- A more nuanced look at choice in teacher development
A more nuanced look at choice in teacher development
Many of us have heard of Dan Pink’s tripartite model of motivation: To be motivated we need autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Some people in the teacher development space use Pink’s work on autonomy to argue that for a teacher to be motivated to improve, they must be able to choose their own goals, citing quotes such as, ‘A less than perfect goal chosen by the teacher is better than a perfect goal chosen by the coach’.
I believe that when we make claims like this, we oversimplify the role of choice in teacher development.
When we look at choice in teacher development, it occurs at a range of different levels. I’ve identified at least four, but there may be more. Here they are:
Tentative four-stage model of choice
Let’s consider each level in turn
(I’ll assume we’re talking about a coach/coachee relationship here, but this is relevant for all teacher development, as well as teacher/student relationships too)
Firstly, a coachee must choose to improve. Improvement always takes some form of effort, so without the impetus to improve, they won’t have the motivation to take any action at all.
Secondly, a coachee can choose what to improve. This choice represents the identification of a domain of improvement, such as classroom management, clarity of explanation, or feedback.
Third, a coachee can choose how to improve. That is, an action or set of actions must be identified that are likely to help them to improve in the selected domain.
Finally, they must choose to take action to improve. If they don’t take action, then no change will take place.
If this four-stage process is a more accurate representation of teacher choice in professional development, then it’s clear that to suggest that a teacher must have autonomy over their own professional development is an oversimplification.
The benefit of disaggregating choice in this way is that it enables us to talk in more detail about who is best placed to make a choice at each of these levels. Here’s how I see it:
Begin and end with teacher choice
As you can see, teacher development must begin and end with the choice of the teacher.
We must begin with teacher choice because without choosing to improve, the teacher won’t cognitively engage in the development opportunity, whether it be coaching, a PD session, or otherwise. Attention is a core precursor to learning, so without it, change can’t take place. (This doesn’t mean that a coach or leader can’t do anything to influence this improvement orientation, but that’s a topic for a future EdThread).
We must also end with teacher choice because without choosing to take action in line with the planned what and how, again, no chance will take place.
Experts are best placed to identify best bets for next steps
However, when it comes to deciding what and how to improve, that role can fall to either the teacher, or their coach.
Importantly, when we deeply consider the crucial role of credible experts in supporting the rapid and sustained improvement of novices, it becomes clear that the role of identifying what a novice teacher should focus on and how they should do it is often best placed in the hands of a credible expert.
To reject this statement is to reject the whole premise of school and formal education. Schools are predicated on the insight that when someone with domain expertise (a teacher) comes together with someone lacking that expertise (a student), the novice can make rapid progress by following the guidance of the expert. Further, the more clearly the expert models, deconstructs, gives opportunities for practice, and provides quality feedback, the faster the novice will improve.
This insight applies anywhere that a knowledge and skill differential exists, whether it’s between child and adult, or adult and adult.
(In fact, one of the biggest transfer failures in education results from assuming that the insights from effective education under 18s is somehow useless when it comes to adult education. But again, an EdThread for another time)
Bring an open to learning orientation
But it would be a mistake to interpret the above as a suggestion that a coach must mandate the what and how of a coachee’s improvement. In fact, it’s the opposite. Every step suggestion made by a coach should be accompanied by an attitude of hypothesis, tentativeness, and an open to learning orientation.
Regardless of the expertise level of a coach, nobody ever has the full picture, and there may be knowledge or experience of the coachee which means that the coach’s process of next step identification was missing some key piece of information.
Every proposal for a pathway forwards, even from the most credible of experts, should be accompanied with a true openness to learning, a foundational belief that, ‘This is what I think, but I might be mistaken’
Buy-in and choice are not the same thing
The fact that a credible expert is best placed to identify the what and how for a novice also doesn’t mean that a teacher doesn’t need to agree with the step selections or proposals from their coach. In truth, it’s crucial that they do.
Coaching requires buy-in, and buy-in requires agreement. Buy-in is imperative for coaching to be motivationally sustainable for a coachee and to generate real change.
But buy-in isn’t choice, and it shouldn’t be confused with it. Buy-in from the coachee is crucial at every stage of the coaching process, choice is not.
These ideas apply to student learning too. For a student to learn, they must both choose to want to learn, and choose to take action (begin and end with choice). But this doesn’t mean they must choose what to learn nor how to learn it.
But as they become more and more knowledgeable and expert learners, the teacher will be able to devolve more and more decisional responsibility to them.
Scaffolding this transition to independence and self-regulation is what I see as the key role of the teacher, and the coach. As the novice approaches the levels of expertise of a credible expert, more and more of the direction of their learning journey should be handed over to them.
What do you think? Does this taxonomy of choice clarify anything for you? Have I missed something out?
Getting choice right in teacher development is important, let’s ensure we don’t oversimplify it.
Announcements and Opportunities
We’re now less than 2 weeks away from the Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensives in Perth (Oct 11th), Melb (13th), Syd (18th), and the Gold coast (20th).
We have over 100 attendees already booked into each of the Perth, Melb, and Syd dates, but there’s still time to get in. Don’t let this one slip you by.
Other threads to pull on
Really good podcast episode by Emily Oster about how to raise well-adjusted kids in an environment of unhealthily competitive high-achievement (a good listen for all parents)
The usual wisdom from Michael Pershan. Is there really such a thing as 'The Science of Maths'? Great commentary!