The Research Files Episode 62: Teacher adaptability

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Hello, from Teacher magazine I'm Jo Earp and welcome to another episode of The Research Files. Teachers are asked to respond to new and uncertain situations all the time – from keeping abreast of curriculum and subject knowledge updates to making quick pivots when a lesson isn't quite going according to plan. Our topic for this episode is teacher adaptability and my guest is Dr Rebecca Collie – a DECRA Fellow and Scientia Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Education at UNSW. Dr Collie and colleagues recently published a paper in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education, on their study into adaptability among science teachers in schools across eight countries. We'll be talking about the study findings, and the research around teacher adaptability. We'll also talk about the link between teacher adaptability and self-confidence, behaviour management and student self-efficacy. And, there'll be some recommendations for school leaders in there around the importance of professional learning communities. There a lot to discuss today, so let's get started.

Jo Earp: Dr Rebecca Collie, thanks for joining me and welcome to The Research Files. Now, what do we already know about teacher adaptability – I understand it's a growing area of education research?

Rebecca Collie: That's correct, and thanks for having me today Jo I'm delighted to be speaking with you. So, adaptability has been a part of discussions on teachers and teaching for decades. ‘Adaptability' and words like ‘flexibility' are things that have come up in many conversations about teaching and effective practice, and they're also highly evident in conversations about teacher attrition and retention, particularly in the first few years of entering the profession.

And so, teacher adaptability is a core part of effective teaching practice and teachers are asked to be adaptable throughout the school day. And this is because teachers face unexpected situations in the classroom and sudden shifts in timetable changes, they encounter a wide range of learners whose needs may change across the course of a school day – depending on the content and the teachers that they're working with, the other students they're working with. Teachers are also asked to adapt by embedding new and changing pedagogical and content knowledge into their teaching. And then, teachers interact with a diverse range of individuals, including students, colleagues and parents.

And so, research on teacher adaptability has been growing for a few years now to help distil some of the complexity of teaching in the real world and to identify key factors that play a role in supporting effective and thriving teachers. And the research that my colleagues and I do on teacher adaptability evolved from work on student adaptability, led by colleague and co-author Andrew Martin. And so, in our work, teacher adaptability is defined as ‘the capacity to adapt in order to effectively manage new, changing or uncertain situations'.

And we talk about adapting thoughts, actions and emotions. And so, for example, if a teacher is facing a classroom of students who aren't really engaged, who are perhaps chatting away and having a hard time getting started on their work, then adaptability might involve the teacher adjusting their thoughts to think through a variety of options about how they might link the day's content with students' interests to help engage them. It might involve the teacher adjusting their actions to try out a few different activities to engage those students. And it probably also involves the teacher adjusting their emotions to rein in potential frustration in the fact that the lesson isn't going as planned, but also drawing on positive emotions like enthusiasm about the day's lesson to help get students engaged.

And so, in our research we've found that teacher adaptability is linked with greater work commitment – so, teachers' commitment to their school of employment, their organisation that they work at – it's also linked with lower work disengagement. Work disengagement occurs when teachers have hit a point where they've kind of given up at work; so, they're putting in very little or no effort at work, and we obviously don't want teachers to reach that point so adaptability is potentially one way to reduce that. We've also found that teacher adaptability is linked with greater teacher wellbeing and, in turn, greater student achievement – through the boost that teachers gain in their wellbeing from adaptability.

Two of my colleagues at UNSW, Tony Loughland and Dennis Alonzo (2018), have also shown that teacher adaptability is linked with more adaptive practice in the classroom. And so they went into classrooms and they observed teachers' practice and they found that teachers who adapted based on, you know, students' needs – so, shifting the direction of the lesson or adding in a new activity to further explore some concept – those teachers reported greater adaptability.

And so, we're getting a better picture of what adaptability is associated with, and this includes teacher wellbeing, motivation and teaching practices.

JE: So there's been a lot of research to date and as you say that's certainly growing. And so, you extended that body of research with this latest study. You worked with Helena Granziera, Andrew Martin and Emma Burns, they're from UNSW, and also Andrew Holliman from UCL Institute of Education in London on this study (Collie et al., 2020). So, what was the aim of your research?

RC: The aim of this study was to build on the prior research that I've just mentioned to further our understanding about teacher adaptability, and whether it's relevant in particular domains and in relation to other important outcomes. And so, prior work has examined teacher reports or observations of teacher adaptability and in this study we wanted to get student voice in there. And in particular we wanted to look at teachers' instructional adaptability, based on students' perspectives – so, what do students see in the classroom.

Prior work has also focused on the teacher, which is understandable because it is a teacher-focused factor, but we wanted to examine its broader role across a school. So, that is the average levels of adaptability across a group of teachers in a school. And we also wanted to look at whether adaptability is relevant across multiple countries, because prior research to date has always been conducted within one country. So, does adaptability work in a similar way across different countries? Is it relevant to teachers in different nations across the globe?

JE: Okay, let's look into some of the figures then. You examined data from the 2015 cycle of PISA – and of course, that's the Programme for International Student Achievement – and the particular focus of that cycle (so it's a three year cycle) was scientific literacy.

RC: That's right, and so that gave us the opportunity to look at adaptability in science instruction. And so science teachers are required to adapt, just like every other teacher in other school subjects, but in addition science teachers must also make amendments specific to their teaching domain. And so that includes changes in technology and laboratory procedures, as well as ongoing advances in knowledge that affect the curriculum. There are also concerns about declines in students' motivation in science worldwide, and so this gave us the opportunity to see if there are some teacher-related factors that may be linked with greater student motivation in the science classroom.

This study involved data collected from over 2000 schools, and within those schools we had data from over 14 000 science teachers and 57 000 students who were aged around 15 years of age (around Grade 10). And the data was collected across eight countries – we had Australia in there, but we also had Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, South Korea, Portugal, Spain and the US – and we undertook our study by looking at the role of teacher adaptability across all of those countries.

JE: What exactly did you look at – there's a lot of data in there, isn't there, in the PISA studies. What did you specifically want to focus on?

RC: So, as I mentioned earlier, we wanted to extend understanding of adaptability in several ways, and in particular we wanted to see if it's predicted by some other factors that haven't been examined yet, and we wanted to see if it's linked with outcomes that we haven't examined yet.

And so we looked at some job-related factors that might support or hinder teacher adaptability. For the hindering factors we looked at disruptive student behaviour in science classrooms, and we looked at student diversity in a school in terms of socioeconomic status, minority language background and special needs. And so we anticipated that disruptive behaviour and student diversity might mean that some teachers feel a bit more overwhelmed with classroom management and also differentiating learning for those learners, which might leave fewer opportunities, or less time, to adapt instruction in the day-to-day of teaching. We also looked at science teacher collaboration as a potential resource that might support teacher adaptability, and we expected that more collaboration among science teachers at a school might provide access to a variety of strategies and resources that then helps teachers to adapt in the classroom.

So we looked at the extent to which those three factors that I just mentioned are linked with teacher adaptability, and as I explained earlier adaptability is ‘the capacity to adjust in the face of new, changing or uncertain situations'. And in this study we focused on teachers' instructional adaptability – so, the extent to which students feel that teachers adjust their practice in the science classroom.

Then we looked at whether teacher adaptability is linked with higher science teacher self-efficacy and, in turn, higher student self-efficacy for learning science. And so, self-efficacy refers to our confidence for undertaking a particular type of task, and in this study we looked at teacher self-efficacy for science teaching and content knowledge – so that is, teachers' confidence in relation to pedagogy, like differentiating instruction in the science classroom, and using a range of assessment strategies, as well as their confidence with science knowledge. And for students we looked at their self-efficacy for learning science, including their confidence about interpreting science knowledge and explaining science concepts to others. And we hypothesised that, in schools where there's more adaptable teachers that that would help them to feel confident in their teaching, which would, in turn, help students to feel more confident in their learning because these teachers are creating more effective learning environments.

JE: Just to clarify then at this point, as we've mentioned, there's a lot of information in the PISA data. So, you're using a mix of both the teacher data (because there are teacher survey questions in there as well­) and also the student responses. We'll talk about the key findings from this study after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: Welcome back, I'm here with Dr Rebecca Collie and we're talking about teacher adaptability. So Rebecca, I want to talk about the findings now. What were some of the key findings?

RC: So, what was interesting – for the first finding – was that at schools with more disruptive behaviour in science classes, there tended to be lower science teacher adaptability. And so when there are high levels of disruptive behaviour in a school, teachers are obviously collectively focusing on classroom management, which, we suspect, requires a lot of adaptability because they are having to adapt to address that in the classroom, but it's focused on adaptability in terms of behaviour rather than instruction. And so that might leave less time, fewer opportunities, for adapting instruction – when teachers are concentrating on ensuring students are, you know, following the rules, it's a safe environment, all of those types of things, then there's less time to focus on the lesson and the content.

We also found that schools with higher science teacher adaptability tended to have science teachers with higher self-efficacy. So, when science teachers across a school are able to adapt their instruction in the classroom this helps them feel more confident in their work, and it's probably through those experiences of success. So, as a teacher, when you're trying out different options in the classroom, there's more chance that you'll have success, rather than sitting there and not trying anything new where there's a very limited chance of being successful. If you're trying out new situations, when you have faced an uncertain situation, then trying out different strategies, trying out different behaviours, thoughts, emotions, likely gives you a better chance of succeeding and having more confidence in your ability.

And then we also found that schools with greater science teacher self-efficacy tended to have higher student self-efficacy for learning science. And so it's possible that having more self-efficacious teachers in a school helps to facilitate learning environments that are more engaging and better equipped to model and scaffold learning for all students. Put differently, in schools where science teachers feel more confident in science this likely helps school average confidence amongst students as well in that same area.

Now, what was really nice about the findings is that they were consistent across the eight countries that we examined, and so this suggests that adaptability does function similarly across these countries and has an important role to play at the school level across these various contexts.

JE: Did you dig further into the data – was it just country comparisons that you did?

RC: We just compared across countries, but these results that I've mentioned were all controlling for several co-variants. So one of those co-variants was student science achievement. So, if you hold science achievement constant across all of the schools that we looked at, that's what we did effectively when we were controlling for it, these results occurred beyond that. And school level science student achievement is quite highly correlated with socioeconomic status in many cases.

JE: Yeah, and the other thing that I found interesting there – you were saying about adaptability and then that leading to self-confidence. It's kind of virtuous cycle isn't it … that adaptability breeds the self-confidence, which then breeds more adaptability, you know, you feel able to take the risks maybe and then that gives you more confidence, and more adaptability … And so, to me, it seems like one thing lead to another?

RC: I agree, I think that's definitely what is likely to happen. We haven't examined it yet but I agree, when you're testing out different options and you're seeing them work then you're probably going to think about using them again in a similar situation in the future, which again helps to create this virtuous cycle of building your resources and strategies and then building your confidence as well.

JE: So that could be one thing to explore later. And then the other thing, again, that's interesting to dig into later is you mentioned about the behaviour management aspect of things. So, it may be that those teachers are as adaptable as the other teachers, but they're just not getting that head space, if you like, they're not getting that chance within the lesson to do that?

RC: That's right, and we also as we've spoken about, we examined this at the school level. So this is school level disruptive behaviour, so it's this average level of disruption across a school. And it's in schools where there's higher disruptive behaviour. So it's not necessarily on the teacher individually, that's not what this study looked at, it's about across a whole school. If teachers across a school, or students as well, feel that there's more disruptive behaviour then that is linked with teacher adaptability.

JE: It's really interesting stuff isn't it. So, what about the implications for practice then – what do these findings mean for teachers and school leaders, and their practice? Do you make any specific recommendations?

RC: Yeah, so the first recommendation we make is the importance of reducing disruptive student behaviour. And so what I was just getting into then is the idea that we need to concentrate on disruptive behaviour within the classroom, but this study suggests that it's also important to focus on efforts to reduce disruptive behaviour at the school level. And so, that may involve, you know, having school-wide efforts to promote shared language, shared goals and shared norms regarding behaviour. One useful and helpful approach for that is school-wide social and emotional learning programs – they can be very helpful for creating that positive school climate. And this is in addition to the professional learning that teachers do for their own classroom management skills within the classroom themselves.

JE: So, clearly teacher (and school leader) adaptability is important. You mentioned one of the strategies there, what are some of the other ones for promoting adaptability in terms of a school perspective, and then I'm also interested in what can we do as individuals to develop and increase our own ability to adapt?

RC: That's a great question and this is an area that requires additional research, but we do make some recommendations. So, self-reflection through professional learning communities is one strategy that might be helpful for promoting adaptability – both in an individual but also across a school. And so schools may want to establish professional learning communities in which teachers think about recent instances where something novel or uncertain happened in the classroom, then reflect on how they adjusted – and in particular how did they adjust their thoughts, behaviours and emotions in relation to that situation to manage it – then reflecting on their response and brainstorming different strategies that they could use in the future. And this could occur in the professional learning communities, but also individually. And then testing the strategies out next time. So, it creates this cycle of self-reflection and professional growth.

In our prior research we've also examined factors that are predictive of teacher adaptability. And one factor that has featured in several of our studies is perceived autonomy support. Perceived autonomy support refers to teachers' sense that the school leadership supports their empowerment and self-initiative as a teacher. Our research has shown that perceived autonomy support is linked with greater teacher adaptability. And so, knowing this, schools may want to use autonomy-supportive leadership practices to support teacher adaptability. And these practices include things like: seeking staff input on school policy; providing opportunities for staff to be involved in school-level decision making; really listening to teachers' needs and attempting to understand issues from teachers' perspectives; and then providing positive reinforcement regarding teachers' ability to effectively fulfil the requirements of their job.

And we suggest that these types of autonomy-supportive leadership practices are important because, for teachers to be adaptable in their instruction, that requires them to be in a working environment that encourages them to have the self-initiation and autonomy to make changes as needed, to adapt as needed. And so autonomy-supportive leadership practices are likely going to help create an environment where teachers feel that they can test out different options and resources and strategies.

JE: So having that support of leaders is crucial – that's certainly the case with a lot of things isn't it. The other thing that I just want to pick up on is you mentioned about reflection as a group – and we talk a lot at Teacher about the process of reflection and the importance of reflecting on your own practice. That's interesting, the notion of just being able to pick out the points where you were adaptable. You know, we do rush through a day don't we and it's being able to pick out those points where you did really well, it just gives you that reminder that you are doing some practices there that have been effective and may give you more confidence to do it again in the future I guess?

RC: Absolutely, and that trial and error as well I think is a really useful part of developing as a teacher.

JE: And of course, the other important aspect that you mentioned earlier is self-efficacy. So regular listeners to the podcast will have heard a recent episode that I did on developmental leadership coaching (that's in our School Improvement series), and that was about building teacher self-efficacy in a school, and how difficult it can be to foster.

RC: Yeah, that's a really important point. It can be difficult to foster. And, although our research didn't get into the effectiveness of approaches for promoting teacher self-efficacy, our study does suggest that it may be important for such efforts to be focused at the school level, not only at the individual level; so, helping all teachers to raise their self-efficacy across the school.

And more research really is needed to ascertain whether and how this can be done. But, from a broader reading of the literature, professional learning communities are another option for this and they do seem to be a promising way to develop teacher self-efficacy, particularly in science. But, for these professional learning communities to be effective, they need to be ongoing, driven by teachers, embedded in the teaching context, and of course teachers need time – which is a commodity that is very hard to come by in schools these days.

Returning to our study, I think it's really important that we now know that teacher adaptability may play a role in supporting or promoting teacher self-efficacy. And so that's another area for future research, and in particular examining the extent to which efforts to promote adaptability in a school also lead to improvements in teacher self-efficacy. This area is really important going forward, to see how we can use adaptability to promote more positive outcomes for teachers at work.

That's all for this episode. If you enjoyed this discussion on teacher adaptability and the study by Dr Rebecca Collie and colleagues, there's more information and related reading in the transcript of this podcast on the Teacher website. If you want to keep listening, there are more than 60 episodes of The Research Files, and more than 170 in total in our podcast archive. It includes School Improvement Episode 10, which is on the topic of effective professional learning communities, something we've talked about today. Here's a short snippet from that podcast ­of Dr Lawrence Ingvarson talking about setting up a professional learning community:

…quite simply think about: How can we simply improve the frequency, and the quality of conversations that teachers have about their work, about their students' learning? But particularly conversations where what's on the table in a conversation is examples of students' work, or examples of students' progress, so that concrete things are guiding the discussion. It can be fatal to set up professional learning teams and the team sits around the table and says ‘well, what's the agenda? Where are we going?'. A professional community is guided by a very strong set of professional values and the heart of those values is ‘what can we do together to ensure that we offer a high quality education for our students?'.

You can find that episode on the Teacher website or wherever you get your podcasts from. Don't forget to hit the subscribe button on your podcast app to keep up to date with the latest from Teacher magazine, and please rate and review us while you're there.

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References and related reading

Collie, R.J., Granziera, H., Martin, A.J., Burns, E.C., & Holliman, A.J. (2020). Adaptability among science teachers in schools: A multi-nation examination of its role in school outcomes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 95, 103148.

Loughland, T., & Alonzo, D. (2018). Teacher adaptive practices: Examining links with teacher self-efficacy, perceived autonomy support and teachers' sense of adaptability. Educational Practice and Theory, 40(2), 55e70.

Posnanski, T. J. (2002). Professional development programs for elementary science teachers: An analysis of teacher self-efficacy beliefs and a professional development model. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 13(3), 189e220.

Lakshmanan, A., Heath, B.P., Perlmutter, A., & Elder, M. (2011). The impact of science content and professional learning communities on science teaching efficacy and standards-based instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 534-551.

Dr Rebecca Collie says this study suggests it’s important to focus on efforts to reduce disruptive behaviour at a school level. Think about your own school: do you have shared language, shared goals and shared norms regarding behaviour?

The podcast also discusses autonomy-supportive leadership practices. As a school leader, do you seek staff input on school policy? How often do you provide opportunities for staff to be involved in school level decision making?