Turning Toward Learning: Helping Educators Pivot from Resistance to Engagement
Updated: Jan 2
“How can we deal with resistance to professional learning and instructional improvement initiatives?” I’m hearing this question again and again these days in my work with coaches and education leaders.
Resistance is frustrating! It is often difficult to fathom and it can stand in the way of achieving important improvement goals. Educators with responsibility for supporting professional learning need to understand the root causes of resistance and to have a toolkit of moves to address resistance productively.
Resistance is a natural response to change and a useful tactic for figuring out who we are and what we stand for.
Understanding Resistance to Learning
Resistance is a natural part of navigating life and figuring out our place in the world. I regularly witness resistance in my three-year-old granddaughter Suzanne.
Sometimes Suzanne’s resistance stems from a lack of confidence. She is wary of her ability to learn something that she perceives to be challenging.
Sometimes Suzanne’s resistance is an assertion of personal authority, an effort to demonstrate agency. She appears willful, but internally she does not view the requested action as aligned with or contributing to her unique identity.
And sometimes resistance shows up when Suzanne doesn’t have the emotional, physical, or cognitive reserves to undertake something that requires her best effort. She is simply weary and doesn’t currently have the internal resources to engage in the requested activity.
Wariness, willfulness, and weariness – These three lenses can help us to look underneath the resistance we encounter in our professional learning and education leadership work. When we understand the root causes of resistance, we are positioned to take compassionate and strategic actions that build capacity in our learning communities and the individuals that make up these communities.
How do these three causes of resistance show up in your professional learning work and instructional improvement initiatives? Can you think of examples of each cause from your own context?
Wanted: Willful Teachers Although the idea of willfulness frequently carries a negative connotation, the trait of willfulness is akin to the concept of agency, an essential quality for teachers who hold themselves to ethical standards and are self-directed in their efforts to strengthen their instructional craft in service of students. We want teachers to be thoughtfully intentional, i.e., willful, in their teaching actions based on their core values and their ever-growing pedagogical expertise. Agency: an individual's capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action (https://academic.oup.com/bjsw/article/47/1/238/3051692)
A Deeper Look at Professional Learning
Professional learning is a choice. We can’t force teachers to master and then choose to implement the complex instructional practices required to effectively support student learning. Real professional learning involves more than just knowledge and skills. Joellen Killion reminds us:
Deep learning, often called transformational learning, occurs at the level of beliefs, values, and motivation rather than only at the level of knowledge and skills. Transformational learning is long-term and results in behavioral changes…that occur at the core of the learner. Learning at this level promotes a change in practice. (Killion, https://kickup.co/blog/actionable-data-turning-subjective-goals-to-concrete-outcomes)
Killion summarizes facets of educator professional learning with the acronym KASAB: knowledge, attitudes, skills, aspirations, and behaviors. Each facet is essential to professional learning that leads to lasting changes in educator practice that maximize student learning.
When we treat professional learning as simply the transmission of knowledge and skills, we don’t notice signs resistance that may be quietly simmering. But when we consider all the facets of educator learning, our professional learning activities and sessions proactively address the causes of resistance.
Exercise: What connections do you see between the facets of educator learning and the causes of resistance: wariness, willfulness, and weariness? How might you use this insight to proactively address resistance in the design of your next professional learning session?
In-the-Moment Moves to Address Resistance
Elena Aguilar tells us that “resistance is all about emotions, and understanding emotions can help you prevent resistance as well as develop a range of strategies to respond to it” (Aguilar, p. 52). When my granddaughter Suzanne displays resistance, I consider possible underlying emotions and then offer support aligned to the needs that these emotions suggest.
When Suzanne is wary, when she lacks confidence, I tap into a sense of “we.” “We can do this together. Let me show you; then you try. I’m here to help.”
When Suzanne appears willful, when she asserts her personal power to say “no,” I support her in examining her “why.” “Tell me more about your thinking. Why is this important to you? Here’s how I’m thinking about this.”
When Suzanne is weary, when she lacks the physical, emotional, or cognitive energy to do something new or challenging, I help her rebuild her internal resources, her sense of “wholeness.” “Let’s take a break and make a plan for your next steps.”
The We – Why – Whole frame helps me respond to resistance in ways that honor and support the other person while maintaining our shared focus on and commitment to the professional learning goal.
Go back to the examples of resistance that you identified earlier. How might you use We, Why, or Wholeness-focused responses to address these instances of resistance?
Addressing Resistance through Coaching and Culture Building
Recognizing that learning is a choice doesn’t mean that we can give up on teachers who choose not to learn and, by consequence, on the students they serve. It does mean that we must (1) meet teachers where they are, helping them see and build on their current strengths (coaching), and (2) create conditions that support teachers in choosing to learn (culture building).
When we coach, we focus on individuals and teams, positioning ourselves as partners in learning. We invite teachers to stretch beyond their current abilities to see what might happen, all the while assuring them that we’ll be at their side learning along with them. When we build culture, we think big picture and long term, creating structures and developing community norms that support ongoing practice-based professional learning for everyone including ourselves.
More about Willfulness
When we are willfully rooted in what we believe and frustrated by our own inefficacy, our ears can become really small.
~ Chase Orton, The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher:
A Journey to Reclaim our Professional Growth
As educators responsible for teacher professional learning, we must help teachers develop the habit of looking at the link between their teaching actions and their students’ learning. When resistance is rooted in willfulness, we need to use professional learning structures that gently point teachers to evidence of student learning and make space for teachers to safely test out new practices with the goal of elevating student learning. This strategy of addressing resistance by empowering teachers as facilitators of learning builds efficacy and strengthens professional identity.
Examples of professional learning structures that focus attention on the link between teaching and learning:
Cultivating Shared Identity: A Culture-Building Strategy Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, authors of The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities for Personal and Collective Success, tell us: When you adopt an identity, it is as if you put on a pair of glasses that filter your view of the world. Identity helps you grapple with the vast amount of information continually bombarding your senses. It tells you what is important, where to look, when to listen…Once you join a group, you gain insight into what “we” (the members of the group) consider important. (p. 41) Education leaders can harness the power of shared identity by regularly telling identity stories that demonstrate “who we are when we’re at our best” (Let me tell you about three things I saw today that show who we are as a community.), They can also use inclusive language (“we” and “us”) and identity symbols (e.g., school events that reflect core values such as the Tamalada at the school’s Winter Festival). When leaders activate shared identity, they help individuals and groups move from resistance to collective efficacy.
What does it mean to have a school culture that supports ongoing professional learning? In his book The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher: A Journey to Reclaim Our Professional Growth, Chase Orton identifies four guiding principles for a culture of professionalism:
How do these ideas connect with your own beliefs about a learning-focused school culture? Which of these principles might be most important to your school or organization at this moment? What concrete actions might you take to bring this principle to life in your professional learning and leadership work?
Exercise: Go back to the examples of resistance that you identified earlier. How might you use coaching or culture-building moves to address these instances of resistance?
As learning professionals, we’ve come to understand that mistakes are necessary stepping stones to learning, that learning often requires failing, regrouping, and trying again. Perhaps we should also think of resistance as a type of steppingstone, a natural human response when learning feels unsafe, doesn’t initially make sense, or is challenging.
Wariness, willfulness, and weariness can be valuable formative assessment data for those of us charged with facilitating and supporting professional learning. These stances of resistance can point us to the scaffolds teachers need to take their next steps as learners.
We can choose to look at resistance as an indicator that teachers are self-assessing whether they have the internal resources and external supports needed to authentically engage in the professional learning. We can also think of resistance as possible evidence that teachers may be experiencing cognitive dissonance and are struggling to assimilate new ideas into their existing understandings and beliefs. We can use coaching moves to help teachers see that they do indeed have the internal capacity to be successful. We can use culture-building moves to create environments that encourage risk-taking and offer learning scaffolds. When we meet our teacher-learners where they are, celebrate them as thinking professionals who genuinely desire to give their best to students every day, and then do our best to provide the needed cognitive, social, and emotional support, we help our teachers to pivot from resistance to engagement in professional learning, allowing us all to be more effective in the important work of helping all students to thrive in school and beyond.
Aguilar, E., & Cohen, L. (2022). The PD book: 7 habits that transform professional development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Orton, C. (2022). The imperfect and unfinished math teacher: A journey to reclaim our professional growth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Mathematics.
Van Bavel, J., & Packer, D. J. (2021). The power of us: Harnessing our shared identities for personal and collective success. London: Headline Publishing Group.
Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Connect with Sue at SueChapmanLearn@gmail.com and on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.