make that all types of professional development are dubbed PLCs.  A clear definition of what they are, is needed to avoid losing the power of the concept. Prof. Brodie stressed that PLCs are more than sharing resources over tea. They require intensive collaboration to develop resources and prepare and evaluate classroom practice together.
  3. We should be realistic in our expectations for PLCs, both in terms of numbers and outcomes and conceptual purity.  Much depends on what kind of PLCs we want.  Do we only count PLCs that are truly teacher-led, data-driven and collaborative in nature?  Or do we include all kinds of regular teaching meetings, in order to reach ambitious quantitative targets?  As such, stating (unrealistically) high targets might water down what are considered PLCs and reduce the process-oriented and collaborative character of PLCs.
  4. Implementation of PLCs should also take into account the existing education system and school culture. Can we expect PLCs to become beacons of a collaborative, data-driven and self-driven view on professional development, if the education system in which they operate is prescriptive and bureaucratic? Could we hope for PLCs to become a Trojan horse for change of the education system? How far should we be prepared to compromise? Criteria such as teacher-driven, school-based, continuous and collaborative surfaced as key criteria without which a PLC is not a PLC any more.
  5. PLCs are as much about changes in school culture as they are about individual teacher development.  A successful PLC manages to instil a culture of ‘us-ness’.  Teaching and learning become a collective responsibility for the school rather than an individual responsibility for the teacher. pic1
  6. PLCs are inherently connected to the concept of teacher agency. Implementing PLCs raises therefore wider questions. How do we see the role of the teachers, as implementers of policy and curriculum or as education professionals? This raises the question whether the current climate in South Africa is conducive to teacher agency?
  7. Imposing PLCs on teachers and schools will result in command and control, compliance and resistance, nipping any potential of PLCs in the bud. Participation in PLCs should be voluntary, based on teachers’ assessment of what constitutes valuable professional development for them.
  8. However, PLCs are unlikely to grow spontaneously. An important role for the Department of Basic Education lies in scaffolding and providing initial support to starting PLCs. Results from the Data-informed practice improvement project (DIPIP) Project indicated that this initial support may well be needed during several years. The challenge lies in finding a good balance between prescription and support.  An important role in providing this support lies with the provincial and district administrations.  Subject advisors should focus on their pedagogical rather than judgemental role and provide the necessary resources and capacity building.  Provinces should equip them with the skills to construct knowledge and be part of PLCs themselves.
  9. Time is most prominent on everyone’s list of challenges for PLCs. Arguments whether time should be provided to work in PLCs went both ways. Professional development and preparing lessons can be considered core parts of a teacher’s job description. PLCs intend to facilitate a shift from teaching as an isolated activity to a social approach to teaching. Secondly, if teachers find PLCs a valuable activity, they will invest time in it. However, if PLCs are to make headway beyond the very motivated, it was estimated that at least 2 consecutive hours per week should be dedicated to it. The 80 hours that are currently earmarked for professional development in teachers’ schedules could form the backbone of such a system.
  10. Conceptions of what constitutes valuable knowledge are changing. Rather than providing people with a bag of facts, it becomes more important to equip learners with 21st century skills such as information fluency, creativity fluency, collaborative skills and media fluency. New conceptions of knowledge also require new forms of CPD.
  11. We should be patient and be careful not to expect immediate effects of PLCs. Moreover, defining outcomes for successful PLCs is hard. PLCs are not going to change the ANA results in one year. First, PLCs are a slow and ongoing process, as much about the process of creating trust and developing a culture of systematic enquiry, as about tangible outputs. Reporting on the activities in PLCs and the products that come out of them is only a first step. More relevant outcomes of PLCs lie in bridging the gap between educational research and practice, promoting data-informed practice, instilling an attitude of lifelong learning and creating safe spaces for addressing practical issues. Most importantly however, but also hardest to measure, are the impact PLCs have on learning outcomes, equity, teacher identity and school culture.
  12. The distinction between PLCs and Subject Committees should be made very clear. Subject committees are structures at district, provincial and national level, organized per subject and aimed at providing advice on policy and curriculum issues. PLCs are primarily school-based structures to facilitate teaching and learning. However, this does not mean there is no learning, no professional development taking place in Subject Committees. There is also a clear link between PLCs and Subject Committees, as they feed each other with information and ideas. Moreover, PLCs that are supported by a broader network have turned out to be more successful. Ideally, PLCs engage in a process of moving out of the local and back in to access and bring in external expertise in PLCs.
  13. Principals play a crucial role in supporting PLCs. They should be more than enablers, providing time and space for PLCs. Their role extends to instructional leaders within PLCs, motivating teachers to engage in them, providing guidance to resources and facilitating conditions for a culture of collaboration across grades and subjects by for example promoting team teaching, lesson observations and seminars. Hence, DBE and PED’s support to PLC should for a big part lie in capacity development of school leaders, school management teams (SMTs) and Heads of Department (HoDs).

My keynote presentation is available on Slideshare.

Some Takeaways from TALIS 2013 for Flanders

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is a 5-yearly questionnaire with (primary education and lower secondary education) teachers and school leaders. It’s not a competency test, but more an investigation of their attitudes, satisfaction and engagement with professional development.  TALIS asks a representative sample of teachers and schools in each country about their working conditions and the learning environments.  It links results to various educational policies in the participating countries and regions.  Results can be downloaded from the OECD website.  A report with an interpretation of the results for Flanders can be found here.
Some personal takeaways (it’s interesting to see how everyone identifies different highlights in this extensive report):
  • the general education level of teachers in Flanders is low (many professional bachelors, few masters);
  • the high autonomy of schools in Flanders translates into responsibilities for pedagogical matters (but not in curriculum), human resources (but not in salaries) and financial policy.
Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

  • Flemish school leaders indicate they compete actively with other schools to attract pupils (only in England the percentage is as high).  The free choice of school is obviously related to this.
  • Flemish teachers see little need to engage in professional development.  Notwithstanding many have engaged in some professional development during the last year (88%), only 10,5% sees a strong need for ICT training and only 5,3% recognizes a need to learn more about helping children with special needs.
CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

  • Teaching in Flanders remains very much an individual activity. Most teachers stay within the safe confines of their classrooms.  75% never observes lessons from other teachers to give feedback.  Two thirds of teachers in lower secondary education never engage in team teaching.  Thirdly, joined professional development is not common.  31% of primary teachers and 45% of lower secondary teachers never do this (highest % in Flanders).
  • In South Africa, VVOB supports the establishment of professional learning communities in primary schools as an instrument for teacher professional development, as laid out in South African policy documents.  The TALIS results show that also in Flanders courses and workshops are still the preferred means for professional development.  Less than a third of teachers works in a school where networks, virtual networks or peer review are mentioned as a component of professional development.  Flemish school leaders engage more in professional networks.
Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

  • Finally, perhaps a bit surprising, most (approx. 80%) teachers feel recognized by society and only a small minority considers leaving the profession (however most who want to leave profession do so within the first 3 years of their teaching career).

An extensive Slideshare presentation and video (both in English) on the TALIS 2013 results can be found here.  Another review, by Pedro De Bruykere, is available here.