Responsive Teacher Learning

Facilitating professional development for teachers with a range of experience and expertise has the potential to be very challenging. A responsive approach is required if CPD is to be meaningful and effective for colleagues who, like me, have a few miles on the clock.

Ask anybody who has been driving for more than a few years how they feel about being told that they are in the wrong gear or that they are too close to the car in front and gauge their reaction! David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust attributes much of this response to a range of protective biases that experts hold about themselves. This could be true for experienced teachers. In many respects, these biases are useful. They protect the expert teacher from the distraction of new ideas that may well be inferior to their current way of teaching. Less usefully, these biases may serve only to protect the ego of the expert teacher who believes themselves to be the finished article. This, of course, is nonsense.

Dylan Wiliam, illustrates the point in his keynote speech at the SSAT Conference in 2012. ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’ At the Northwest Evaluation Association Conference, in 2013, and in more typical fashion, Wiliam argues that teaching is a job ‘too difficult to master in a single lifetime’ before challenging the audience to ‘accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal.’

Availability Bias

Experts, suggests Weston, have five sets of bias. The first of these is availability bias. Those with high degrees of availability bias believe that their current models explain ‘everything’. They refuse to accept new perspectives which cannot possibly add anything to their current frame of reference or viewpoint on teaching. Whether a teacher believes in a growth mindset, self-directed learning or learning by rote is not the issue. Availability bias describes the expert who perceives that their preferred model can explain the benefits of another. A teacher with availability bias could be heard saying something like, I’ve always given my pupils difficult tasks that they can make mistakes on; so there’s nothing new about growth mindset.’ Here is a teacher who has taken a sticking plaster and slapped it across the tiny wound being opened up by the blade of a concept that challenges her current thinking.

Sunk costs Bias

Sunk costs bias describes the teacher who has spent a great deal of time, money and effort honing a particular method of teaching, only to be told that it doesn’t actually have any impact on student learning. Something like brain-gym or VAK. We’re far less likely to give up on the things that we worked hard to build; a phenomenon that Weston describes as the IKEA effect.

Dunning-Kruger effect Bias

The Dunning-Kruger effect bias is one that I fall victim of myself on a regular basis. I’m probably doing it right now! It’s that arrogance that a little knowledge affords us. It is a cognitive bias wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly believing their ability to be greater than it is (Kruger et al., 1999). Imagine the sense of superiority once expressed by those who claimed that the earth was flat. Simply mentioning meta-cognition, synapses, cognitive overload or regression analysis whilst presenting on INSET, or showing an image of the brain whilst reciting the statistical significance of wearing a JoJo Bow in your hair on Key Stage 2 SATs results, at a teacher conference, does not necessarily make one an expert.

Interestingly, and importantly in this context, highly skilled teachers tend to underestimate their relative competence, presuming that what comes easily to them is easy for less-skilled teachers and novices to learn.

Not my tribe Bias

Not my tribe bias describes the refusal to take advice, support or criticism from an ‘outsider’. It’s the difficulty that I face when I’m coaching out of my preferred subject area and there is a certain degree of substance to this response. Not my tribe bias may explain our response to lessons observed by Ofsted. ‘Who the heck do they think they are, telling me how to do my job? He’s probably a crap teacher anyway; why else would he become an inspector?’ Other examples that I have seen are when teachers work across phases or in schools with very different contexts.

Fundamental attribution error

Fundamental attribution error is a tendency to explain someone’s behaviour based on internal factors, such as personality or disposition. For those of you who are old enough to remember, it’s exactly the type of bias demonstrated by the tennis player, John McEnroe, who often attributed his own mistakes not to external factors (practice, luck, the wind, a poor shot, a difficult return) but to the personality or disposition of the umpire. In our educational context, this could be illustrated by a teacher who attributes his own poor questioning to the pupils not being able to answer well because ‘their previous teacher didn’t care about them enough.’

To overcome these biases, we should embrace strategies that differentiate our experienced and sometimes expert colleagues from the novice teacher. They have developed their knowledge and honed their skills over a substantial period and they aren’t going to make any changes to their practice without good reason.

Here is a short list of strategies to try with experienced colleagues who are resistant to professional development initiatives.

  1. Treat them like the experts that they are and invite them to articulate their existing thinking by asking genuine questions – e.g. why did you do it that way?
  2. Set up activities that assist the expert to gain new perspectives on existing thinking – e.g. shadowing a pupil or colleague;
  3. Build a rapport with your colleague or use social connection to overcome resistance to new perspectives;
  4. Sustain development over time to suppress and replace incorrect schema;
  5. Provide opportunities for teacher experimentation and agency – e.g. lesson study/teacher enquiry;
  6. Challenge experienced and expert colleagues to respond to the children that they teach using new perspectives and examples from other settings.

Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career (Kini & Podolsky, 2016), despite recent claims made to the contrary (fig. 1). The impression that the impact of teachers on student outcomes declines with experience is falsely presented in a cross-sectional analysis. Teacher fixed effects analysis provides more accurate analysis about the effects of teaching experience, comparing the effectiveness of a teacher with themselves over time as they gain experience.


Fig. 1

However, Dylan Wiliam’s words continue to resonate deeply: ‘accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal.’


Kini, T. and Podolsky, A. (2016). Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research. [online] Learning Policy Institute. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121–34.


About blakeeducation

Assistant Head in Hampshire. Advocate for social mobilty through effective parental engagement, quality T&L, literacy, social capital, curriculum and culture.
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