Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

Beliefs matter

Dennis

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?

A year without “presentations”

Dennis Sparks

The start of a school year offers a blank slate for the development of new habits.

In recognition of the value of a fresh start I propose the elimination of the list-heavy PowerPoint type of “presentations” that dominate many meetings and far too much “professional development.”

Presenting” is not synonymous with “teaching.” Teaching, in my mind, is a complex cognitive and behavioral process in which teachers, and often their students, choose learning outcomes, select the instructional methods that are most likely to produce those outcomes, determine whether the learning has been acquired, and provide additional learning opportunities for students who have not achieved mastery.

Presenting, on the other hand, may include some or all of those steps, but in practice seldom does.

While “presenters” may intentionally engage learners through various activities, more often than not they speak to mostly passive “audiences,” which is why professional development is often derisively known as “sit and get.”

As they are commonly used, presentations are not intended nor designed to give more than lip service to higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, assessment, the critical analysis of research, and the development of professional judgment, among other complex instructional knowledge and skills.

Therefore, I recommend:

That “presentations” be used sparingly and only when the explicit goal is “communicating” a modest amount of information for relatively low-level purposes. Such presentations are not to be confused with the type of learning experiences required to deepen understanding of complicated subjects or to develop complex skills.

That leaders be ruthlessly honest with themselves and others to determine if the “presentations” they are considering are really a good use of teachers’ time and good will.

That the term “teaching,” not “presentation,” be used to describe the methods required for the development of the kinds of knowledge and skills mentioned above.

We honor teachers and teaching when we use the verb “teach” to describe the processes by which important and complex understandings and skills are developed, whether the students are young people or professional adults.

In another post I wrote, “… with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.”

I urge administrators and teacher leaders to consciously justify the absolute necessity of every “presentation.” I am confident that few presentations will meet the standard of being “a good use of teachers’ time and goodwill,” which hopefully means their rapid demise.

All of the above require that leaders be more intentional about the kinds of learning experiences required for educators to expand and deepen the sophisticated and nuanced skills and understandings of their profession.

What do you think—do “presentations” have a place, and, if so, what purposes do they best serve?

[A year without presentations will also likely require a year without PowerPoint, which will be subject of my next post.]

The similarities between successful teaching, professional development, and leadership

 

Dennis Sparks“Big Idea”: The practices of successful teaching, successful professional development, and successful leadership are remarkably similar.

In my view, a common set of principles regarding human learning and relationships underlie teaching, professional development, and leadership that intends to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Good teaching, as I see it, is an intellectually-rich science and a psychologically demanding improvisational art that is practiced in an ever changing landscape of relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. And like other endeavors that blend science and art, it can be improved through years of practice with frequent reflection on the effectiveness of one’s efforts.

The same description could be applied to skillful school leadership and to professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because I view teaching, leadership, and professional development as closely linked, I frequently ask administrators and teacher leaders who face daunting challenges in their work to imagine how a good teacher would think about and respond to those challenges.

The following posts highlight the understandings and processes that inform effective practice in these three areas. They were among the most widely distributed and read posts of the past year.

“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

“11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning”

You can peruse all posts in the “teaching” category here.

 


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