Breaking old habits and adopting new ones: how to change teaching practice when change is hard

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John Kazadi 4th grade teacher asking his students questions at the St. Louis Primary School in Kinshasa, DRC John Kazadi 4th grade teacher asking his students questions at the St. Louis Primary School in Kinshasa, DRC

There is some consensus about the types of skills an effective educator has in his or her repertoire. Generally, they are: being skilled in developing safe and supportive learning environments, checking for student understanding, adjusting instruction according to needs, developing socio- and emotional competences in their learners, among others. However, when we observe teaching practices in low- and middle-income countries, we see that many teachers don’t implement these effective teaching practices (see here, here, and here). If countries invest tens (even hundreds) of millions every year on teacher professional development, the perennial question is why aren’t teaching practices improving? 

We offer one – often neglected – part of the answer: traditional teacher professional development programs rarely provide concrete guidance on what exact change is expected by teachers. Drawing on research from behavioral science, we know that changing habits requires having a very concrete vision of the intended change. And in fact, what looks like resistance to change can be lack of clarity about what change is expected. For example, we often tell teachers to improve classroom management, but we don’t say exactly what we mean. Does it mean having better organized materials? Disciplining students more? Establishing classroom routines? If we want teachers to adopt new habits, programs that aim to change behaviors need to include very clear guidance on what the expected behaviors are and how they should look in the classroom. 

There is an additional challenge in teacher professional development programs of ensuring that a whole cadre of coaches and teacher trainers are equipped to provide specific and unambiguous guidance on what behavioral change is expected. This means that those charged with training teachers also need clear guidance on how to support teachers to adopt effective teaching practices. Akin to structured lesson plans (shown to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve student learning outcomes), structured materials targeted at teacher trainers and coaches are needed to provide precise prompts on how to help teachers understand, practice, and form habits around new pedagogical skills.  

Responding to this need, as part of the World Bank’s Coach program, the team has developed the Foundational Teaching Skills Guide to scaffold the training, modeling, and practice of general pedagogical skills for both teachers and coaches. The guide is versatile, and can feed into pre-service training, in-service training, coaching sessions, teacher’s guides, and teacher self-study.

To come up with these structured materials, the team identified a starter list of 11 Foundational Teaching Skills (FTS). They were selected because they were: 1. Applicable to everyday classroom instruction; 2. Supported by evidence; 3. Observable in practice; and 4. Simple to learn and to coach. These are by no means the only teaching practices that matter, but we suggest them as a good place to start (Figure 1). Countries should layer other important teaching skills and practices on top of these down the line, after the fundamentals are mastered.

Figure 1: List of 11 Coach FTS

Figure 1   

These FTS are consolidated into an FTS Guide that provides step-by-step guidance on how to implement them in the classroom. The FTS Guide suggests an order of skills to work on, provides guidance on when these practices should be incorporated (e.g. beginning of the year, or only reinforced when needed), and gives an example of how a teacher would go about applying the FTS in the classroom (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Structure of Coach FTS Guide

fig 2

You can find the Foundational Teaching Skills Guide at this link. As the Coach team prepares a final version of the Guide for publication, we are seeking robust and thoughtful comments to ensure that the guidance is comprehensive, clear, and useful for teachers, pedagogical leaders, and other stakeholders in a range of contexts. How can we make this guidance more useful for teachers and coaches around the world? And are there other foundational teaching skills we should include? Please reach out to us at to share your feedback by April 30th 2021, and stay tuned for more opportunities to engage with our work!

Further reading:


Elaine Ding

Analyst, Education Global Practice

Laura Mahajan

Director of Coaching, Sposato

Adelle Pushparatnam

Senior Education Specialist

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