Most people who smoke know that smoking is bad for them. Yet the habit persists. Most cyclists know that helmets help prevent head injuries. Yet many cyclists don’t wear them.
It’s tempting to think we always act in accordance with our beliefs. But we don’t.
Educators might hold beliefs such as:
• the information and tasks in most textbooks are dull and uninteresting for children
• assigning and checking homework is a poor use of time, and
• all children have the potential to achieve highly or poorly in school.
Yet what happens in practice seems to contradict those beliefs:
• textbooks are widely used in schools
• homework is regularly allocated and
• children are frequently labelled as “bright,” “average” or “weak”.
It’s not that the beliefs are shaky or insincere. It’s not that teachers are being hypocritical or lazy. It’s not even that we don’t know how to implement the kind of teaching we believe in.
In order to do something that could be perceived as radical in my school, the decision will be influenced, in part at least, by what the people around me do. Some of us will only be happy to act in a “radical” way (say to not regularly assign homework or to use no textbooks) if most colleagues are doing the same, whereas others may be willing to act “radically” if no colleagues or just a handful of them acts in the same way.
We all have different thresholds for acting as we do. The threshold may be shaped by our teaching experience, our seniority in a school, our perceptions of our colleagues, our perception of the children’s parents, our teacher education experience, our experience of continuing professional development, our knowledge of education, our subject knowledge, or our own school experience as students; it’s all about how we weigh up the benefits and costs to ourselves of taking a particular course of action.
In order to understand how change comes about in school it’s useful to know about thresholds. I may need some colleague to go first on some initiative but some colleague could also be waiting for me to act.
Teacher educators or professional developers who ignore thresholds may find that influencing practice in schools is difficult.
The idea of thresholds is well described in a sports (basketball) context in this deadly podcast by Malcolm Gladwell.