“The password that will unlock the classroom door remains in the teacher’s head; understanding what questions teachers ask and what criteria they apply is essential to unlocking that door.” Cuban
In the beautifully written paper, “Powerful Hidden Forces Affecting Teacher’s Appraisal and Adoption of Innovative Technology” by April Lynn Luehmann, Indiana University; the author provides research into the factors that affect the decision making process of teachers when offered a technology innovation. The paper examines a number of important issues that are important for technology leaders and educational reformers to consider when seeking to introduce innovation and change into the classroom.
Luehmann’s research confirms that teachers are indeed gatekeepers to their classrooms. It is the teacher who decides which curriculum, pedagogical, and technological innovations and strategies will be employed. For many of us, this role of Teacher/Gatekeeper is a source of frustration; an obstacle that takes enormous energy and effort to overcome. Luehmann argues that this is not a negative but a great strength of our system.
“…It is a great asset of our educational system that the one who knows best his/her own limitations and abilities, the cognitive makeup of the class, the abilities of the students, what could potentially be accomplished under the very real constraints of the local situation (including fire drills, parent involvement, available resources, standardized test pressures, etc.) is the person who has the final word on what is allowed into the classroom and to what degree.
The teacher is the one who is most directly responsible for the academic, as well as the motivational successes and failures, accomplishments and limitations of the classroom experiences throughout the year. It is essential that this professional who has so much responsibility also maintains the power necessary to make the decisions, such as whether or not to use a technology-rich, project-based curriculum.”
The role of Gatekeeper is one that most teachers hold to with great tenacity. Teachers teach with their whole selves. They invest much of their personal identity in their teaching. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they do not pursue the profession as a strictly an intellectual exercise.
“Because they have invested so much both personally as well as professionally into the creation, continuation, and preservation of a safe, productive, and enriching learning environment filled with opportunities for students’ conceptual growth, they are passionate about their rights and responsibilities to autonomy. In fact, one interesting finding of Hawthorne’s (1992) small study was that teachers are willing to consider “subversive” activities to protect their professional autonomy when they feel external organizational pressure.
Nias (1996) attributes the deeply affective nature of teachers’ perceptions of their work to three causes: teaching is a profession that focuses on the needs of people and is therefore emotional in nature; teachers invest their whole selves into their work which therefore has consequences with respect to identity, self-esteem, and self-confidence as well as an element of vulnerability; and teachers have passionate feelings about their profession because they invest so much in the work and the values that are embodied in the profession.”
Sometimes when our best efforts are rebuffed by Teacher/Gatekeepers, we are tempted to use whatever power and authority we can muster to override them. It may come in the form of a “top down” mandate to adopt the innovation in some way. Often these mandates come with significant political risk and teacher resentment. The outcome may have modest results or engender nothing more than minimal and grudging compliance. Leuhmann’s research presents us with a roadmap that can help us succeed as change agents without trashing the Teacher/Gatekeeper role.
“Given that the teacher is the gatekeeper of curricular innovation, it is essential that designers understand the criteria teachers use to support their judgments regarding the appraisal and adoption of innovative curricula into their classrooms (Liu, 2000a; 2000b). Though national and state calls are pushing for teachers to use technology in their classroom in meaningful ways and to engage students in authentic and sustained inquiry, the decision to adopt this type of curricular option is still, by Roger’s (1995) definition, an “optional innovation-decision,” in that teachers often have the autonomy to make these decisions on an individual basis.
If we embrace the role teachers play as gatekeepers for their classrooms, and foster a better understanding of their decision making process; we may be able to blend with the protective energy they feel towards their students and their classrooms. In my next post, I will begin to explore Leuhmann’s research in more detail. It is an amazing piece of work that provides powerful insights into the decision making process of these well-intentioned and tenacious gatekeepers. What it reveals should cause us to pause and rethink our strategies for change.