Changing Teaching Practices, by Mary Ellen Bafumo

It's a challenge to accommodate any change in the classroom, but a lack of change could be affecting your students' achievement

What happens (or doesn't happen) in classrooms has more impact on student achievement than any other factor.

"Old habits die hard" is an adage most of us know. Once we get into a pattern of behaviors, attitudes, actions or processes, it's difficult to change them. Consider this example. Imagine you learned to play a song on a piano and practiced it extensively. Your brain would pattern the sequence of notes and coordinate them to the movement of your fingers so that the notes and finger movements flow seamlessly. Now, imagine you learned a section of the song incorrectly. Since our brains learn through patterning, the process of undoing a learned pattern is very challenging.

The same is true of teaching practices that become routine. Whether they're useful or not, changing them is very difficult once we develop a comfort level. What happens (or doesn't happen) in classrooms has more impact on student achievement than any other factor. Variables outside the classroom — school/district practices and student characteristics — play a part but are not nearly as influential as what teachers do or don't do in classrooms.

Influencing student achievement
Research from McREL (2004), a regional educational research lab, documented three teacher practices that influence student achievement. These are items over which teachers have all or most control. The practices are:

  1. Instructional strategies. Nine strategies were identified (see page 12) that teachers should know and consistently apply when suitable, during teaching episodes.

  2. Classroom management. Teachers should have classroom guidelines for appropriate behaviors, follow through on disciplinary action, create and maintain effective student-teacher relationships and have an effective mindset for engaging with student management.

  3. Classroom curriculum design. It's important to be clear about which knowledge is needed, which tasks are most appropriate to specific learning and provide significant time for practicing and applying new learning.

Initiating change
When you know that you hold the key to student success, it's difficult to argue against the process of examining practice and taking steps to initiate change. Becoming better at what we do requires consistent upgrading of knowledge and skills. Start by seeking to establish a balance among strategies, management and curriculum in your classroom and commit to change in the way it works best; that's in small, incremental steps.

Teaching each other
What have you tried that gets students collaborating and teaching each other? Do you use charts, graphs and diagrams to set up new learning? Do you ask students to make comparisons among ideas and facts? Are you actually using the nine strategies that influence student achievement consistently?

If you and your colleagues are not familiar with these techniques, be sure to read Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering and Jane E. Pollock (Association for Supervision & Curriculum, 2001) with your team or the entire staff. The strategies that influence student achievement are:

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Summarizing and note-taking
  • Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
  • Homework and practice
  • Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers)
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting goals and providing feedback
  • Generating and testing hypotheses
  • Cues, questions, advance organizers

If you have management challenges, the place to start is with building a classroom community, as community is one factor that can single-handedly change the climate in your classroom and diminish management issues.

Time to review
If you haven't carefully reviewed your usual topics against the required curriculum, now is the time to do so. Are you spending time teaching units that are only peripheral to requirements? We all know colleagues who cling to units on dinosaurs, pandas or penguins, when those topics should be integrated into teaching through literature choices, rather than as units of study.

A powerful incentive
Change is challenging and often painful, but knowing that you are the most influential player in the learning game can be a powerful incentive. Start by evaluating your skill in instructional practice, classroom management and classroom curriculum. Then take your first step based on where you most need to grow as a professional.

Too many books on school renewal tend to blame teachers for the things they aren't doing in their classrooms or for things they should be doing to help students learn. As I'm sure you know, Teaching K-8 is dedicated to helping teachers know and understand what they can do to be the best at their craft. Good luck as you begin this vital professional journey to change and grow as a classroom leader.


Mary Ellen Bafumo is a Program Director for the Council on Educational Change, an Annenberg legacy group.


Professional Development