By: Carol Ann Smyth, Director of Elementary STEM, North Shore Schools, New York
When a school or school district adopts a new program, particularly a new elementary math program, the change can have profound impacts on students, teachers, and even parents. Moreover, such changes can often lead to very strong reactions, both positive and negative. Regardless of the rationale for making a change, some individuals or groups may be skeptical not only about the reason for the change, but also the selection process, the final selection, and/or the implementation process. Levels of enthusiasm may vary from individual to individual, grade level to grade level, day to day, week to week, year to year, unit to unit, assessment to assessment, etc. Understanding that the success of an elementary math program depends on the investment of many individuals, administrators often develop plans, often complex plans, to enhance buy-in.
It was four years ago but I vividly remember our Assistant Superintendent for Instruction asking me to develop a formal plan to support buy-in when my district began its transition to think!Mathematics. I recall being caught off guard by the request and then, later that day, found myself surprisingly challenged by the task as I sat down to outline the plan. I found it difficult to make sense of why developing a plan, a task I have successfully completed with some regularity, was so perplexing in this situation, especially when I was so excited about the new program and its potential impact on student learning. So, I put the due date for my submission of the buy-in plan on my calendar, added the task to my daily to-do list, and moved on with my day, still wondering why I was so troubled by the request.
A week and a half later the task maintained its place on my daily to-do lists; all the while the impending deadline for submitting the plan crept closer and closer. I considered why developing this plan, a buy-in plan for something I truly believed in, was so difficult for me. My thoughts led to growing anxiety. In my frustration, I remember doing a host of Google searches. At one point, I searched the term buy-in. I learned that Merriam-Webster defines buy-in as “the acceptance of and willingness to actively support or participate in something.” That was my “ah-ha” moment. At that instant my challenge, and associated procrastination, with the task, became crystal clear to me. I was not looking for simple acceptance or just a willingness to actively support or participate in a new program. I was not looking for mere buy-in. Buy-in seemed like a very low bar and not nearly enough to support the type of teaching and learning that our district wants for our students. I am fortunate to be a part of a district filled with extremely dedicated and talented teachers who embrace student-centered, constructivist, and developmentally appropriate approaches to math instruction. We have supportive parents and truly amazing students. What I was hoping for, and remarkably confident about achieving, was widespread excitement about, real ownership over, and authentic investment in a new program that would support the development of our students as mathematical thinkers and problem solvers. I believed that finding and implementing an impactful approach to the teaching and learning of mathematics did not require “buy-in,” but would elicit an enthusiastic embrace and even passion.
In our district, we had the amazing opportunity to work with Dr. Yeap Ban Har who immersed our students and our teachers in learning experiences which inspired us to think very differently about math instruction and how students developed their own understanding of concepts and processes by engaging in meaningful problem solving. As a result, we co-constructed a shared philosophy of math teaching and learning, rooted in Singapore Math, and centered on the development of our students as problem solvers. We adopted a lesson structure in which students engage in exploration, meaning making, purposeful practice, and ongoing reflection. At that point, we looked for and found rich, high quality instructional materials and designed impactful professional learning opportunities to support our shared vision. We adopted think!Mathematics starting with first grade and added an additional grade level per year and then Developing Roots for Kindergarten. Throughout the process, our amazing teachers definitely moved beyond buy-in.
So, there are a few things to consider when trying to get buy-in and, more importantly, to move beyond buy-in.
1) Develop a Philosophy of Math Instruction and Approach to the Teaching and Learning of Math
Imagine having a shared vision of math instruction to guide teaching and learning across your school or district. “When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to” (Senge, 1990, p. 9). Imagine the potential outcomes of working collaboratively with your constituent groups to develop not only a common philosophy of math instruction but also a united approach to the teaching of math in your school or district. Imagine everyone working together using common approaches, yet maintaining their own individual styles, to achieve common goals and amazing outcomes for students.
If you decide to develop a shared vision of math instruction for your school or district, consider the following questions as they relate to your constituents and then add your own questions to develop and guide the process. Remember that eliciting and truly listening to the voices of students, teachers, parents, and administrators and reviewing relevant research on math learning will provide you with invaluable information.
As you work together to develop a shared vision, know that the process may be messy, well-intentioned individuals will not always agree, and it will take time, but the outcome and associated professional learning will be worth the investment.
2) Select High Quality Learning Materials
If you decided to develop a shared vision and approach to the teaching and learning of math, the selection of materials to support that vision would become a much simpler, more productive process. You would no longer be in the position of having well-intentioned individuals look for materials based upon their individual beliefs, experience, and practice. You would no longer be in the position of asking a committee to complete rubrics to see which program has the strongest technological interface, reteach materials, parent resources, etc. Yet, you would be in the position of having a collaborative group look for and review materials which would allow them to bring their common vision of math learning to life. Teachers could review materials with the common lens of enabling them to enact a lesson structure that supports the growth of students within the common vision. Then, teachers could determine how the selected learning materials could make their planning and facilitation more efficient and effective.
For example, based upon our work with Singapore Math and our professional learning with Dr. Yeap Ban Har, we adopted an approach to math instruction rooted in research and a lesson structure which prioritizes exploration, practice, and reflection. As we looked for instructional materials, we found that the key differences between think!Mathematics and other programs as well as the associated resources allow us to facilitate math learning in grades one through five in a manner consistent with our commonly held beliefs. Then, we set out to find a Kindergarten program that would support our approach and found that Developing Roots provided the ideal foundation for our students.
3) Provide Ongoing Support and Professional Learning
As you implement a new program, ongoing support and opportunities for professional learning are essential. Keep at the forefront of your mind that change is challenging, even when individuals believe in the change and know the change will lead to positive results. Once teachers have embraced a shared vision, they will need support to do their parts in making the vision a reality. This provision of support should be an ongoing process, not a one-time event.
Responsiveness to teacher voice and individual differences is crucial. Ensure that teachers gain understanding of and are comfortable with the available resources. Engage the teachers in ongoing discussions about their needs and then design learning experiences to meet those needs. For instance, it is likely that the teachers will need timely and regular opportunities to make sense of the lessons, the place of the lessons within units, the place of units within the grade-level curriculum, and the place of the current year’s learning within the scope of students’ learning across the grade levels. Teachers will benefit from seeing the lesson structure and associated instructional strategies in practice with students at their own grade level in their own school. They will grow from opportunities to experiment and to receive constructive feedback from trusted colleagues, coaches, and supervisors.
Consider possibilities for providing regular, ongoing support for teachers as they implement the new program in the classroom. For instance, math support providers working within push-in models can provide support to teachers as well as to students. These teachers can also share information, ideas, and best practices across classrooms.
Encourage teachers to capitalize on larger learning communities. For example, there may be social media sites associated with your program. Encourage your teachers to get involved with these communities as a mechanism for them to ask questions, share ideas, and gain new insights from teachers outside your school or district.
Consider the potential impact of expertise as you plan opportunities for professional development. In addition to providing opportunities for collaboration and support from our own Math Team, we sought the support of experts, such as Sarah Schaefer from Mathodology, who coupled deep understanding of the program with authentic awareness of the demands on classroom teachers. Through this professional development, our teachers were able to explore the learning resources and discover how they might use them in their own classrooms. They saw the lesson structure in action and were asked to think about how it impacted student learning. As Dr. Yeap Ban Har suggests, such opportunities allow teachers to begin to integrate and internalize their learning. In addition, Mathodology provides ongoing support through videos and other materials on their terrific website. Our teachers consistently report their appreciation of the range of available supports.
As teachers transition to a new instructional approach with new materials, they will be working hard and taking risks. Recognize their hard work. Ask them about their successes and failures; listen authentically and acknowledge their concerns. Ask teachers what they need and provide for those needs. Offer support and encouragement, provide constructive feedback and celebrate successes. Provide time for them to reflect upon and share their successes and struggles with their colleagues. Finally, plan opportunities for teachers to review collaboratively teacher and student work.
Keep in mind the needs of parents. Build opportunities for parents to learn about the program and understand the approach to instruction. Planned parent universities will help parents know how they can best support their children. In addition to helping parents, this will help teachers by making parents partners in the process of their children’s learning.
Donohoo (2017), delineated certain conditions which foster collective teacher efficacy which include consensus about educational philosophy and common goals as well as participation in decision making. Collective teacher efficacy, in turn, is associated with higher levels of student achievement.
The most important part of the implementation of any program is what happens as teachers interact with students. Essentially, enhancing and moving beyond buy-in requires building a sense of collective efficacy about the type of math learning which can occur in your school or district. In order to build collective efficacy and, therefore, to improve learning, consider ways to develop a shared vision of math teaching and learning, select high-quality learning materials, and provide ongoing support and professional learning.
Donohoo, J. (2016). Collective efficacy: How educators’ beliefs impact student learning. Corwin Press.
Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization. London: Random House.