Research School Network: The Problem of Enactment As teachers, we can know something is the right thing to do, but still not change our practice.

The Problem of Enactment

As teachers, we can know something is the right thing to do, but still not change our practice.

by Durrington Research School
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It may be time to be clearer about our intentions when we conduct professional development (PD) in our schools. Specifically, to say to staff that the end goal is generally to change how they do something permanently. To take habits, that in some cases have been developed over many years, and change them forever, never going back to how it was done before.

When you think of it in those terms you can see why, according to a systematic review carried out in 2021, the impact of teacher PD on student outcomes is equivalent to just one month of additional progress. Yes, there are studies within that average that have much larger effect sizes, but the average is relatively modest. A large factor in this is that behaviour change in adults is notoriously hard, with examples of the difficulty apparent in all walks of life. Studies show that even seemingly simple interventions such as regular hand washing in hospitals are fiendishly difficult to consistently implement because of the requirement to change habits.

Ultimately, we can know and believe that something is right and good and have every intention of doing it, but still not do it.

Mary Kennedy has referred to this as a problem of enactment”:

A phenomenon in which teachers can learn and espouse one idea, yet continue enacting a different idea, out of habit, without even noticing the contradiction.”

The reality of this phenomenon will be abundantly clear to anyone who has tried to lead any aspect of school life, but certainly those of us responsible for professional development.

We have all felt the elation of a successful INSET session followed by staff earnestly (and honestly) explaining how they are looking forward to trying out the change we have espoused, only to be crestfallen as we walk from classroom to classroom noticing our desired change remains in the ether. 

It is not enough therefore to merely build knowledge and motivate teachers, we must also develop their techniques and embed practice. If those phrases sound familiar it because I have lifted them directly from the EEF’s guidance report on effective professional development. They are the categories for the 14 mechanisms:

14 mechanisms snipped

The guidance report talks of the importance of a balanced design” ensuring we pay heed to all four categories to give ourselves the best chance of creating professional development that will lead to change. If you develop knowledge and motivate but miss the other two, that problem of enactment is likely to arise. You may have staff that know about the intervention and are keen to do it, but ultimately will continue to teach in the same way as they have always done.

To bring this back to something concrete, this year at Durrington High School we have been trying to change habits around questioning. Specially, increasing the frequency of metacognitive questions that are asked and increasing think and participation ratio using mechanisms including mini-whiteboards and paired talk.

The process of this has included what I would consider to be the usual processes connected to PD that we use at Durrington. The overall structure is summarised below:

PD structure

Questioning has appeared throughout this structure. It is in DIPs to ensure it forms part of each of our department area’s priorities, it features heavily in SPDS, giving a chance for both instruction and collaboration. It has also been a focus for several staff in instructional coaching and many staff have included it in their inquiry questions. Lastly has been a focus for several of my walkthroughs and is commented on in the annual CTA reviews.

But, is this enough to change habits? The answer is (as you might expect from a history teacher), to some extent. However, when the problem of enactment is never far away you are always looking to do more to help teachers break old habits and embed the new ones you want. One addition we are going to try this term connects to the recently published paper from Ambition Institute on the importance of modelling in evidence-based practice. This also connects to the PD mechanisms, namely mechanism number eight:

Mech 8

This term then we are going to be collating a series of exemplar models of our version of effective questioning in practice. We are collating a short list of our most desirable traits and processes for questioning and then we will ask staff to model those for us, video it happening and use them widely through SPDS, INSET and individual work with staff. For example, one we will be mini-whiteboard use while another will be effective metacognitive questioning connected to planning. Ideally in time, these will be subject specific, but to begin with we will just make sure a range of different subjects are used.

As with all the other arms of our PD this will not on its own solve the problem of enactment, but is another way of chipping away at it. Ultimately the acceptance of the difficulty of habit change is so important in designing PD as it promotes the impulse to create the deep and balanced offer that will best support our teams in knowing, accepting, but also, doing.

By Chris Runeckles

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