Why doesn't teacher training stick?

Why doesn't teacher training stick?

The worst thing I’ve heard this year was:

The training about exit tickets was really useful.  Even though I didn’t use them.”

My carefully-crafted training failed to stick.  Like so many good intentions and excellent bits of training, it disappeared into the enormous pressure of the black hole that is day-to-day teaching.

Black hole.jpg

It’s not just my training though.  A meta-study of North American research on teacher education concluded:

There is no clear evidence that certain approaches in teacher education may be more effective than others… it may be questionable whether teacher education can make a difference at all (Korthagen et al., 2006).”

Why doesn’t teacher training stick?

1) Weak training?

Training might not stick because its weak.  My biggest concern is lack of practice, but I also like to worry about debunked theories, poor sequencing, and inadequate exposure to excellent models.  This year however, I’ve realised training often fails to stick even if all these things are in place.

2) The power of culture?

A recent Harvard Business Review article, Why leadership training fails – and what to do about it, underscores how weakly training sticks if it doesn’t fit organisational culture:

learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things”

The authors describe a brilliant training course: a week with real-time feedback, changes in participants’ attitudes and a plan to transfer the learning back to the organisation.  Yet an evaluation two years later showed that trainees:

found it impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organizational barriers”.


Senior executives and their HR teams continue to pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But what they actually need is a new way of thinking about learning and development. Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organizational design and managerial processes first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching and classroom or online education.”

Organisational culture – the way things are done around here – trumps training, every day of the week.  As Robert Cialdini puts it:

We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it…  Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion).”

The power of culture in schools

A recent study powerfully quantified the influence of school culture on teachers.  The authors combined a decade’s student data from Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District with data on teachers’ perceptions of their schools as professional environments: how orderly and collaborative they are, how good the leadership, professional development and evaluation systems.  They found that:

the degree to which teachers become more effective over time varies substantially by school. In some schools, teachers improve at much greater rates than in others. We find that this improvement is strongly related to the opportunities and supports provided by the professional context in which they work.”

This graph shows the impact of school culture on students’ maths results.  It shows how students’ results improve as teachers become more experienced – and how much more results improve for teachers in schools with better professional environments:*


The gradual improvement of a teacher in a school in the top 25% over one in the bottom 25% – 0.035 of a test-score standard deviation per year – leads to 38% difference in total improvement over a decade (Kraft and Papay, 2015).  Excellent professional environments accelerate teacher development and student learning.

What is to be done for new teachers?

The obvious conclusion is that effective professional development and good leadership require more time, money and attention: every new teacher deserves a brilliant mentor; every existing teacher thoughtful development.

In the real world, low income schools often lack the experienced and expert teachers who can provide this kind of support, as Becky Allen and her team demonstrated recently.

So, given a third, crucial barrier to teacher training sticking – how hard it is to change our behaviour consistently – and assuming the worst – a culture in which teachers aren’t supported to use effective techniques consistently – what is to be done?

Two approaches seem crucial, but insufficient:

1) Practice

If we want teachers to use a technique in the classroom, they have to master it outside the classroom.  I’ve emphasised this point previously, so won’t labour it here.

I fear however, that this is rarely enough if teachers don’t see techniques used around them, and receive encouragement to adopt them within their schools.

2) Checklists

Checklists offer powerful reminders of best practices for professionals under pressure.  That’s why I wrote Ticked Off.

Sharing checklists with trainees guarantees nothing however.  As Atul Gawande put it:

The power of checklists is limited, [the checklist designer] emphasized.  They can help experts remember how to manage a complex process or configure a complex machine.  They can make priorities clearer and prompt people to function better as a team.  By themselves, however, checklists cannot make anyone follow them (The Checklist Manifesto).

I sometimes catch myself failing to use my own checklists.  If I can’t remember to use them is a new teacher under pressure more likely to do so?

We can give teachers the best training, we can practise with them, we can offer them checklists, but the point at which they need all these things, the point at which they’re under pressure, is the point at which they’re least likely to stop and remember them.

So what more can be done to help training stick – to help teachers do the right thing under pressure?  I have one more suggestion, which I’ll cover in my next post.

* In truth, the graph shows how student test-score data diverges from the average for ‘prototypical’ teachers in schools at the 75th, 50th and 25th percentile rank for professional environments, but I have failed to convert these terms into plain English and remain readable.