Why Is Change So Hard?

  • Why Is Change So Hard?

    Why Is Change So Hard?

    Matt Larson, NCTM President
    June 21, 2017

    As I meet math teachers across the country and present at various state meetings, they often come up to me after my session and tell me they agree with what I said (at least most of it), and tell me they are working hard to change their own practice or striving to modify those policies in their school that don’t promote equitable outcomes. 

    Frequently, teachers then follow up by telling me about the resistance they encounter from colleagues or parents as they implement these changes. I am usually asked some version of “Why is change so hard?” This is a centuries-old question and one that nearly every one of us has asked ourselves at some point as we endeavor to improve teaching and learning in our own classroom, building, or district, and strive to promote access, equity, and the empowerment of our students.

    James Hiebert, professor of mathematics education at the University of Delaware and coauthor of the well-known book The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom (Stigler and Hiebert 1999), has offered explanations for the resistance to change that so many of us experience. Among the reasons that Hiebert includes for the resistance to change in mathematics education is the lack of nationwide agreement on mathematics learning because mathematics teaching is also a cultural activity.

    In a previous President’s Message, “The Elusive Search for Balance,” I addressed the need to seek balance and avoid extremes with respect to mathematical learning goals, specifically advocating that students should learn how to solve problems (procedures), know why procedures work (conceptual understanding), and know when to use mathematics (problem solving and application) while building a positive mathematics identity and a sense of agency. 

    By seeking balance with respect to mathematical learning goals instead of over-emphasizing any particular aspect of mathematics education, we can address one facet of the resistance to change. When we balance mathematical learning goals within a multidimensional definition of mathematics literacy, nearly every stakeholder can find what they value about mathematics learning. However, we also have to address the fact that teaching, and mathematics teaching in particular, is a cultural activity.

    As Hiebert (2013) observed, to say that teaching is a cultural activity means that the instructional strategies and practices teachers embrace are likely not newly invented by each teacher, but rather are learned and adopted through experience and observation of their peers and their own K–12 mathematics teachers. Hiebert was referring to teachers, but I believe his observation applies equally well to nearly all adults in the United States. Each and every parent, community leader, and school board member has a preconceived notion as to what they expect to see in the mathematics classroom, what effective instructional practices look like, and what procedures and policies should exist in schools.

    Most high school graduates in the United States have experienced around 1,500 hours of mathematics instruction. This experience creates powerful expectations for mathematics teaching and learning among the general public that does not exist for other professions. Consider physicians. None of us spent our formative years observing a physician at work for 1 hour a day, for 180 days per year, for 13 straight years. So we do not have the same expectations for how a physician does her job as we do for a teacher of mathematics. Consequently, most of us have a tendency to trust the professional expertise of the physician who is treating us. In fact, we expect our physician to be up-to-date with respect to current, research-based, and effective treatment protocols.

    And yet, because mathematics teaching and learning is a cultural activity, there is a greater tendency to resist change in the mathematics classroom. Sometimes when educators, schools, or districts attempt to implement research-informed instructional practices or policies, they face resistance from colleagues, administrators, or parents who dispute those changes because they don’t conform to their beliefs and cultural expectations for mathematics teaching and learning. This resistance is natural and to be expected, but it impedes our ability to improve our teaching and our students’ learning.

    The result is that we continue to practice detrimental aspects of mathematics instruction that have been around for centuries in too many classrooms, even though the urgency that each and every student reach higher levels of proficiency in mathematics, our knowledge of what constitutes effective teaching and learning, and the students themselves have all dramatically changed. Most of us would not want our physician to treat us the way physicians treated patients decades or centuries ago. The same should be the case with respect to our, and the general public’s, expectations for mathematics teaching and learning. So what can we do?

    We need to start by becoming strong advocates for research-informed instructional practices to our colleagues, administrators, and the parents of our students—promoting not only the elements of excellent mathematics programs but why they are crucial for students today. The elements of effective instruction and excellent mathematics programs are known and summarized in Principles to Actions: Ensuring the Mathematical Success of All Students [PtA]. NCTM also offers a Principles to Actions Professional Learning Toolkit to support your professional development work and collaboration in your grade level or subject-based professional learning communities. 

    At the Annual Meeting in San Antonio this year, NCTM released the first two of three grade-band books entitled Taking Action: Implementing Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices in K– Grade 5, Grades 6–8, and Grades 9–12. These books elaborate on the teaching and learning principles described in Principles to Actions. Through examples, case studies, activities, research, and connections to equitable instructional practices, these books deepen teachers’ and leaders’ understanding of the eight effective mathematics teaching practices and how they can be enacted in the classroom. In addition, this series makes important connections to equity-based instructional practices that promote students’ positive mathematics identity.

    Professional development and collaboration utilizing these NCTM resources can transform your professional learning communities from mere cooperative groups to genuine learning communities focused on professional growth and continual improvement. Through professional collaboration, teachers can support one another in understanding the need for change, study research-informed instructional practices and policies, and sustain one another throughout the implementation process. By working collaboratively, the likelihood is exponentially greater that we will be able to successfully transform our practice, to win parent support when they see the results of improvement efforts, and to overcome the resistance that has traditionally thwarted effective change. 

    The Professionalism Principle in Principles to Actions states in part, “in an excellent mathematics program educators hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for…their personal and collective professional growth toward effective teaching and learning of mathematics” (p. 99). I encourage each of you to make a commitment to live the Professionalism Principle in your daily work by collaborating in your professional learning communities to implement balanced mathematical goals, support each other in the implementation of research-informed instructional practices, and overcome the resistance to change in order to continually improve your practice and your students’ learning.

    And just think where we would be if each and every student experienced 1,500 hours of engaging, cognitively demanding learning, balanced around concepts, procedures, and problem solving in a supportive environment that builds students’ identity and agency—and imagine what that would be like for us as teachers.

    My ask of you is this, what could NCTM do to better support you and the community of committed teachers and leaders as we work and collaborate together to transform our practices, our impact, and the public’s perspective on mathematics teaching and learning?

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    Lane Walker - 6/23/2017 3:11:41 PM

    What an empowering message!  I would love to see NCTM explain in mainstream and social media what "balance" means. To some,"balance" means many procedures memorized without understanding and a few understood. As another example, Andrew Hacker's call to forego Algebra 2 could be counter-balanced by explaining the intent of CCSS modeling for Algebra 2 which is relevant to anyone who cares about the economy: http://achievethecore.org/aligned/8-questions-about-high-school-math-and-stem/

    It seems few teachers understand how workforce-relevant modeling skills are supposed to be developed throughout high school, culminating as a capstone in Algebra 2. Many do not have time to keep up reading teaching periodicals. I am thinking that reaching out through mainstream and social media may be the most effective way to get "balance" mainstreamed.

    Harry Tunis - 6/23/2017 11:27:32 AM

    Change is challenging in every aspect of one's life as noted in Sara aand Jack Gorman's book, "Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us."  We've heard more recently about confirmation bias, how we seek out only those facts that reflect our beliefs.   There is also the human tendency to avoid complexity and to avoid risk.  So any change is not just rational, there is a strong emotional component that weaves into the process in unexplained ways.  But we do know that change does occur and it can occur in the direciton we like if we keep our eye on the prize.

    Robert Balwinski - 6/22/2017 5:45:41 PM

    I only had 31 years in Mathematics, 23 as a HS teacher and 8 as a consultant, so take this for what it's worth. Research says we should do A, B, and C. The usual response was we can't afford to do A. This Board of Ed is opposed to B because that's not how they believe they learned Mathematics. C....are you kidding? We can't get parents to even show up for conferences or meetings much less seeking their help with their children.

    It was very frustrating. Nine years, also, at my state department of education as a consultant who worked with school districts in 7 counties taught me that the district I worked for was NOT unique with the same issues.

    James Freemyer - 6/22/2017 2:08:11 PM

    I appreciate the positive approach to a balanced improvement plan.  Do we need to also focus our attention on the role of our academic leaders and what they can do to make change easier for mathematics teachers? Yes, I am implying teachers need time to collaborate.

    Jim Freemyer

    Matthew Larson - 6/23/2017 7:33:12 AM

    I certainly agree: teachers need time to collaborate in professional teams. And they need the support of their administrators!

    David Moursund - 6/22/2017 11:32:44 AM

    I really appreciate your message. However, when you emphaize "procedures" as a key aspect of math, I strongly believe you need to mention that computers can carry out procedures. A good, modern math education includs learning to make effective use of a wide range of computerized procedures.

    A somewhat weak analogy that I have found effective is that nowadays it is common to provide students with a list of important formulas when they are taking a test. A computer provides students with a far more extensive list of formulas and procedures, and can carry out the procedures. Somewhat is the same sense as memorizing lots of formulas is not a critical aspect of learning math, developing skill in carrying out procedures by hand is no longer a key aspect of learning math.

    Thanks for the great job you are doing as NCTM President.

    Dave Moursund

    Matthew Larson - 6/23/2017 7:33:53 AM

    Fair point Dave. Thanks!