In this post I discussed why teachers’ experience might not translate directly into expertise. This is the first of a series exploring some of the different ways we could increase the likelihood that teachers are able to develop reliably intuitive judgements about how children learn and how to help them learn better.
The theory is that experience will only lead to expertise in a ‘kind domain’; in ‘wicked domains’ experience seems more likely to lead to over-confidence. If teaching comprises some ‘wicked’ aspects, then what can we do to change that? The main difference between these domains is the quality of the feedback on performance available, so the first step to expertise is to change our environment so that we get less biased feedback.
The problem is, teachers have relatively little autonomy – our lives are ruled by the tyranny of the bell and, increasingly, every aspect of our work is controlled by misguided accountability measures. So, how can we create the right kind of environment for our intuition to improve?
Most importantly, we need to find ways to shift our focus away from boosting in-lesson performance and work out how to capture the durability and flexibility of learning. Rethinking lessons so that we’re focussing on longer term teaching sequences rather than strings of stand-alone lessons will help, as will interleaving low-stakes assessments to test the skills and knowledge acquired in previous sequences. If each lesson attempts to capture data about the quality of instruction from previous lessons we will have a much better idea of how effective our teaching is.
My advice is to begin lessons with a short sequences of multiple choice questions (MCQs). One or two questions should relate to last lesson, one to last week, one to something learned the previous term and maybe one on a topic covered last year. The beauty of MCQs is that they can take up very little lesson time: simply display the question on the board, offer 4 plausible answers (preferably with at least one distractor being a common misconception) and get students to write A, B, C or D on a mini-whiteboard. You can see at a glance whether students have remembered the answers and students get to have their illusion of knowledge revealed; often they might think they know something only to have their ignorance revealed when asked a direct question. For the best results, there ought to be no stakes attached to these kinds of quizzes – the point is to remind students that what has been taught in previous lessons is still important and as an opportunity for you to collect feedback on whether your instruction is actually helping students learn more.
Ideally, schools would be set up to help us focus on developing the approaches that best help students make progress but, tragically, all too often institutional pressures encourage teachers to focus on short-term successes, gimmickry, compliance and ignoring mistakes. It’s rare indeed to find a school where the climate encourages teachers to openly discuss their mistakes and develop ways to avoid making them again. Trying to do this on your own will always be difficult. As the old joke goes, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Classroom teaching can be a lonely occupation and many teachers go whole days without adult interactions.
Learning by apprenticeship
As an individual teacher wanting to develop genuine expertise, your best bet is to work as closely as possible with more experienced, highly successful teachers. When we observe experts at work we pick up tacit information that they might never be able to explicitly communicate. The trick is to apprentice yourself to someone possessing genuine expertise. These teachers are not always obvious. In some cases, teachers who are held up as having ‘advanced skills’ or designated as ‘leading practitioners’ are those who have learned how to look good. Their lesson may well be enormous fun, but what are their students actually learning? My advice would be to look for those teachers who aren’t necessarily loved by students but who are definitely respected; those whose lesson may not routinely be judged outstanding in the annual mocksted but whose results are consistently excellent. Ask if you can watch what they do and talk to them about why they’re doing it. Ask them if they’d be prepared to watch some of your lessons and offer a few pointers. You may not always welcome their advice but you should strive to listen with humility and accept that they may just know a thing or two.
For this process to work I’m pretty sure it has to be voluntary. School leaders can help by giving up time and creating space to allow teachers to observe each other and, wherever possible, team teach. Some of the richest experiences of my professional life are where I’ve got to work alongside someone better than me and accept their guidance. Similarly, some of the most effective time I’ve spent with younger, less experienced teachers has been where I’ve been able to show them what I mean by teaching part of a lesson and then handing over to support them in practising the skills and techniques which I’ve found to be effective over the longer term.
In the next post we’ll consider how we can seek unbiased feedback.
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