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Is it Lack of Compliance or a Lack of Clarity?

When I ask teachers, "What are all the things you need to clarify for your students?" all eyes in the room widen, lists begin to be made, and someone invariably says, "Everything!" Familiar and somewhat frustrated chuckles circulate the room, and heads nod in agreement. In fact, mine is usually one of them.

Clarity has become a pretty popular word as of late, and I would argue it's not without good reason. According to John Hattie's Visible Learning research, Teacher Clarity yields and impact size of .84, which equates to roughly two years' of learning in one year of time. Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey share their work in Corwin's Teacher Clarity Playbook, where they explain that teacher clarity is more than a reiterate of classroom procedures and behavioral expectations. Real clarity around learning paints a picture of learning expectations for students--which ultimately empowers them to own their own progress and learning.

Confusion, as it turns out, is a very real thing (and you wouldn't think we'd have to explicitly name this in our field of education, but yes, we do!) Confusion, as it also turns out, is to be expected and normal. As learners, we cannot figure out next steps and potential solutions if we can't first identify problems or areas where we feel stumped.

Unfortunately, in many current classroom environments, teachers and students do not feel safe enough to hold the discomfort of confusion to productively struggle. This applies to both student and teacher learners, alike. Why are we so uncomfortable with the unknown--with making mistakes--with confusion? Why is this triggering and why does it feel so heavy?

Great questions that I predict have very complex answers. From my own experiences as a teacher, coach, and administrator, I think confusion very often comes from one or more of the following factors:

Lack of clear communication
Changing expectations or unclear expectations from the start
Lack of effective organizational systems for materials and documents
Assumption of clarity among all parties
Lack of clarity or follow-up on important dates
Too many cooks in the kitchen
Lack of visuals as examples

These seven factors can create confusion and lack of action in both our classrooms and among our staff. Notice, I didn't add lack of buy-in or compliance to the list. When we really stop and ask ourselves, "Why did someone not do something they were supposed to?" the answer can usually be found within one of the seven factors listed above.

Can't figure out why certain PLCs are not meeting or using an effective PLC agenda? Perhaps those teams didn't realize they needed to record each meeting or send the agendas out to all teachers involved.

Unsure as to why some grade levels are using common assessments each week and others are not? Go back and track how many times you communicated this expectation directly to teachers (and no, weekly newsletter communications do not count!) Clarify what the expectation is for PLCs to organize their assessments (as in, where do they find them--where do they look?) to make sure they are using common rubrics, projects, tests, etc. Ask yourself how many new teachers are in that group--and how on earth they would know to use those assessments to begin with!

Wonder why a team said they created a curriculum map--but you don't know where to find it? Ask yourself: what is our system for digitally organizing these documents? How easy is it for our teachers to find? When was this communicated? How often?

Teachers, like students, are good people. We are good people who get confused, often, by a lack of clarity. If you have a PLC or a team that is not putting materials where you'd expect them too--they probably just don't know where to put the agenda, map, assessments, etc.

I do believe there is a difference between learned helplessness and genuine, momentary confusion. Students and teams with learned helplessness are not to blame; they have been existing in a system that has not empowered them to think critically or equip them with helpful problem-solving tools. If you have students who are heavily reliant on their teachers' guidance and approval--these students need explicit permission and modeling of how to take risks, speak their opinions, and create new ideas.

If you have PLCs or teams who are reluctant to act and make decisions around curriculum, data, assessment, and generally anything involving change--first, be sure they are not confused by a lack of clarity from the leadership. If you realize that dates, documents, expectations have not explicitly clear--ask these teams what you can do to improve your own clarity as a leader.

If you find that clarity is not the issue, still resist the urge to think, "Well, they just won't do it! They just don't care!" Teachers always care. Maybe this team needs more visual examples of what they're working towards. Maybe this team needs more follow-up emails with dates and check-points. Maybe this team needs encouragement and coaching that they are equipped to make the decisions that are needed.

Usually, when students are confused, there was a miscommunication or a lack of clarity about what was expected. Our teachers, PLCs, and teams are the exact same way, and the good news is: clarity can be created!

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1 Comment

Kristen Withee
Kristen Withee
Nov 07, 2022

Your blog article, once again, is so well timed! Thanks for your insight Carrie.

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