Why do teachers find it so difficult to change the way they teach?
20th October 2018
by Coralyn Bradshaw
Research shows that people find it extremely hard to change their behaviours, and teachers are no different. I’m sure you plenty of personal experience of this yourself! How many times have you started to make a change in your life and given up? Have you ever wondered why?
The core of the challenge to changing behaviour lies in the fact that our brains are extremely effective in maintaining the status quo.
By the same token, humans are in a constant flux. Human society is one of constant change and reinvention. We evolved from single cell organisms over billions of years, because adaptation is in our genes. As modern humans we are geared towards life-long learning and growth. Our brain cells are continually forming new connections and restructuring our perceptions and physiology over time. This process of neuroplasticity happens thousands of times a day, giving us enormous potential to change if want to make it happen.
Understanding the neuroscience of change and how the brain works during change can help us manage change resistance when training teachers and develop strategies to maximise the brain's capacity for neuroplasticity.
In the comfort zone
The design of the brain may be encouraging us to taking the easy way out:
To keep things very simple: Let’s refer to the triune brain analogy. The triune brain has three parts: the reptilian brain which is responsible for our primary drivers such as eating, sleeping and sex; the limbic system which includes our emotions, connection with others, memory and habits; the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for higher order thinking. The pre-frontal cortex takes more energy (glucose and oxygen) to function whereas the limbic system is energy efficient. What that means is, it takes more effort to think about and do something new than react out of instinct or habit.
Much of what we do on a daily basis happens without thinking, driving a car, brushing our teeth, doing the shopping. These simple behaviours have been shaped repeatedly by experience and become habitual. Habits, rituals and routine are formed in the basal ganglia, part of our limbic structure. It is low energy and functions without much effort, and designed to allow the pre-frontal cortex to process new information and more complex decisions.
Changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour takes effort and focussed attention. This can feel physiologically uncomfortable to over-ride habits. It’s no wonder teachers often avoid change or find it hard to maintain commitment and motivation after training in new methodologies. When under pressure, tired or distracted, our pre-frontal cortex can’t keep us focused and we relapse to earlier behaviours and habits.
The brain’s alarm system
Another function of the brain may hamper us in the process of change: Survival depends on our capacity to detect errors in our environment and react quickly and instinctively to avoid threat. When our brains perceive a difference between what we expect and what occurs, a rapid-fire signal is produced. This error detection mechanism is located in the orbital cortex just above the eyes, and is closely connected to the amygdala. The amygdala draws energy away from the prefrontal cortex, activating the surge of fear or anger we need to mobilise instinctively into action.
Imagine you are on a walking in a jungle, your orbital cortex notices an error – a long elongated shape on the path– and immediately triggers the amygdala. You go into high alert, adrenaline courses through your body. Is it a stick or a snake? Your brain is designed to pick up on these things, to notice potentially dangerous changes in your environment, so you do not risk your safety. Your brain and body are designed to shift back to normal when danger has passed because sustained stress is damaging to the system.
That is when the brain’s tendency towards homeostasis kicks in. We look for ways to create certainty again, perhaps by freezing on the spot and looking carefully at the object or running back to camp. We are hyper-vigilant to detect and act on changes in our environment—and we like to get back to what is familiar as soon as possible.
Threat or reward
When change is happening around us—for example in our workplace—we can feel threatened. One way to understand this is by looking at our brain’s threat-reward system. The motivation behind much of our behaviour is driven by the desire to minimise threat/pain and maximise reward/pleasure. Neuroscientists call this fundamental principle the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory. Hence, we are inclined to avoid what seems threatening, rather than embrace it. We feel uncertain, focus on the negative and disengage. The opposite happens when the reward system is activated. Our brains release dopamine and feel better and we are therefore likely to repeat the behaviour.
Reshaping teaching behaviours
So how can we leverage our teachers’ brain’s capacity to approach change and reshape teaching habits that no longer serve them and adopt new, more desirable methodologies?
Willpower, focussed attention and mindful action can be used to push through resistance and rewire habitual patterns. This process of intentionally changing our brain circuits is called ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’. It is not enough to practice this every now-and-again. We need to pay attention repeatedly to new actions and insights over a period of time until they become part of how we operate and see ourselves It is easy to lose motivation and commitment when we don’t succeed at once. Think of train tracks: The more often a train goes over them, the better condition the tracks are in and the faster the train can travel. If the train stops travelling along those tracks, they become overgrown with weeds and are rendered less functional. Neurons work in the same way. The more we use one particular neural pathway the easier it becomes – whether that pathway is effective (like practicing reflective teaching) or ineffective (like using rote learning).
It takes more effort initially to choose to travel down a new neural pathway - and takes more concentration, especially when we are under pressure. Our neurons fire together quicker and with time they become embedded as habits in our basal ganglia. Once this happens, less effort is required in our pre-frontal cortex to maintain focus and attention and we can regulate our emotions and behave, decide and perform more effectively.
The importance of mentoring in teacher training
And this is where the importance of mentors and mentoring comes in when it comes to teacher training. Reinforcing positive change with support and immediate feedback from a trained mentor will help tap into teachers’ reward systems and associate new behaviours with positive emotions and learning. Ongoing mentoring support is crucial for teachers who have completed a teacher training course promoting the use of new teaching methodologies. The neuroscience of change provides us with ample evidence for supporting teachers over time with a system of mentoring to help them successfully embed new methodologies and understanding. Teacher training courses which do not have follow-up mentoring build in, are simply doomed to a minimal success rate.
A Celebration of Neurons: An Educators Guide to the Human Brain, Robert Sylwester: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 1995