Why teachers “give up.”

In one of the more interesting twists of digital fate, my recent post on interactive whiteboards has been making a bit of a splash in cyberspace over the past few days.  It was first picked up by Teacher Magazine.  Then, the Washington Post spotlighted it in their Answer Sheet blog.

And while the majority of the comments in both places have been surprisingly supportive of my argument that IWBs are a waste of cash, there have been a few negative arrows slung my way.  One in particular—added to the Teacher Magazine post by a guy named Mr. D—caught my attention.

He wrote:

I think the problems is that either you are resistant to technology ie change, or you have not been exposed on how to integrate it properly.  Bill why would you give up so quickly in trying to implement it in your classroom? Don’t you have higher expectations for your students? Would you let them give up so quickly?

What bothers me in Mr. D’s comment is an attitude towards teachers that I see often in conversations about school change.  “Teachers all resistant to change and lazy!” the argument goes.  “If they’d just be persistent and determined, our schools would be saved.”

I hear this kind of thinking across domains in education.  Talk about technology use—including some of my own posts here on the Radical—targets teachers who just won’t “get on board.”  Conversations about professional learning communities and collaboration are driven by those who “won’t get on the bus.”  The general belief is that teachers lack determination and commitment in almost every circumstance.

In many cases, that’s a flawed assumption.  Want to know why your teachers “give up” in the face of new initiatives?  It’s simply because the amount of effort that most changes take doesn’t align with the corresponding benefits that change is designed to produce.

Like professionals in any field, teachers judge the transaction costs that change requires before taking action. When new practices or strategies require tons of investment—complicated planning, intensive research, sophisticated interactions with colleagues, specialized resources or tools—teachers must be convinced ahead of time that the benefits are going to outweigh these new costs of action.

Take my whiteboard argument:  I “gave up” (to borrow Mr. D’s lingo) because the amount of effort that it took to design truly innovative, student-centered learning experiences with my IWB was almost overwhelming.  The software wasn’t designed to naturally facilitate the kinds of teaching that I believe in and limited access to the hardware required that I restructure learning time in my classroom almost every day.

Was it possible to make the IWB work in my room?  Sure—I’m a pretty talented teacher and I could probably figure out how to create meaningful lessons with any tool or technique—but the benefits were limited and the costs were high.  That’s a recipe for failure every time.

It might also surprise you to know—considering that my first book on professional learning communities was published in September—that I was ready to give up on collaboration after the first few months of working with my colleagues.  Why?  Because collaboration was completely exhausting.  Designing common assessments required difficult and time-consuming conversations.  Identifying instructional strategies that work required compromise.  Remediation and enrichment required research and restructuring of traditional practices.

Nothing that we created together during those first few months seemed to be of any real value.  Sure, we had simple successes—but those successes paled in comparison to the time and energy that we had to invest in learning to work together.  I still remember the anger that I felt every time I heard our principal—a guy I still respect and admire more than most any school leader alive—wax poetic about how great PLCs really were.  He, after all, wasn’t having to plug through new work with little support and/or guidance.

The key for school leaders interested in seeing change efforts succeed, then, is simple:  Work diligently to reduce the costs of new changes for your teachers.  Begin by identifying the practices that are the easiest to implement and introduce those early and often. Teachers will see instant benefits with little effort—and instant benefits with little effort builds momentum and confidence.

Then, target increasingly sophisticated practices that are likely to carry greater costs and find ways to make that work easier for your teachers and teams.  Provide exemplars and templates.  Hire specialists to come in and advise.  Create additional time for teachers to work with new practices on the clock.  All of these actions can balance the costs and benefits of change—and balancing the costs and benefits of change is the only way that you’re going to get your teachers to truly embrace anything new!

Richard Elmore, an educational leader, once wrote, “Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for
every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.”

Instead of harping on “those lazy teachers” who won’t embrace change, true instructional leaders work to build capacity by decreasing the transaction costs associated with change efforts and by ditching practices that will always require more energy than they are really worth.

Any of this make sense?

I guess I’m just tired of being told not to give up in the face of practices that I know hold little value for my students.  Change is about more than determination, you know.  It’s about careful choices.