Friday, 1 July 2016

Developing expertise #3: Circuit breakers

We’ve already seen how creating the right environment and seeking better feedback might help us the develop the kind of expertise required to make genuinely intuitive judgements and this post I’ll discuss how imposing checks or ‘circuit breakers’ on our thinking might be another way to develop expertise.

Many, perhaps most of the decision teachers make are made before conscious thought. As soon as we achieve a measure of familiarity with teaching the curriculum we’re responsible for covering, we move steadily from the deliberate, conscious phase of practice to the automatic, unconscious phase. Thinking about all the decisions we make is exhausting and so, to make space in our fragile working memories to think about other things, we’re driven to automatise as many rehearsed processes as possible. On one level, this is a highly efficient way to operate but it does mean that further practice doesn’t result in greater expertise and our development soon plateaus.

In may areas of life, that’s fine. Just how good do we need to be at driving a car or playing tennis? Unless we plan on going pro, all we need is to be good enough. But how good do we need to be at teaching? Dylan Wiliam has said that, “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” This is may be true, but just because we can improve doesn’t necessarily mean we must.We have to remember the opportunity cost of trying to get teachers to constantly improve. In his new book, Dylan explains some of the advantages conferred by the most expert teachers:

If we divide teachers into three equal sized groups—effective, average and less effective—then as noted above, students taught by an effective teacher learn twice as much per year as those taught by less effective teachers. If, instead, we compare the very best with the least effective the differences are even more stark. For example, if we take a group of 50 teachers all teaching the same subject, then those taught by the most effective teacher in that group will learn in six months what those taught by the average teacher will take a year to learn. And those taught by the least effective teacher in the same group will take two years to learn the same material. In other words, the most effective teachers are four times as effective as the least effective.

There are, it appears, consequences to be taught by a less effective teacher. If we choose not to make every effort to improve, are we consigning our students to poorer qualifications, less fulfilling jobs and foreshortened lives? Some people think so.

Whatever your view, if there’s a relatively low effort way to improve judgements, we should be keen to explore it. To break the cycle of unconscious, automatic routines we need circuit breakers – things which snap us back to full consciousness. What we need is something which makes us stop and think rather than continuing on auto-pilot

There are two questions we need to consider when thinking about improving our practice. The first is: Can we identify areas where our ‘natural’ tendencies to react defensively and bypass sound judgement?

One answer is to use the kinds of checklists proposed by Harry Fletcher-Wood in his book Ticked Off. Harry explores numerous ways to disrupt our routines and support us in doing the things we know will make us better.

Other simple ideas include:

  • Making notes in our planning about particular students or aspects of the topic we want to remember
  • Using environmental cues to prompt us into good habits, such as sticky labels placed prominently in our sight-lines
  • Asking colleagues to ask us challenging questions about the choices we’ve made.

The second question is trickier but still worth thinking about: Can we rehearse and practise research-informed solutions to endemic problems?

There are lots of endemic problems which the vast majority of teachers face every day. Some come from students (lack of motivation, poor behaviour, poor concentration, reading difficulties, peer pressure) others are systemic (bad timetabling, too much marking & planning, judgemental observations, initiative overload, unreasonable deadlines.) What all these problems have in common is that they’re predictable. You know you’re going to have to deal with them again and again. Some of them might have simple solutions, but many don’t. Some can only be solved by school leaders, but some can be dealt with, or at least their effect mitigated, by effective teaching. This is where a taxonomy of tried and tested techniques like those in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion can be helpful in providing us informed solutions to practise and automatise.

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