Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

Think like a teacher


Doctors not only learn medical terminology and procedures, but they also learn how to think like a doctor.

Lawyers learn legal terminology and procedures, and they learn how to think like lawyers.

And so on through the professions.

But do teachers learn to think like teachers?

Do teachers think about their classrooms and learning in ways that separate them from parents and others who care about the well being of young people?

I think that they do.

For instance, competent teachers plan with the end in mind. They visualize the classrooms they want for their students and create physical environments, routines, and rules that will create the desired classroom experience. The same is true when those teachers plan instruction.

What, in your experience, does it mean to think like a teacher?

Stretch yourself


Forty-seven years ago this month I began my teaching career. Over those years the challenges and opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and public education gradually became a part of my daily consciousness, whether I was “on the job” or not.

I started teaching in 1968 in a high school with team teaching and modular scheduling that allowed for the flexible grouping of students, which by their very nature immediately engaged me in collaboration and job-embedded professional learning, although both terms would have been foreign to me at that time.

In 1972 I was invited to participate in designing and implementing a public alternative high school for “disaffected youth.” I had not heard the term “teacher leader,” nor was I aware how rare it was for a teacher to be meaningfully engaged in creating such a school.

In 1978 I became director of a teacher center, again as a teacher leader. A year later I became a member of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

I did not then know how my career was being subtly and irrevocably shaped by this succession of important and rare opportunities.

And in 1984 I became executive director of NSDC, a part-time position with an organization that at that time had just a few hundred members. For the next 23 years I had  the privilege of meeting outstanding educators from around the world and abundant opportunities to think deeply about professional learning.

What all of these things had in common is that they stretched me in ways I could not have anticipated and often did not desire. And, because I often worked outside my comfort zone, the fear of failure was a constant companion.

While I had not yet heard of the “impostor syndrome,” I lived it daily.

And in each setting —an innovative high school, an alternative program, a teacher center, and NSDC — I benefited from the support of respected colleagues who offered encouragement and mentoring along the way.

So what would I say to a teacher near the beginning of his or her career?

Look for and be open to opportunities and mentors who will challenge and stretch you. If you do, I predict that you will have a rich and fulfilling professional journey. I wish you well wherever you may be along that road….

Beliefs matter


Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

• Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

• Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

• It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

Why it’s important to value “inward participation” in learning

Dennis Sparks

I tell my students that much as I value dialogue, I affirm their right not to participate overtly in the conversation – as long as I have the sense, and occasional verbal reassurance, that they are participating inwardly. This permission not to speak seems to evoke speech from people who are normally silent… – Parker Palmer

It makes sense that teachers of students of all ages value the outward, verbal participation of learners in class discussions.

Unfortunately, inward participation, which often occurs in the “spaces” during which learners are encouraged to slow down and to think more deeply about the subject at hand, is often less valued.

Fast-moving conversations often leave some participants (particularly introverts) far behind as they continue to ponder points that were made several minutes before.

Inward participation in learning is the difference between “raw opinion,” which is often evoked in “instant polls,” and “considered judgment,” when individuals are given an opportunity for extended deliberation regarding the meaning and implications of various courses of action.

Unfortunately, opportunities for considered judgment are rare in many classrooms and professional development activities. (I write more here about using “white spaces” to improve learning and relationships.)

Everyone benefits when participants in professional conversations or learning activities are provided with opportunities to formulate a point of view on the subject at hand, particularly if it is something to which they previously had not given much thought.

When leaders validate and provide generous amounts of time for inward participation, the more deliberative, thoughtful, and sometimes reticent individuals in a group are more likely to share their unique and often significant contributions.

When it is important for individuals and groups to explore a topic in depth—which is often the case in significant matters of teaching, learning, and leadership—everyone benefits from “think time” which enables the inward participation in learning that Parker Palmer recommends.

What types of participation in learning are most helpful to you as a learner, and how do you encourage, support, and demonstrate to your students—of whatever age—a respect for their inward participation in learning?

Professional learning by doing

Dennis Sparks

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener—without going through the mind of either. —Mortimer Adler

Learning by doing is the antithesis of the mindless lecturing described by Adler.

It is most powerful when it includes reflection on the extent and meaning of that learning.

Whether learners are 5 years old or 50, it is essential that their talk and active engagement in the “doing” dominate both K-12 classrooms and professional development experiences rather than the voice of the teacher or “presenter.”

So, for instance, if we wish educators to become better planners, analyzers of research, and collaborators, it simply makes sense that they be provided with generous amounts of time to learn about and practice those skills during the initial learning and receive continuing feedback as they apply those skills in their job settings.

Likewise, educators’ professional judgment is strengthened when they:

• have extended opportunities to apply and refine their judgement as they grapple with meaningful problems of practice in sustained conversations with colleagues, and

• explore evidence related to the real-world consequences of their decisions.

What methods have you used or experienced that promote professional learning through doing?

Getting better at getting better

Dennis Sparks

In a recent issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki wrote about performance improvement in a number of fields, including teaching:

“…the biggest problem is that we’re in thrall to what [Elizabeth] Green [in Building a Better Teacher] calls “the idea of the natural-born teacher,” the notion that either you can teach or you can’t. As a result, we do little to help ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great. What we need to embrace instead is the idea of teaching as a set of skills that can be taught and learned and constantly improved on. As both Green and Goldstein detail, school districts in the United States that take teacher training seriously have seen student performance improve, often dramatically. More accountability and higher pay for teachers would help, too. But at the moment most American schools basically throw teachers in at the deep end of the pool and hope that they will be able not only to swim but also to keep all their students afloat, too. It’s a miracle that the system works as well as it does.”

In response to the article I wrote this letter to the editor:

“James Surowiecki (“Better All The Time,” November 10, 2014) correctly notes the generally low quality of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for teachers. He does not acknowledge, however, that inadequate compensation and poor working conditions in many schools discourage talented individuals from becoming teachers. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge, although he cites examples of it, the importance of sustained collaboration among teachers in continuously improving teaching and learning, a quality that has been undermined by ill-considered reforms that encourage unproductive competition among teachers and schools.

“The reason the education system works as well as it does is because of the often heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators in the face of immense and unrelenting challenges.”

What’s required for teachers and administrators to continuously “get better at getting better” so that “ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great”? 

A year without PowerPoint

Dennis Sparks

Like many readers of this blog, I sometimes attend meetings that feature one or more PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes those are “training meetings,” which means that the explicit purpose is that participants learn something of value.

It is not uncommon for the meeting’s convener or “trainer” to conclude the “presentation” by saying something like, “Now that we have covered…” or “Now that you understand….”

Giving people lists of rapidly-paced information with the assumption that they have learned something is bad teaching—no matter the age of the learners—unless the goal is to create a near-death experience for the participants.

I think of the presentation of lists as the “PowerPoint Syndrome,” although it is not always done with PowerPoint.

Here is a recent example from an organization with whom I volunteer that requires periodic online “inservice.” For about 45 minutes I listened and watched as a speaker read factual information from a list of slides that I was able to view on my computer screen. (I could have read the slides much more rapidly than the speaker spoke them.)

At the conclusion I was given a multiple-choice test of 10 questions seemingly randomly selected from the dozens if not hundreds of points that have been made during the presentation.

Because I am a good test taker, I passed the test with a perfect score. Did I understand the subject matters well enough to explain it to someone else? No. Did I acquire any skill useful in my volunteer work? No. Could I even remember most of the content a few hours later? No.

PowerPoint presentations are a part of a broader problem of teaching and learning that equates teaching with telling and performing.

I am not opposed to all PowerPoint presentations. Occasionally they are the most efficient means of providing a relatively quick overview of a topic or important information.

While presenting learners with information is sometimes appropriate, my objection is to the mindless overuse of long and endless lists of low-level information that cannot possibly be absorbed, yet alone understood.

To promote the mindful use of PowerPoint, I propose a year in which PowerPoint will only be used in meeting agendas or lesson plans when they can be fully justified as essential to the purposes of the meeting or lesson and they have no ill-effects (such as near-death experiences).

Just as the admonition “first do no harm” requires doctors to consider the possible negative effects of medical treatment on patients, so, too, must administrators and teacher leaders consider the ill effects of mindless PowerPoint presentations on teaching, professional development, and meetings.

What do you think—what is the appropriate role of PowerPoint in meetings and learning environments for young people and adults alike?

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