Content Does Not Change Behavior

I was recently invited to the d.School (bucket list…check) with some amazing educators and friends and we were tasked with creating a “hack”—  a quick fix for helping teachers learn and change their practice.  As we went through the Design Thinking phases of empathizing, defining, ideating, and prototyping we generated a variety of different ideas.  Our prototype was a space where teachers could see models of teaching practices that would be accompanied by some guiding questions for individuals or groups to reflect on their learning experiences and continually make some tweaks to refine and improve their practice. None of us felt really excited about this “hack” but we couldn’t quite figure out what it was that was off and time was up.  As we shared our idea to get feedback from the insightful Joe McCannon from the Billions Institute, he shared his thoughts, asked some questions and then finally added, “content doesn’t change behavior”…#FAIL

Stop and let that sink in for a moment— “CONTENT DOES NOT CHANGE BEHAVIOR” …GULP! I was mortified.  I know this. I believe this. I practice this… Yet, I still got stuck in the trap of traditional structures that tell or show teachers what to do without an opportunity to experience something new, while expecting this would lead to a change in practice. Thanks to this feedback and necessary intervention, our hack got scraped before any teachers were harmed in the process.

This notion was further reinforced as I was watching Dylan Wiliam’s keynote on Google’s Education on Air as he discussed what we too often know but fail to change about traditional professional development– telling teachers things that rarely get translated to practice.  He argues that we need to focus professional learning on changing habits (or behaviors), and the need for ongoing practice and support, rather than isolated instances of knowledge acquisition.

Learning experiences that change behavior

When you are in charge of designing professional learning days, like teaching in the classroom, there is always “so much to cover” in a short amount of time.  It is tempting to cram it all in instead of modeling the desired learning and teaching. When in reality it is the personal and action oriented professional learning experiences that shift our practices to the desired learning and teaching.

To shift practices, the best experiences:

  • Build on what individuals know and can do
  • Empower learners to explore questions or challenges that directly impact them and their unique context
  • Create opportunities to get your hands dirty and do something
  • Engage in ongoing opportunities to reflect, refine, and improve in  a community of learners


So, what does this look like in practice?

Here are 5 examples of  learning experiences that move beyond content and empower educators to do something that changes the beliefs and behaviors about learning and teaching.

  1. Personal Learning Challenge

Our beliefs and experiences, are at the core of how we design learning experiences for others. When educators become the learners, and reflect on how they learn best, they are profoundly impacted by their experiences and can more aptly translate that to more robust learning experiences for their students.  Creating time and structure for teachers to engage in their own learning experience has been powerful for teachers and their students. One of my favorite projects is the 25 hour personal learning challenge where they must chose something to learn, reflect on how they learn and then share their process. I give some guiding prompts and ask that they use of variety of face to face on online networks and resources to learn and make their reflections public. The learning experience is very personal and always has profound implications on classroom practice.

2. Improvement Science

As a learner, some of my most impactful shifts in practice have emerged from inquiry based projects.  Improvement Science is about determining what you want to change and running mini cycles to test your change idea and collect data to understand the impact. Beginning with a challenge that is meaningful provides rich opportunities to investigate new solutions and put something into practice, study the outcomes and learn to improve. The plan, do, study, act framework keeps it simple and allows for rapid cycles to continually improve practice in an area that is relevant to one’s own practice and unique context.  When learners pick the topic or the questions to investigate, they are empowered to make data informed decisions based on cycles of inquiry and application. Check out this example from Amy Var.

3. Learning Walks

In order to build capacity and develop a shared understanding of what powerful teaching and learning looks like, sounds like, and feels like, it is critical to observe (not just talk about) teaching and learning.  Too often we make decisions based on assumptions, as well as our own beliefs and perspectives, rather that what is currently happening in classrooms- here is an example of how I like to structure these experiences.

4. Apprenticeship Learning Models

Rather than conducting the traditional summer school and offer professional development separately, Cajon Valley Union School District created a program where both teachers and students learned together. One lead teacher was paired with a team that was eager to experience and experiment with new methods of teaching and learning to leverage technology and create more authentic learning experiences for students. The lead teachers modeled and guided the experience as the “apprentices” learned through experience and collaboration. Check out their video.

5. Empathy Interviews

A trap that we often get stuck in is assuming that we know what people need and why they are acting a certain way without actually asking or understand their perspective. When we honor diverse voices and empathize with those we serve, we can better understand how our practices impact others.  Empathy interviews can help us create new solutions or change behaviors to better meet the needs of learners.

While there have been trends to “flip PD”and create more conference based professional learning days where educators have choices of sessions to attend, there is still a lot of content being shared. If we really think about this notion that content does not change behavior, we have to move beyond opportunities to share content and create opportunities for learners to do something.

What are some other powerful learning experiences would you add to this list?

One Reply to “Content Does Not Change Behavior”

  1. […] but they often sit unused. They are often created with great ideas and powerful practices, but the content does not change behavior. Learners have to experience something, try and learn through cycles that include action, […]

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