From Steps to Leaps in Teacher Implementation of Math Initiatives
Over the last few decades American education has faced tremendous changes, e.g., No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards, and new frameworks and standards coming soon. Within implementing these more rigorous standards and frameworks, educators face adaptive and technical challenges. Technical challenges can be solved with clear steps and certainty of the outcomes, while adaptive challenges require educators to change in response to different kinds of tasks, people, and experiences. These complex challenges may include unknowns, have multiple possible solutions or no solutions, or require a culture shift (Heifetz & Linksey, 2017). In the coming years, many states will be adopting new math frameworks and standards, and districts and schools will grapple with how to support teacher implementation.
These new guidelines are full of innovative ways of thinking about math teaching and learning. Past frameworks focused heavily on unpacking standards, understanding depth in the mathematical content, and analyzing sample problems. Many new guidelines call for an increased emphasis on exploration and investigation through equitable and engaging school experiences. At first glance, this may seem like a technical problem that can be solved with new professional development or curriculum aligned to the new framework, but this challenge will require changes in beliefs, values, and teaching and learning approaches. An adaptive challenge, indeed.
Adaptive challenges are solved by the people involved—in this case, teachers and school leaders! Requiring all teachers to attend the same professional development, acquire formal knowledge, and implement it in their schools regardless of their stage of implementation often results in resistance or, at best, compliance. Instead, teachers need opportunities for professional autonomy, “the right of an individual to self-direct, the freedom to make informed, uncoerced decisions” (Tomlinson, 2019). This does not mean that teachers can do whatever they want and ignore state-level nonnegotiables like math standards and frameworks because it is necessary to have a shared vision for student learning. Since teachers already exhibit autonomy with how they operate in their classes, e.g., the physical environment of the room, rules, rewards, and procedures (Strong & Yoshida, 2014), school leaders can leverage teachers’ expertise and creativity to make instructional decisions that will lead to increased student learning. In fact, Pink (2009) found that when people are given more autonomy, are supported in working toward mastery, and understand the company’s purpose, they are more productive and satisfied at work.
To develop teachers as self-directed learners, school leaders can create “autonomous learning environments by providing a balance of time for planning, support for collaborative analysis, a combination of individual and group processing, and a team approach to strategically assessing progress toward goals” (Tomlinson & Murphy, 2015). This environment supports individual teachers and the collective—teachers and school leaders—simultaneously. A collaborative culture encourages teacher participation in collective professional learning, which impacts teacher innovativeness (Nguyen, Pietsch, & Gümüs, 2021). As a team, teachers are motivated to devise and implement their own innovative solutions. School leaders need to take into account teachers’ readiness and context to gauge what degree of autonomy is appropriate (OECD, 2020).
One way to think about readiness is to consider the process of implementing an innovation — e.g., a new curriculum, set of standards, strategy, or idea (Knight, 2021). Teachers begin in and move through the process of implementation at different paces. Knight (2021) has identified five stages of implementation. At first, teachers are not using the innovation because they are resistant or not able. In the second stage, they know of the innovation and may be willing to implement, but they are not yet practicing. At the third stage, teachers begin to implement the innovation somewhat clumsily as they remember all the components. During the fourth stage, teachers continue to implement, and the innovation components become more familiar and natural. At the highest stage of implementation, teachers are proficient as they feel comfortable adapting the innovation to their students and style. As teachers are beginning and moving through implementation at different paces, schools and districts looking to implement math initiatives should consider varied professional learning experiences to support the progression of teachers’ professional autonomy, instructional practice, and ultimately shifts in student learning. Allowing teachers to take their individual steps at different paces will ultimately position schools and districts to make great leaps in math education.
Starting from nonuse
Most professional learning starts when teachers are not yet using an innovation, whether a new curriculum or best practice for math instruction. Typically, teachers in this stage either don’t know how to start or may refuse to implement the innovation. Support for teachers who are unable to begin may include an explicit focus on content knowledge, curriculum, and classroom instruction. Such support could also include access to the expertise of coaches. Supporting resistant teachers can be more challenging: How do we motivate teachers who resist trying something new? Tomlinson and Murphy (2015) identify three critical elements: the professional learning experience must be purposeful, build teacher voice and creativity, and provide any necessary support for teachers to be successful. Within a learning environment that fosters teacher voice and offers differentiated resources, teachers can develop the agency to work through obstacles and teach their students to do the same.
At this stage, one professional development approach calls for teachers to engage in problem solving: identify the problem, find the root cause, note possible solutions, and try out the solutions. However, teachers often look at themselves or their students as the problems, and the change process may begin with a focus on perceived deficits. Furthermore, teachers may feel uninspired to make changes in their classrooms. Rather than approaching the problem from a deficit, teachers could use an asset-based approach and begin from a positive or strength. Using an asset-based approach starts by celebrating what’s working and imagining what could be (Stavros, Godwin, & Cooperrider, 2015). An asset-based approach excites teachers to build off past successes and create a shared purpose, incorporating values, dreams, and clear objectives. From this agreed-upon vision, an individual teacher retains “the latitude to make decisions about his or her own work” (Tomlinson, 2019).
This asset-based approach can be used at an individual level to support teachers, but it becomes even more powerful when teachers and school leaders work as a collective across their system. When teachers feel valued, implementation can more easily move through the stages—from not using the innovation to trying the innovation. Teachers feel valued when they are provided with opportunities to build knowledge together, and work through inconsistencies between their ideal and the reality of their classrooms. As teachers reconcile discrepancies between their initial thinking and the new ideas that emerge as they examine evidence, they change their beliefs about teaching and learning (Donohoo & Velasco, 2016). To believe that they can effect change, teachers need opportunities to see and gather evidence around how their actions can positively affect student learning (Guskey, 2021). Through conversations and classroom observations with colleagues across their system, teachers develop collective expertise to deepen student learning, which is the foundation for equitable improvement of student learning outcomes (Westover, 2019). They realize what they are doing can make a difference in their students’ lives and are inspired to grow their expertise together.
Striving for proficient
The ultimate goal is proficient implementation. At this stage, teachers have an extensive understanding of the innovation and feel comfortable adapting it for their students and context to ensure student success in their math classrooms. In other words, they have ownership and professional discretion with the innovation. To engage students in rigorous math learning, teachers integrate curriculum and instructional strategies to support the needs of all students.
To support teachers in higher levels of implementation, schools and districts need a coherent approach to professional learning that utilizes collaborative inquiry. Westover (2019) notes that “the idea of coherence or systems thinking is really using collaborative inquiry, which is how you seek out solutions in a way in which you really don’t know an answer, to shape that coherent path of improvement.” Utilizing collaborative inquiry, teams of teachers, principals, and district staff together create a shared understanding of the purpose and value of inquiry. Together they collect and analyze evidence from math classrooms and systematically examine how their instructional practices impacted student outcomes. The process motivates teachers, who want to express their own creativity and control in their math classrooms but also belong to a professional community of educators that provides encouragement and insights (Tomlinson & Murphy, 2015).
When teachers inform the design and content of their learning experiences, the professional development is more likely to address their needs, influence their thinking, and change their instructional practices (Bredeson, 2000). When teachers are supported to study their classrooms by identifying and implementing instructional practices that cultivate active math learning, they will be able to implement new standards or frameworks while simultaneously moving through the stages of implementation. Now more than ever, education needs professional learning that values educators’ assets, builds on the collective, grounds itself in collaborative inquiry, and gives teachers voice in decision-making. We can empower teachers not only to take the initial small steps but to make great leaps toward everyone’s ultimate goal: elevating all students’ learning in mathematics.
CORE’s job-embedded coaching combines our expertise with your own to build a sustainable system of growth for students and staff. Our approach integrates collaboration with instructional leaders and teachers so we can identify student and instructional needs and plan and carry out professional learning that impacts teacher practice and student outcomes. Please contact us if you’d like to discuss partnering with CORE.
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