You can’t teach a wall

Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as if they are two discrete concepts. Each has its own set of practicable skills, for example.

In reality, of course, they are not distinct. By definition, teaching requires someone to be learning. The only reason you can’t teach a wall is because it cannot learn.

And that’s why the most effective professional development for educators embraces the inherent entwinement of teaching and learning. When we view teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin – when we view education simultaneously through the lens of a teacher and a learner – then we can really begin to finess our classroom craft.

Why professional development often fails

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 40% and 90% of our typical daily behaviours are based on the automatic routines that we call habits. The cue of getting into my car, for example, triggers a whole sequence of automatic behaviours that occur without any conscious thought at all. Literally before I know it, my seatbelt is on, the mirror and seat are adjusted, the car is started and I’m in reverse.

The huge upside of habits is that they free up our limited conscious attentional capacity to focus on other more important, complex or novel stimuli. The downside of habits is that they are very resistant to change. Just ask anyone who’s tried and failed to alter their diet or begin a new fitness regime or give up smoking.

Creating any significant, long-term behavioural change requires creating a new habit. And this is exactly the intended purpose of professional development (PD) in schools. We are trying to facilitate a shift in behavioural patterns of educators to enable, for example, more effective responses to student mistakes, or more efficient student feedback.

But here’s the thing, changing a habit requires three key elements: first – motivation to make a change, second – a sense of agency or empowerment, and third – repeated reinforcement of the new behaviour. Too often, unfortunately, PD is designed to educate rather than empower. New knowledge from a PD session is irrelevant if I don’t feel motivated or empowered to enact it. And when I don’t enact it, there is no benefit or reinforcement. So I end up learning new stuff that has zero behavioural impact. Sound familiar?

So when considering attending a PD, conference or training, view it through the lens of habits. Is this PD likely to inspire a change in my behaviour? Will I feel empowered to make that change? And will I have the capacity to repeatedly enact the new behaviour and experience some form of reward or benefit as a consequence?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then there are probably better ways to spend your time and money.