Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Teachers' Turn To Learn

“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.”

Willingham, Daniel T. (2009-06-10). Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Kindle Locations 3238-3240). Wiley. Kindle Edition. 

The above quote caught my attention this morning because it addresses what this blog is all about.  It is my goal to bring to teachers insights from my reading that may help teachers be more successful in their classrooms.  Willingham says that the research on teacher improvement is not flattering to teachers.  According to his reading of the research, teachers grow most quickly in their first few years in the classroom.  Using scores on standardized tests as a measure, teachers show significant growth in their first five years.  What’s alarming is that a 20-year veteran of the classroom posts results no better than a 10-year veteran.  He says that teachers, though more experienced, produce no better measurable results from what he calls the “self-serving bias,” the habit of seeing what happens in their classrooms in a light favorable to themselves, with problems blamed on external forces.  While I suspect that a failure to improve is not in the least limited to teaching, I think that teachers, in particular, should strive to go beyond the “self-serving bias” if they can.

We ask our students to come to school and grow every day.  We expect them to work hard, focus, and learn new information, habits, and skills.  We know that children pick up attitudes and behaviors quite uncritically from their families, as in “…the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”  Is it not reasonable to expect that our behaviors and attitudes have a similar effect on our students?  That is, if they see and hear us trying new things, being willing to do poorly at first, even asking for their impressions of the new things we’re trying, is it not possible that that spirit of improvement might rub off on our students?  I particularly mention the openness to use our students as coaches for our improvement because coaching is one thing that Willingham says is important for learning.  Feedback, even if it’s painful or frustrating at times, is what elevates experience to genuine practice and defeats the impulse to sum up “the same old thing” with a cheery, “I think that went well.”

In his book, Willingham offers a 5-step plan for using video and partner teaching to study, ciritque, and enhance teaching skills.  I encourage the reader to look up Willingham’s book for that and many other fine ideas.  What I’ve said covers points (1) and (2) above.  About (3), Willingham offers a metaphor.  He mentions athletes who lift weights to get stronger, even though weightlifting isn’t directly related to the athlete’s sport.  For the teacher, I would suggest that extensive reading in areas that support curricular areas as well as titles in psychology, technology, and even business might qualify as those outside pursuits which might enhance teaching skills.  There are also numerous blogs written by teachers which might stimulate new ideas in the classroom.  One that I’ve been following lately, Ditch the Textbook, is a model for a teacher looking to improve classroom education by adapting relevant technologies to the task of educating children being raised in an era of rapidly-changing technology.  Just a word of caution about technology.  If technology is used to deliver the “same old” message, that is not innovation.  I suspect that the best uses of technology will be those which allow students to get quicker and more effective feedback.

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