Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Falling Down 2: Teachers Falling Down

Loyal reader "Unknown" posted a great question in response to yesterday's post about pushing our limits in a constant search for improvement:
I can understand how this applies to students - it ties in with the idea of conceptual change, as well as giving children enough "at bats" to fail in order to eventually succeed. However, does the same apply to educators? Are we allowed to employ trial and error techniques to find what works best, even if it comes at the expense of our students' educations?  
Then again, everything I do is trial and error, so this comment is almost irrelevant.
First of all, let me say that this is not at all a trivial question. It gets at the heart of what we do as educators, and at the existential crisis that many of us experience in our first few years of teaching: Am I hurting children? Am I selfishly doing a job that I enjoy (sometimes) to the detriment of the people I aim to serve?

Keep in mind that this is a profession where, every day when you leave, you know you could have done better, and that if you had done better, a child would be better off. You did not achieve what was theoretically possible to achieve with this child today. So, in a sense, you will hurt children every day you're a teacher. This sounds harsh, but if you don't accept it, you'll get upset with yourself every day for not being perfect. In fact, you can extend this same logic to every other part of your life: Unless you're eating the perfect balance of food, you're hurting your health. Unless you exercise just the right amount in just the right way, you're hurting yourself. Unless you spend all of your free time helping society in the most optimal way, you're hurting society. This assumes, of course, that the world would be better off with a perfect person in your place. This is logically true, but I don't think it's a reasonable way to live your life. Instead, I recommend measuring the good you doing versus the good that you are capable of doing in the moment. Nobody can fault you for being in your, say, first full year of teaching, but they can fault you if you're not trying as hard as you can. In other words, for your part of the relay, you don't have to be the fastest person on the team; you're just giving it your all and going for a personal best every day.

But what does 'trying as hard as you can' look like? Does this mean pushing yourself to grow, or does it mean serving kids? What is the balance?

Here I will explain why I believe this question addresses the inevitable, give a few suggestions for how to minimize the negative impact of your own learning process, then re-frame the question as a matter of how to maximize student learning over the course of a year.

First of all, let's recognize that, even if we wanted to, we couldn't escape the trial-and-error nature of our jobs. Circumventing the trial-and-error process would require the following elements to be present:
#1 there exists a strong body of knowledge about what good teaching is,
#2 this body of knowledge applies predictably to the group of students you teach, and
#3 acting on this body of knowledge will require no trial and (more importantly) error.

I believe #1 is more true than we generally recognize, and more differentiated by subject matter than we usually discuss. #2 is tricky; every class is unique, and every day is different from the previous day, but I've generally found that good teachers can apply what they know to new classes on new days. #3 is largely a figment of our imaginations. I just don't think there's a way for us to learn that doesn't involve a lot of pushing ourselves what we're comfortably able to do. Isn't that what learning is?

Minimizing the negative impact of your own learning process

But what are some ways to minimize the negative effects of our own inexperience on children? This is a question we already have some helpful answers to:

1. Practice your lessons prior to teaching them. In doing so, you're making mistakes and learning from them without actually affecting students.

2. Perform a controlled experiment: Mitigate the negative effects of something you're working on in a lesson by changing only the one thing you're working on, and keeping everything else about your teaching the same. This helps you to see the effects of what you're working on, and has the added bonus of not allowing the one thing you're working on to ruin the entire class because you kept everything else the same.

3. Hedge your bets: Assign high-quality homework, allow students to read high-quality literature (fiction and nonfiction alike), and keep in mind that your class is likely 45 minutes out of a much longer day. Contrast this with a self-contained classroom teacher just starting out, whose learning process could potentially have a negative impact on students for an entire day at a time. Think of trying out a new recipe; The mahi mahi may turn out incredible, or it may fall flat, but either way you've made your trusty mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, so something positive will come of the experience regardless. As a teacher, you're going to try new things, but you should also keep doing the regular things that are working for you.

Year-long impacts of teachers taking instructional risks

While this began as a discussion of a very practical question, I want to address a more theoretical question: What is the impact of instructional risk-taking on student learning, over the course of a year?

First, let's make the following assumptions:
  • 70% of new ideas are simply not going to work. These are dropped. The other 30% become "strong" instruction add significantly to student learning and are adopted, replacing "safe" instruction.
  • It will take a week of developing a new idea to determine if it is going to work. It takes a month for this idea to become an exemplary practice.
  • Class time will be allocated, in percents, to the following categories, with the assigned number of learning units:
    • Safe: 5 learning units at the beginning of the year
    • Stretch (trial and error): 2 learning units
    • Strong: 10 learning units
Next, I'll introduce you to three teachers:

Teacher A is a rookie teacher who is very risk-averse. She puts herself in situations where she aims to make as few mistakes as possible over the long run. She will still make mistakes, but those mistakes will be spaced out and not catastrophic. Her learning will reflect this; she will not learn very quickly. You have likely met a teacher like this. In this teacher's class, there is no group work because kids might get off task; there is no call and response because kids might be silly. There is plenty of independent reading and responding to questions in writing, because the risk inherent in these activities is relatively low. She stays steady at 95% safe instruction, 5% stretch instruction, throughout the year.

Teacher B is a rookie teacher who likes to break out of her comfort zone a bit. She likes trying new things and is not afraid to make mistakes. She tries out group work, and sometimes it doesn't work. She has kids explore things she has placed around the room, and it doesn't work. She tries a new game and it works. She expects that the probability of the things she tries working is less than 100%, and is not discouraged when something doesn't work out. This teacher begins the year at 80% safe instruction, 20% stretch instruction.

Teacher C* is a total loose cannon. She tries something new every day. She alternates between excited and disappointed. She wants to sing a song to teach today's lesson, but tomorrow she wants students to generate their own knowledge by grappling with difficult concepts and humming to themselves. She starts a blog and wants kids to spend all class writing in the blog once a week. She wants to try full-on science labs tomorrow, despite not having ever taught this way. She tries Total Physical Response the day after she hears about it. She has kids act out plays that they have written about the life cycles of plants. She has kids respond as if they were members of various plant species. Pen pals! Plant pals! Dress up like a dinosaur and roar your answers! In short, she has a lot of ideas and wants to try them all, also realizing that some will work and others will not. Like Teacher B, she is not discouraged by failure. This teacher begins at 100% stretch instruction.

Which teacher's students are going to learn more?

Let's see what happens in the first four months of school:

According to this model, Teacher A's teaching led to 19.85 units of learning (the most), Teacher B's teaching led to 19.4 units of learning, and Teacher C's teaching led to 8 units of learning (the least, by far.)

First, some clarification: Why didn't Teacher C develop any strong practices? Wasn't all that trial and error helpful?

As it turns out, Teacher C has a fatal character flaw which does not allow her to learn from her mistakes. She does not test her variables in isolation, so she doesn't know what is working and what is not. She also lacks the discipline to stay with the same idea for long enough to develop it into a strong practice. So instead of embracing her failures, she quickly moves onto the next new thing. This is very bad. Learn from the cautionary tale of Teacher C. Be the skier who points her shoulders downhill and gives herself permission to fall; do not be the skier who jumps from the ski-lift.

Next, you'll see that Teacher A, the teacher who played it safe, had more net learning in the first four months of the school year than Teachers B and C (though the difference is almost negligible.)

Interestingly, the data from Month 1 tells you which approach is better for students in summer school, for example: Under these assumptions, if you want to serve kids on a one-month basis, don't get too creative with your teaching. Stick with what you know and kids will learn more than if you tinker.

However, most teachers don't have one-month or four-month contracts.They teach for about 9 months:

As we suspected in this highly contrived example, Teacher B's students will learn more. Take a healthy amount of risk, but be thoughtful about the amount of risk you take on at any given time. Your kids will end up learning more as a result.

Plus, I can see two more benefits to teaching in a slightly riskier way:
  1. You are modeling for kids that taking risks is OK. This will help them learn the all-important habit of pushing themselves, even when this is not leading to immediate academic learning.
  2. You are developing yourself as a teacher, which means that you will have a greater effect on the learning of future children. 
...and that can't be all bad, can it? I can't imagine anything better than knowing you will add even more value in the future, and helping kids to internalize one of the most important habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives: how to learn by making mistakes.

*None of these teachers are actual people, of course; any resemblance to actual teachers is pure coincidence.

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