Showing posts with label Explicit teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Explicit teaching. Show all posts

Monday, May 11, 2009

Teaching with Clenched Teeth

Teaching should follow research, and teachers ought to use the kinds of tools and routines that have been found to be effective in the past. In the Chicago schools, I imposed time standards to make sure kids got enough teaching of the essential parts of the curriculum. Unfortunately, this emphasis on effective practice and amount of instruction is sometimes misunderstood. It may be interpreted as a kind of mindless recipe-following in which teachers ignore the kids, hurrying to get through a too-full curriculum.

But, to draw a sports analogy, teaching is not a game that can be played well with clenched teeth.

Think of this contrast: pro-football teams play once a week for an hour (and they only do this 18 times a year). And each player plays less than that, as they aren’t always on the field. In contrast, baseball players play 162 games a season, and each game can go on for several hours. A star baseballer plays for nearly 500 hours a season, while a pro football player plays only about 9 hours.

Because of the episodic nature of football there is a lot of emphasis on intense motivation. Football it seems is best played with clenched teeth. But baseball requires a more quiet and controlled kind of intensity: the players have to play within themselves and not get too excited. Football is played in a hurried and emotional way; baseball is more cunning and careful. There is a serenity to it.

Teaching is much more like baseball than football. Teachers have to be more planful. They can’t get too excited, getting depressed and angry when things don’t go well or exuberant when they do. It is a long season, and the game has to be played on an even keel if success is to be accomplished. Teachers definitely should not hurry and they cannot afford to feel pressure like they could if they only taught 9 hours a year.

Reading and writing instruction should be delivered for two to three hours a day (almost as much time as a major league baseball game). During that time, teachers have to switch gears frequently: sometimes teaching decoding (if she is a primary grade teacher) and vocabulary and reading comprehension and reading fluency and writing. Each of these parts of the game have their own tenor; some require speed, others reflection.

Teachers have to switch gears in other ways too: sometimes telling kids what to do, other times showing them, and still others, assigning practice and sitting back to watch, providing guidance and support as needed.

Of course, things don’t always go right: you thought an explanation would be enough, but the kids weren’t getting it, so you stopped to show them how. Or you thought three examples would be enough, but it wasn’t and you had to slow down to provide even more practice. Or, the text being read turned out to be a richer experience than you had guessed, so now you want to finish only half of the article today, so that it can be covered in greater, and more profitable, depth. (And, yes, there are those times, when everything seems to go right and you complete a lesson in half the time expected and need to stay on your game, getting a head start on the next lesson since you can’t afford to waste a valuable minute).

Teaching literacy effectively requires a kind of serenity… a big picture understanding of what is going on, and of what has to happen, and an ability to speed up, slow down, push, stop, and stand back and watch. Teaching reading cannot be done with clenched teeth.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Why It Sometimes Looks Like Teaching Does Harm

I was speaking with a teacher who was not a big fan of phonics instruction. It was not that she was totally against it, in fact her concerns had arisen from observing the children who she was teaching phonics to. She was concerned because, often, when she introduced new skills, the kids seemed more awkward and more confused than when she started.

Of course, it could be that she was just a bad teacher and was just doing a bad job of explaining and modeling the decoding skills. Bad teaching can certainly confuse more than it clarifies. However, she didn’t seem like a bad teacher—too smart, too serious, too caring for that to be likely.

Maybe she was just a poor observer… but I doubt that was the case, as research has often found that new instruction can hurt performance—at least in the short run, and my own recent experiences with trying to learn ballroom dancing has been consistent with this, too.

I've worked hard to learn to dance and have been a real challenge to my teacher (she is often even more frustrated than me). She teaches some new step or styling and I struggle to get it. I go home and my wife helps me practice and we spend long hours mastering the new step. I eventually get it, and am thrilled when I go back to show Jelena, my teacher, what I’ve accomplished.

Her response is always the same: “Great. Now let’s try something new.” In other words, my reward for learning was to be taught something else. If I know how to do a basic step, she would add a turn… and I would struggle again… not just with the turn, but with the basic step that I already could do. The problem is that the new turn would overload my circuits. I could do the basic step, but not while I was anticipating the turn. Of course, as we would practice together initially, it tended to get worse—my brain would get more and more confused.

The introduction of a new skill can pull down the performance on other skills—temporarily. New information changes the context, and it can be hard to apply any new skill in a new context. To reduce this impact, try teaching skills more thoroughly (with applications in a lot of different contexts—including some in which cognitive overload or distraction will occur). Also, don’t let the seeming temporary reduction success throw you or throw your students: stay with it, and provide a lot of encouragement. Teaching can lower skills, but it gets better over time.