Don’t Keep it Simple, Stupid

Teaching is hard.

I don’t mean that there’s a ton of work that can never get fully done (even though there is) or that parents/admin/the general public are hard to deal with (even though they are). I mean that crafting a quality lesson, set of lessons, unit, or entire course is really, really hard.

Every once in a while I run into a former student from long ago who tells me how much they enjoyed my class, and all I can think about was how horrible a teacher I was then compared to now. But I wasn’t a horrible teacher; I just wasn’t as good at it as I have become. I can only hope this will continue to be true 10, 20, 30 years into the future.

Over 10 years of teaching I’ve learned a lot of skills to incorporate into my teaching. I started out teaching Physics and Geometry via overhead projectors (you know, the kind with wet erase markers?), because if I was going to give scripted notes it seemed like a waste of time to write them on the board each hour (turns out scripted notes in general were the waste of time). Over the course of the first 5 years I learned a lot about teaching through inquiry in my physics classes; I went from stating emphatically in a grad class that it was too difficult to guide students through inquiry to being a leader in my 6-12 department on the subject. But that took a solid 5 years and lots of failure; I honestly only succeeded because of lots of support from a mentor through my grad program. Good inquiry learning requires a very structured release of responsibility to the students and a general culture of inquiry throughout the entire course. It took all of 5 years to work out all the aspects of this to implement successfully.

Then I started incorporating a home spun, mediocre version of problem based learning in my geometry classes, though at least it upped engagement and increased learning based on final assessment scores. That took a solid 3 years, and in reality required my inquiry background to accomplish. I only stopped because by this point my physics classes had grown to the point where I became full time in physics and had to drop teaching geometry; honestly, I still had a long way to go and hope to incorporate what I know now about ProbBL back into math classes at some point.

About this time I discovered Modeling Instruction, which taught me, among other things,  how student dialogue can significantly increase the depth of student understanding. I’m three years in and have a long way to go before I’ll consider myself an expert.

So here’s the rub; I’m 10 years in and I know I still have a ton to learn. I’m not that great at facilitating student dialogue yet. I have a long way to go in helping students solve real problems in math class. I struggle with helping students who give up when challenged. I’m sure there’s many other aspects of teaching out there I have yet to learn.

For this reason I think we cheapen teaching by trying to simplify it. Silver bullets in many forms are always popping up in the education world, but quality teaching requires a blend of many talents, and it shows up in many different forms. I think this is why teachers get upset at things like administrators forcing the posting of objectives; emphasizing that over all other important aspects of good lesson design says ‘here, you’d be getting better results if all you did was this.’ It’s patronizing. I think this is also why I’ve never been satisfied with the SAMR model for integrating technology. ‘Oh, you’re only on augmentation? Your students will really be learning when you get to redefinition!’ There are so many ways to go analogue for quality lessons or to use tons of tech for shitty ones. Good teaching is far too complex to be boiled down into an acronym.

The false notion that creating a quality lesson is simple is also why we haven’t had successful education reform.We have a culture in the US built on instant gratification; no one is willing to wait the 15-20 years it would take to make progress. And no one is willing to take on the really hard work of making sure all teachers are trained and continuously supported in the many techniques that have been shown through research and practice to work to improve student learning. Instead we throw technology into the room and ask teachers to redefine education on their own using their 45 minute prep period, because we can do that in the span of a couple of years.

I hear teachers complain that their pre-service training didn’t prepare them for teaching. The problem is, it can’t. One can’t be fully prepared to find the right potion of techniques for a classroom without experience, trial, and error. Maybe this means that longer apprenticeship-like experiences with more built in support for new teachers would be helpful. I don’t know. I do know that there’s always room for improvement, and creating a national culture to actually support and encourage that would be a great first step.

This post was inspired by this tweet by Ilana and the conversation that followed.


3 responses to “Don’t Keep it Simple, Stupid

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    The notion of teachers constantly growing/improving/learning is a very powerful one. What’s been making me crabby lately isn’t so much the silver bullets you mentioned but the silver bullets that people in the PER community talk about. “Do Peer Instruction” or “You have to do JITT” “because they’re research validated” are things that drive me crazy. Every teacher needs to find the best tools for their class and to realize that they’ll change/grow/whatever as the years go by. Thanks for this post, I really appreciate it!

  2. Nice post.

  3. Pingback: Citizen Stewart | Stop trying to make teaching simple – it’s not

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