Thomas Guskey on What Changes Teachers’ Attitudes and Beliefs

In this article in The Learning Professional, Thomas Guskey (University of Louisville) tackles the tricky issue of whether teachers believe they can effectively reach all children. Citing a recent study, Guskey says that even when teacher teams roll up their sleeves and look at students’ work – seemingly the best time to reflect on what’s not working and how to improve instruction – teachers mostly attribute results to students’ behavior, effort, and family background. Why, asks Guskey, do teachers have such modest expectations for their impact on many students, and how can this self-fulfilling dynamic be changed?

            A widely used logic model goes like this: If PD change teachers’ attitudes and beliefs, their classroom practices will improve, and that will lead to more-equitable student outcomes. Proponents of this approach have used three strategies: (a) presenting evidence that effective teaching can overcome students’ entering disadvantages; (b) confronting teachers with the illogic of their assumptions and inappropriateness of their beliefs; and (c) guilt-tripping teachers with emotional appeals for the need to rescue children from the hardships they are born into. Guskey says all three have been tried and generally fail to budge teachers’ beliefs, which are driven by what they have previously known and experienced.

            So what does work? Guskey says the key is flipping the sequence of the logic model. Start by changing teachers’ classroom practices (for example, training them in a proven practice like Benjamin Bloom’s mastery learning); they see clear evidence of improved student learning; and this produces changes in teachers’ beliefs and attitudes. The film Remember the Titans is an example – a high school football coach changes the experiences of his young athletes, which transforms their attitudes and beliefs.

            Of course this process is not easy, says Guskey. It requires extra work at first, can produce anxiety and stress, and needs to be adapted to each school’s unique circumstances. The most important thing is teachers getting prompt, continuous feedback on the effect of instructional changes on students’ classroom assessment results, engagement, and confidence in themselves as learners. Feedback within a matter of weeks is crucial, says Guskey, because teachers’ “primary psychological rewards come from feeling certain about their capacity to affect student growth and development.”

            Guskey says this is not a one-shot process; there needs to be support, follow-up, and pressure to sustain improvement – pressure being key to moving teachers who continue to be resistant. “Of all aspects of professional learning, follow-up is perhaps the most neglected,” he says. “Yet to be successful, professional learning must be seen as a process, not an event.”


“Flip the Script on Change: Experience Shapes Teachers’ Attitudes and Beliefs” by Thomas Guskey in The Learning Professional, April 2020 (Vol. 41, #2, pp. 18-22),; Guskey can be reached at