How do we change teaching practice?

Review of Research in Education - Changing Teaching Practice in P-20 Educational SettingsUntold amounts of time and money are invested in making changes to teaching practice, often with the best intentions and limited ideas about how to actually pull it off.  In early May, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation announced a major new initiative to change the way American history is taught across the country. The Foundation argues that it is a failure of teaching that two out of three Americans cannot pass the U.S. citizenship exam. Accordingly, its new “American History Initiative” will include an online platform for professional development, lessons, and interactive learning materials as well as expanded teacher fellowships and research on curriculum. It is a sizable, much needed, and laudable investment of resources in history education. However, one key question remains: Why do they think this will work?

It is not unreasonable to believe that making high quality professional development and curricula freely available online might significantly shift teaching practices. But we also don’t know if it is reasonable to believe that, either. We lack a common framework for understanding how teaching practices change in intentional, coordinated, and sustained ways.

To be sure, there are numerous educators who experiment and innovate in the classroom. Consequently, there are many ideas and hard-won pockets of knowledge about how to change teaching, but it is spread out across districts, reform initiatives, and research subfields. This is why we, the editors of Review of Research in Education 2019, focused our volume on the problem of changing teaching practice. Our goal was to bring together high-quality research review articles that present recent work on changing teaching practice so that educators and researchers can move forward in more productive and considerate ways.

What do we know? 
First, we know there is a long history of efforts to change teaching, and that these initiatives shape those that follow. We can see this in specific projects like the intercultural education movement, which sought to broaden racial representation in the curriculum, as well as in broad, sweeping changes, such as the late-20th Century shift in policy goals from making mass schooling available to promoting excellence by managing instruction. These examples demonstrate how long, messy, and surprising the change process can be. Those seeking to change the current repertoire of teaching practices should be prepared for results that are incremental and often unintended.

Current research shines light on ways to build the capacity of teachers to change their practice. The ability to evolve ones’ teaching might be instilled during a preparation program or grown through action research projects as a pre-service or in-service teacher. Professional development can have meaningful impact on many dimensions of teaching, but its effects are bound up with many factors. Through whatever means, we would do well to consider the need to support teacher learning, especially when promoting deeper shifts like adopting culturally relevant teaching.

Of course there are many critically important efforts to reform teaching, such as incorporating differentiated instruction, teaching for equity in early childhood, and more. The case of changing writing instruction particularly illustrates that even when there is strong agreement about what good, effective practice is, actually getting it implemented in classrooms requires shifts in teacher beliefs, school policies, and cultural attitudes. The scant evidence that data use has influenced classroom practice despite its great promise and the significant resources devoted to it should be a sober reminder that practical change requires work across multiple fronts. As we look ahead to newer initiatives, such as integrating trauma-informed practices or organizing community schools to impact the instructional day, success will require research initiatives to be connected closely with the on-the-ground-work of preparing teachers, guiding professional development, and revising policies.

What now?

Taking stock of these chapters, several pressing needs emerge if we wish to generate more rigorous and useful research on changing teaching practices. We need to actively foster more collaborative and equitable relationships between researchers and practitioners in order to identify key problems to investigate and to have shared language to discuss them. We need to bring history to bear on our present challenges to learn from past efforts and understand the evolution of today’s teaching practices. And finally, we need to view teaching as more than a means to generate desired learning outcomes. We must approach teaching as a craft performed by professionals in complex institutional and community contexts. Teaching is a situated practice, and our notions about how to purposefully and sustainably change it must encompass practitioners, policies, and places. Anything less will see history continue to repeat itself in more or less familiar ways.  

The editors for the 2019 volume of  Review of Research in Education are Charles Tocci, assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago; Ann Marie Ryan, professor of education at University of Texas – San Antonio; and Terri Pigott, professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. 


Charles Tocci

Loyola University Chicago

Terri Pigott

Loyola University Chicago

Ann Marie Ryan

Loyola University Chicago