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Reducing change to increase improvement

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson discussed the key insights from her recent book, Reduce change to increase improvement (Corwin, 2018). Viviane was inspired to write this book because she was dismayed to see how much of the change that happens in education does not actually lead to improvement. She warns that cycles of unsuccessful change lead to burnout and cynicism in teachers and are of no benefit to students.  

The role of a leader 

The role of a leader is to support teachers to encourage and deliver a range of better cultural, social and academic outcomes for students: this is the moral purpose of schooling, and yet there are many pressures on and distractions from this purpose. Leaders need to maintain a relentless focus on their students, and they need to know how different initiatives affect different groups of students as well as the student population as a whole. 

Seeking improvement rather than change  

When involved in professional development work in schools, it is important to take care over the type of language we use: change is not necessarily the same as improvement, so leaders need to be upfront about seeking improvement rather than simply change. Leaders also need to be able to say why they are asking their staff to go to the effort of improvement, and they need to have a theory about how to improve things (a theory for improvement).  

Why engaging with teachers’ theories of action matters 

A theory of action underpins how and why a teacher teaches in a particular way, that is, the beliefs that underpin a teacher’s practice. It is these beliefs which shape practice, which in turn is what determines student outcomes. Addressing teachers’ theories of action therefore are at the heart of improvement. However, it is important to recognise that, for many teachers, their theory of action will be tacit, and they may find difficult to express and explain it.  

When seeking to address a problem or improve an aspect of teaching and learning, leaders should spend most of their time understanding why teachers are currently doing what they’re doing or teaching the way they’re teaching (that is, uncovering their current theory of action). Leaders can do this by talking with teachers (in a way that does not ascribe blame) about what needs to be improved and why, and by observing and talking with teachers about how they are currently teaching. As part of this process, it is important that teachers and leaders come to an agreement that current student outcomes are unsatisfactory. From there, with an open mind, they can consider which teaching actions may be leading to those outcomes and from there leaders can work backwards to uncover the beliefs underlying those actions and practices. It is much more effective to start with actual actions and practices than to try and engage in a philosophical discussion about how to teach.  

When leaders have uncovered teachers’ theory of action in a respectful, collaborative way, they need to engage with it by putting their own theory on the table and discussing with teachers whether it is worth trying to make some changes in their practice. Once there is agreement between leader and teachers that the alternative theory of action is worth trying, it is possible to work together to test it. 

While the process of uncovering teachers’ theories of action is time consuming, if this does not happen then it is the leader’s agenda rather than agreement and consensus driving the change, which can often result in teachers resisting making changes.  

The four phases of theory engagement 

  1. Agree on the problem to be solved (‘constructive problem talk’) and find common ground. 
  1. Reveal the relevant theories of action through focused observation looking for causal connections between practices and outcomes. It is important in this phase to reach agreement with the teacher on the link between practices and outcomes. Interpersonal skills are essential: be clear, respectful and honest. 
  1. Evaluate the relative merit of current and alternative theories of action, and decide if the alternative is worth trying. It is important for the leader to offer and provide help with trying out new practices. 
  1. Implement and monitor a new shared theory. This phase is about learning together whether or not the new theory is working. This requires leaders to be open to listening to what teachers are doing and why. It is important to agree on outcome indicators and to build them into the new theory. The outcome indicators should consider the experience and results of the students. Bear in mind that the time it takes to see improvement will entirely depend on the problem to be solved.