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.


14 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.

      • I find this to be true. Inquiry based instruction is very structured in terms of what we do and don’t do- how we respond and guide (facilitate) the learning. Most of the colleagues I work with do not read the lesson instructions, and are surprised at the structure. The other side of this is that without the structure, the lesson does not come off, the teacher shifts back to lecture and reveal mode and the crash and burn leaves instructors and observers feeling reluctant to try again.

  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.

  8. I’m really disappointed to find you of all people confusing pedagogy with standards. CC$$ training is all about the pedagogy, and I am in total agreement that traditional lecture is not the best teaching technique. CC$$ standards are not acceptable for our very young students a and they have no research basis to demonstrate that changing the standards leads to improved academic performance. Massachusetts and California both had better standards, both in clarity and the infamous rigor. Why are the geometry standards listing derivations starting with equations that are not taught till pre-cal? Why did algebra 2 standards cease mid course? Why should literature become such a limited part of high school learning? What research justifies these standards? Changing teaching techniques is absolutely necessary. CC$$ is not.

    And my biggest disappointment from a fellow physics teacher is your attempt to bring pour nation’s military into the discussion on Memorial Day. Do you know exactly what percentage of public school children are considered migrant? 1.4%. I am a military brat, a service member and a veteran AP physics teacher from an urban school district and a modeler. CC$$ will fail my students.

    • Hi Maridee,

      I don’t want to turn this into a Common Core debate. I support math teaching that allows kids to talk about and explore math first, saving the traditional algorithms for later when kids are able to understand why they work. As physics teachers, we know there are typically multiple approaches to solving problems, and I’d love for kids to see this and be comfortable with it early on. I wouldn’t say I’m an advocate of Common Core, but rather I take issue with folks that ignorantly label anything that’s not the standard math algorithm as “Common Core Math.” These same people typically complain that “kids these days” can’t make change, and then in the next breath complain about teaching kids the non-algorithmic strategies that people use when making change (e.g., counting up to do subtraction). To take good math teaching (or crappy worksheets — which have been around long before Common Core) and turn around and label it “Common Core Math” (which therefore is “bad”) will do more damage to math education in the long run whether Common Core is adopted or not.

      My tweet about Common Core and the military was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, that sentiment doesn’t translate well into 140 characters, even for folks who know my personality. It wasn’t meant to be an insult. But the 1.4% kids still deserve to have an equitable education like everyone else. I’m curious what services are in place to minimize educational disruption for military families that move frequently. Any support from the US government? Or does that responsibility fall to the school and families?

      Thanks for your feedback. My apologies for not being clearer.

  9. Military families have more support now during a move than when I was a kid. There are very few state side military schools now so students are a part of public and private schools. The most aid comes from realators helping to relocate when base housing isn’t available. In fact there is a growing home school movement within the military and those kids are highly successful. Again, national policy for only 1.4% of the nations school age is not enough reason for CC$$. Many of that 1.4% are children of illegal immigrants not military. And finally, most of those move are 18 months to 3 years apart.

    I moved at Christmas of my 3rd grade year from CA to TN. I was in private school. The two schools used the same exact curriculum for ELA and math. I can describe the ELA workbook exactly. When I got to TN I was more than a month ahead in ELA and two chapters behind in math. So unless you want the same exact scripted lessons within the CC$$ curriculum, then the CC$s standards aren’t going to help these kids either.

    Do you really want to teach scripted lessons for physics. I’m pretty sure we would loose your angry birds, my fire crackers, any eggs, and a lot more of the cool stuff that makes modeling physics the fun interesting classes that we have developed over the years. Do you want to be tethered to a textbook? I’m really found of Holt (much sarcasm here).

    Now as to CC$$, now you are confusing curriculum with standards. Math curriculum that claims to be CC$$ aligned has been hastily put together, again without any research that defends the choices. For instance, CC$$ doesn’t require mastery of multiplication until 5th grade , a full year after most international standards. So the curriculum is written so that students are introduced to a multitude of multiplication algorithm s starting in second grade. The traditional multiplication is not taught till 5th grade.

    I can give you a physics analogy. There are about five techniques to solving a problem of the velocity of a box at the bottom of the incline. Do you teach the kinematics method followed by the energy method followed by the momentum method followed by inertia all in a row without conceptual development? No you don’t.

    If they don’t have to master multiplication math facts till 5th grade how will they master multiple techniques first? And what research shows this is the best way to teach multiplication?

    I have a child with dyslexia, so I learned many of these techniques with her. Parents and educators are confused because many of them didn’t get proper training themselves. We had the help of a SPED specialist for my child. The average elementary teacher did not get training in college. Until this becomes a regular part of teacher training and the curriculum is well written, there will continue to be complaints about good techniques.

    That still doesn’t address the poor standards found in CC$$.

    CC$$ was a noble idea that went horribly wrong when the reformers decided to leave out teachers and focus on profits. While NGSS is not perfect, at least it was done by educators and it was open for comment. How much comment was there on CC$$ and how willing are those that copy write d the standards to fix the standards!

    • Hi Maridee,

      Like I said, my comment about the military and Common Core was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes both “sides” of the debate use inflammatory arguments. And, as I’ve said, I’m not a Common Core cheerleader. Criticizing the some of the anti-CC argument =/= Common Core proponent.

      You’re right about materials hastily put together. But at the same time, no one is required to use those materials and are free to use their own. I don’t think I’m confusing curriculum with standards. Look at AP Physics: We all adhere to the same set of standards (the objectives listed in the acorn book) but no two AP Physics classes nationwide are identical nor are they scripted or tethered to a textbook. Same standards, different curricula.

      Since you offered me your military experience, I’ll give you my experience with multiplication. My son is in 3rd grade. He is required to know his multiplication facts. I think you are misinformed about the 5th grade multiplication standard. The standard is: “Fluently multiply *multi-digit* whole numbers using the standard algorithm.” That’s 1234×567=? not single digit facts like 5×6. In 4th grade the standard is “multiply a whole number of up to four digits by a one-digit whole number, and multiply two two-digit numbers.” In 3rd grade, it’s multiplying by whole tens. I think this is a fairly standard progression, way before Common Core. Look at the progression of multiplication topics on this website for “Homeschool math” The standard stacking algorithm for multiplication isn’t actually needed until multiplying 2 multi-digit numbers, which isn’t introduced until Grade 5, even on the homeschool math site. This seems to be the typical progression that predates Common Core. Perhaps this traditional progression really is flawed and that students should be doing 1234×567 in 3rd grade at the same time they are learning their multiplication facts — I haven’t seen any research on how kids progress through increasing complexity of multiplication problems.

      I whole-heartedly agree with you about the teacher training and the typical math preparation of elementary teachers.

      Regarding the NGSS, an organization called Achieve has had a hand in both the CCSS and NGSS: and

      Please note that I am not saying Common Core is the solution/it’s the bees knees/or anything like that.

  10. Another great post! I am working on trying to show some teachers the light in social studies. Seeing as this is probably the most traditionally taught subject, it has been hard. I love Eric Mazur’s group work. They are really great people.

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