Doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door. –Benjamin Jowett
In our work with schools and coaches around the world, perhaps the most controversial Partnership Principle is praxis. Top-down accountability models are so engrained in education that the notion of allowing teachers the freedom to explore and manipulate curriculum and instructional strategies has become verboten. The “fidelity police” approach of accountability engenders so much resistance from teachers that real, lasting change in schools is difficult to find.
Praxis is a challenging principle to embrace because it involves control. Well-meaning school leaders feel a sense of urgency and responsibility for change that leads them to be directive in choosing new instructional approaches and rigid in how they view their implementation of those approaches. To give teachers the power to choose whether or not to adopt a new approach and the freedom to experiment with that approach feels like a spiral toward chaos. In fact, it is a crucial step toward real reform for students and for teachers.
Years ago, when implementing new classroom strategies as part of Common Core implementation, my instructional coach, Jean, believed whole-heartedly in the writing strategies I was piloting in my classroom. She knew the strategies better than I did, and she had much more experience in using them with students. When I would balk at implementing specific elements of the strategies or wanted to modify them a great deal, she would explain to me the rationale for those elements, hoping I would be faithful to the program. To her credit, however, she never stopped me from experimenting with the approach and was willing to analyze student data with me to see whether those changes had been a good idea.
Without exception, data showed that my changes to the specific strategy lesson plans did not result in improved student performance. When I stuck to the lessons as written, students performed better. I was able to see that for myself, by experimenting in my classroom, without anyone shouting at me about fidelity. Jean let me learn the strategy deeply by coaching me through my experimentation with it. She did not try to control me; she supported me.
Some of my additions (some extension activities I developed), however, turned out to be pretty good. That success led to modifying part of our county’s approach to system-wide implementation with extensions that benefitted students. I learned what worked and what didn’t work by “messing with” the strategies for myself and by having a coach who helped me to track the effectiveness of those changes.
Like most educators, I do not like to be controlled. If Jean had insisted I do things her way, I would have cooperated when she was in the room and then done things my way when she wasn’t around. I would not have been as attentive to student data about the changes I made to the strategy, and I would have grown to resent her. Praxis deepened my learning, deepened my understanding of the strategies and what my students truly knew, and deepened my pedagogy going forward. Control would have shut down that growth and would have made me less inclined to engage in change.
For years, educators have been united in a chorus of cries for more inquiry-based learning for kids. We acknowledge that “the struggle” in learning is good for students. We know that failure is as important a part of learning as success is. Yet, when it comes to professional learning for teachers, we give an inquiry-based approach no space, no time, and no thought. A reflective inquiry approach to instructional change—a praxis approach—is one that lessens resistance, results in deeper engagement in the change, and values teachers as professionals.
Colin Powell says that “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” Foster a culture of deep learning and deep engagement in change by creating environment that values inquiry over fidelity and praxis over control.