Things you always really knew: the truth about why courses don’t work, and a bit more about Elmore

fig1instructionalcoreJust looking back on the last post here and I had a bit of an “aha” moment. Reading Elmore’s School Reform from the Inside Out (Harvard Education Press, 2008) he elaborates on the idea that was to become the “instructional core” of Learning Rounds. The instructional core according to Elmore is the basis of instructional practice and it is a triadic structure made up of interactions among students and teachers around content. The theory seems to evolve out of something attributed to Cohen, Raudenbush and Ball, (2002) and seems to be based on their definition of capacity, which they see as

“the knowledge skill and material resources that are brought to bear on the interaction among students, teachers and content” (Elmore, 2008, p119).

It gets more interesting when Elmore goes on to explain the impact of introducing professional development into this . Assumptions of effectiveness abound around professional development, often along these lines: giving teachers more skills and more knowledge will make them better teachers. Elmore argues that investing in professional development that supports the scenario above can in fact have a negative impact on practice, since only one element of the instructional core will have been changed. The teacher returns from the PD experience but the other conditions remain the same. Change doesn’t happen and so, if repeated over time, the teacher begins to see ideas from outwith the classroom as having no effect on practice. Cynicism ensues about “new ideas,” there is little organisational capacity to support the teacher in navigating the complex interactions between the new skills, modifications to content and necessary changes to student engagement and it goes downhill from there. I’m jumping ahead a bit here, but actually, when you think of the work and the organisational conditions required to support the necessary changes in all 3 elements above, in Elmore’s words, “you begin to describe an organisation as it rarely exists.” (Elmore, 2008, p 120)

So this is where Archer’s theory of morphogenesis and morphostasis – how agents act upon structures and change them, resulting in both elements being changed, and this process being repeated over time – comes in. In the context of learning rounds this now looks very interesting. Teachers observe and change their practice, adjustments are made to students tasks which require a different type of engagement from them. The three elements in the model have changed, and the whole scenario has shifted, become something different. The questions around what makes the changes happen come into focus – can I identify the structural and cultural conditions in this that are working to facilitate the changes? And how does agency manifest itself in the process?

More reading of Archer is required, but for the moment, I’ll finish off with Elmore and a synopsis of his 5 reasons why schools don’t improve:

5 reasons why schools don’t improve
1. All practice is essentially invented and reinvented in classrooms. Teachers have little access to challenging ideas that will help them do their work better
2. Existing norms reinforce the belief that experience alone increases expertise, and all teachers are equal in their skill therefore they can’t learn from each other
3. Teaching is a largely undifferentiated profession. Teachers with strong expertise in certain areas can face resistance if they assume the role of professional developer, coach or mentor without the endorsement of management, structures, professional organisations etc
4. The design of work in schools is incompatible with improvement. Teachers work in isolation and opportunities to engage in “continuous and sustained learning about their practice in the setting where they actually work” (Elmore, 2008; p127) are difficult to build into the structures of schooling.
5. Lack of guidance on performance and accountability. Internal accountability needs to reflect external accountability. Schools weak in internal accountability see a causal link to outside factors beyond their control and develop a sense of passive helplessness. Schools with strong internal accountability know their success is due to themselves and their own practices, shared values, knowledge and skills.


About catrionao

I'm a lecturer at UWS and a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning.
This entry was posted in CPD, Learning Rounds, PhD, Teacher Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Things you always really knew: the truth about why courses don’t work, and a bit more about Elmore

  1. Hilary McColl says:

    Fascinating, Catriona. I read all this through the prism of our Working Together project, of course. Long ago as that project was, it seems to have hit a number of the buttons you mention here. The challenging ideas came via observations from the LS teachers who knew the pupils from a different perspective, but who also knew the teachers and the school context, so provided a way of breaking down internal barriers to improvement. The main motivation for change, of course, came from ML teachers themselves who knew they were not coping as well as they wanted to, but didn’t know where to start putting things right. We didn’t tell them what to do, we just created the conditions in which they could see what change was needed and began to understand that they were capable of achieving it without ‘outside’ interference. – Or perhaps it is just that my spectacles have acquired a rosy hue in the intervening years!

  2. catrionao says:

    That’s a brilliant way to look at Working Together Hilary! Well done – I hadn’t made the connection myself. Viewed this way, I wonder if the practices we were developing there might have had a bit of further reach? I think it shows that lending a bit of theory to something gives it an anchorage and maybe a bit of stability in the ebb and flow of what’s “fashionable” or maybe that me with my rosy glasses on! There will be more on this! Thanks, as ever for your interest and patience with me!

    • Hilary McColl says:

      Well, we know change happened and we know that at least some pupils’ attainment improved as a result, so we must have been doing SOMEthing right! Perhaps you’re right: we were using intuition rather than proven theory.

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