3 common misconceptions that thwart school improvement

Many promising ideas to transform schools falter when leaders rely on conventional wisdom about how to make their initiatives flourish

Misconceptions are dangerous things. They shackle our visions of what’s possible and doom us to consequences we do not expect. For example, a student who believes her genes predetermine her academic abilities may avoid crucial learning experiences that are initially challenging. A student who believes his postgraduation success will flow from his intellectual prowess may gasp when he loses his first job due to interpersonal ineptitude.

School leaders, especially, need accurate notions of how the world works if they want their school improvement efforts to succeed. Yet many bold and promising ideas to transform schools falter when leaders rely on conventional wisdom about how to make their initiatives flourish.

Recently, my colleagues and I released a research paper that unveils common misconceptions about change management in schools. Given that many school initiatives falter for lack of teacher buy-in, we set out to uncover what actually causes teachers to change their practices. Using research methods based on the Jobs to Be Done Theory—an approach for identifying the causes driving demand for new products, services, and solutions—we asked teachers about the specific circumstances and events that led them to adopt new instructional practices.

Our findings shed light on a number of widely accepted, yet inaccurate, change management ideas that often lead well-intended initiatives awry.

Misconception 1: Student-centered practices appeal intrinsically to most teachers
The teachers we interviewed wanted to do what’s best for their students. But when school leaders extended this notion in the belief that student-centered strategies would have universal appeal, their approaches often ran afoul. For most teachers, proposed new practices are dead in the water unless they integrate with existing practices without excessive complication or hassle.

This isn’t a selfish inclination. As teachers hone their craft year over year, they collect resources and strategies that build on what works. New strategies—no matter how good they may seem for students—cannot gain traction if they require teachers to radically change their methods. In short, most teachers buy what school leaders are selling only when new practices square with their practical reality.

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