Friday, October 14, 2011

Leading Changes: Overcoming Evidence-Based Beliefs

In my recent post, Leading Changes: Sometimes It IS About Being Wrong, I suggested that school leaders face the challenge of allowing others the opportunity to accept that a previously held belief about teaching and learning may no longer be the right belief.  I also suggest that they foundation for those previously held beliefs (evidence or faith) are important in determining how leaders effectively work to overcome that challenge.  This post speaks of strategies to overcome evidence-based beliefs.

For the sake of this discussion, let's begin with defining what constitutes evidence.  In order for a belief to be based on evidence, there needs to exist some form of research based data.  In the context being discussed, we can accept two possible paths by which the teacher gathered the data - reading published research performed by others or self-observed results from one's own experiences.

Potential problems with evidence based on published research

Published research, while an excellent source of information, does have a few potential issues.  This is not to say that these articles are not valuable.  If you need to dig into published research, here are a few items to look for.
  • Is the research current?  Was it published in the last 10 years?  If not, there may be more current research available.  Teachers basing beliefs on old research can potentially be moved with more current research that points to your change initiative.
  • Research articles rarely prove anything.  They may suggest or move an idea further along the road to proof, but rarely does any published research "close the door" on a question.  The information in the article is one more pebble added to the mountain of knowledge gathered.
  • Does the context apply?  If you teach high school English in Louisiana, can research about how Korean lower school students learn math really apply to you?  It may, but the population and contextual differences are such that making that assumption is hard to defend. 

Potential problems with evidence based on self-observed results/experiences

Many teachers base their beliefs on self-observed results or experiences.  If you hear something along the lines of "I have been doing _ this way for years and it has worked well." then you are likely working with someone in this category.

There are two reasons why this situation should give the change leader hope.
  1. These teachers are actually paying attention to how their beliefs affect learning.
  2. If you can get these teachers to give a new belief a chance, it has a good chance of sticking.
On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that there may be a few problems associated with self-observed results and experiences.  It is rarely productive to point them out directly to the teacher (though it may need to come to that at some point).  Most often, school leaders may just need to remember these to use as context during discussions.
  • The belief had to have some origin other than experience.  Was it something the teacher experienced as a student?  Was it the advice of a mentor in the early years of teaching?  Was it something the teacher saw in a movie? 
  • The advice or experience from which the belief emerged was not right when they experienced it?  In other words, just because your mentor did it 20 years ago doesn't mean it was the better idea then.  It was simply the one you were exposed to.
  • Self-observations are often less reliable than others' observations.  This is an issue that has connections with gathering data.  Often, self-reporting is very different than observations by others.  That is why self-ratings and rating by others sometimes do not match up.  We, naturally, have an opinion of ourselves that is not always shared by those who work with us. 
Suggestions for overcoming evidence-based beliefs

Leading change in schools is difficult.  One of the most challenging obstacles to change is helping teachers understand that a previously held evidence-based belief needs redirecting.  Leaders who effectively overcome this challenge do so by:

Respecting the other person's belief

Beliefs are formed over time and are often very deeply associated with a teacher's sense of self-worth.  It is critical that you respect these beliefs and tread carefully.  There is considerable potential to gain your most ardent followers with those who initially hold beliefs that run counter to your change.  Nothing will derail your efforts to recruit these teachers to your point of view faster than disrespecting the beliefs that they have used as the foundation for their instruction.

Avoid negative judgments based on that belief

It is easy to judge someone negatively based on different beliefs.  As a school leader, you need to get past those feelings and then process them.  Instead, ask yourself this question, "What does his beliefs about teaching suggest about him as a professional?"  You may find the answer leads you to a whole new conversation; one that may establish a foundation from which to move forward. 

Listen to and seek out the evidence themselves

It is too easy to ignore or cut those with different beliefs out of the conversation.  The problem is that those are the ones you need to listen to the most.  Seek out those who hold different beliefs.  Invite them to explain how they came to those beliefs.  Ask them for a copy of the research they use as evidence (or where to find a copy).  If you show an interest in trying to understand their beliefs, you have a chance at them treating you in kind.

Use the evidence to make a new connection with the teacher

Often, once you get a conversation going, it will lead to a better understanding and a willingness to listen to suggestions.  Using the evidence as a common ground to build the relationship gives the change idea a possible non-threatening introduction.

Suggest a blending of established ways and the change effort

You can suggest that a teacher not give up his evidence-based beliefs but simply incorporate a new set of beliefs into his planning.  This is a method I have had quite a bit of success using.  The basic premise is for teachers to address the new evidence/beliefs while working from their strengths.  This method can be particularly powerful if the teacher, in the course of working on the new ideas, realizes that the evidence from which they based their established beliefs does not define their value in the school.  Rather, any evidence, whether published or self-observed, presents another opportunity for us to reflect on our practice and hold up our efforts against the backdrop of new discoveries.


Leading change efforts in schools is difficult.  Overcoming resistance in the form of evidence-based beliefs is critical if you expect your change effort to find success.  Using a few non-threatening strategies can help leaders effectively address this challenge.  Remember, resisting change is natural.  Do not take it personally if teachers are skeptical or resist your change effort.  Rather, work to understand the basis for their beliefs and provide opportunities for those beliefs to blend with the new ideas.

This post was the second in a three-part series.  Next, I will address leading changes and overcoming faith-based beliefs.  The term "faith-based" is often associated with religious beliefs.  For the purposes of this series, I am NOT referring to faith-based in any religious sense.  In this conversation, I use the term "faith-based" to represent beliefs whose foundations are not based on any published research, experience, or observation.  These are beliefs about teaching and learning that are based more on culture and tradition.

I hope you will join me for part three, Leading Changes: Overcoming Faith-Based Beliefs.
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