Convincing Reluctant Teachers

This question was posted to Twitter today:

Question: how do you convince teachers who are ADAMANT that they teach to the rigor required by CCSS that they really don’t?

(CCSS means Common Core State Standards)

This is a great question. I think it applies to a wide range of situations. You can replace “CCSS” with the Next Generation Science Standards, the new AP Physics 1 and 2 course, or any curricula du jour. It all boils down to showing these teachers that traditional teaching methods do not lead students to a deeper understanding of the concepts.

Some folks may suggest showing the reluctant teachers sample test questions from the new assessments. I say stay far away from that. These teachers will likely look for tricks to game the assessments so students can be successful without the in-depth understanding these teachers think they are teaching.

My suggestion is to have the reluctant teachers administer a basic conceptual diagnostic test to their students. The questions are so basic, so easy, the teachers will say “Of course my students can ace this!”

And then wait for the results to come in.

In all likelihood, the students (on average) will do poorly. Amazingly poorly. Even worse than if they had simply guessed randomly.

To which the reluctant teacher responds, “What happened? They should have known all this!”

Now’s your chance. I think now they’ll be more receptive to what you have to say about how students learn math and science and why interactive engagement techniques work.


Here’s Erik Mazur (Harvard physics professor) explaining what happened when he gave his students a conceptual diagnostic test:

(The video is an excerpt from Mazur’s longer “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” talk.)


Extensive lists of concept inventories can be found at FLAG and NC State. Remember, many of these tests have been painstakingly developed and refined by researchers. Be sure to abide by the developers’ rules with administering the tests to students. You should not post them to the internet or discuss the answers with students.

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8 responses to “Convincing Reluctant Teachers

  1. Well said. I agree that it’s best to focus on student performance on conceptual-based assessment items instead of challenging particular instructional approaches. You can’t argue with the former, but you eventually reach an “agree to disagree” point if you take on the latter because there is no reference point for even determining which classroom practices are “better.” Quality learning experiences can only be judged by the resulting performance on the part of the learner.

    Regarding the original question from Twitter, one thing worth trying would be to get some of these teachers to try a CCSS Math Practices Standards-Based Grading Pilot for the Standards for Mathematical Practices. Everyone could keep their normal grading practices and assessment systems, but then additionally together agree on a couple of the SMP’s and decide on ways to assess students on them. If you focus on “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others,” then you would necessarily need to redesign assessments to collect evidence that students could do those two things in new and unfamiliar situations. Traditional teaching methods don’t usually engage students in constructing their own original arguments or critiquing previously unseen arguments. Therefore classroom practices have to change if we’re to prepare students for novel situations. In addition to helping students think and understand better, this strategy would impact classroom practice, improve assessment, and provide an opportunity to work with the ideas of SBG.

  2. I think this is a wonderful articulation of the case (once again) for formative assessment.

    I also think it is possible (and sometimes valuable) to “cultivate receptivity” so that a reluctant colleague will be ready to have the lightbulb moment — and to respond more constructively — when the inevitable happens.

    The particular questioning technique I was thinking about in response to Captain Bad Idea’s question about working with reluctant colleagues during the summer was something that is called in negotiation strategy “implication thinking.” Basically, it is helpful to gently ask guiding questions about possible implications that can happen following the method or procedure that your counterpart is especially dug into.

    You just ask them questions, such as, “What happens if they ? Then you ask a couple of implication questions: “Could this possibly lead to ____? Could students also _____?” Finally, you invite them to join the brainstorming process: “What are some other misconceptions/problems they might run into?”

    This technique assumes that you are willing to assume good intentions on their part. They’re probably more afraid of change than they are dug in and committed to failure.

    It’s about gently opening the door to the possibility of CONSIDERING other approaches.

    The key thing is, you ask some questions, you invite them into the hypotheticals process, and then you have to LEAVE THEM ALONE TO EXPERIENCE WHATEVER THEY EXPERIENCE WHEN THEY GO THROUGH THE PROCESS FRANK OUTLINES. As with students, you have to believe in the possibility of their having and owning their own insights.
    This is often the most challenging part for me.
    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. It’s interesting to note that it’s not only teachers who are reluctant to shift from the more traditional lecture approach to the research proven inquiry methodologies. How do you deal with an administrator who wants all the teachers to use the traditional teach style when you as a teacher want to move into the more hands-on approach? I’d love some feedback as this is the situation I’m in now….wanting to use an inquiry approach in all my science classes but having the administrator telling me, “No, that takes too long! These kids need to have notes to fill in the blanks and you need to give them the information using a PowerPoint presentation. There’s no reason to spend so much time on things that won’t help the students.”

    • Hi Renee,

      I think looking at the 8 Science Practices documented in the NGSS would be a good place to start. And the new AP curricula in chem, bio, and physics are putting a greater emphasis on inquiry.

      There also might be some misconceptions by your admins about what inquiry teaching means. It isn’t “Here, go play with this apple and come back having discovered all of Newton’s Laws.” It’s guided and structured.

  4. Our related question is: how do you convince adamant people that Common Core, even at its most rigorous, is still low level when compared to world-class K-12 mathematics?

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  7. T'Keyan Peoples

    . As a future teacher I will not entirely stray away from traditional teaching but I will make it as fun and interesting as possible.

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