Improving instruction? Time, not theory.

How will educators most efficiently improve instructional practices in the modern classroom in the years to come?

No question is more important to the academic success of children who attend the public schools. Strangely enough, we might take our lead from the world of sports.

Shortly after Tiger Woods won the Masters’ Championship in the Spring of 2001, a reporter asked his swing coach, Butch Harmon, what it was like to teach the best golfer in the world. Harmon replied, “It is not a matter of my ‘teaching’ Tiger anything; he is just too knowledgeable about his swing. Mostly Tiger tells me what he is working on and I just act as his eyes while he swings the club.”

Kindly note that nowhere does Mr. Harmon mention endless lectures on golf theory that Tiger probably committed to memory long ago.

No. That scenario is reserved for our educators.

Attend almost any school-based, in-service training session and one might not believe that the room is mostly filled with knowledgeable and experienced practitioners of the teaching craft. What passes for “teacher training” is almost invariably one-size-fits-all, mind-numbing presentations sprinkled with the latest jargon for recently re-discovered instructional protocols with which the majority of the participants are already familiar.

When it comes to staff development, management consistently confuses presentation of theoretical principles with guidance toward more proficient pedagogical practice largely because that is all that can be accomplished in a quarterly “drive-by” session of professional development.

So, experienced and successful teachers rail at the fates when compelled to listen for the umpteenth time to a few hours of educationalese first heard untold years ago. Many teachers perceive these exercises as a massive waste of professional time when in their classrooms sit 100 papers to correct, an assessment to prepare, tomorrow’s lessons to be refreshed, data to be entered, calls home to be made, piles of folders to be filed, a Web site to be updated, copies to be made and a couple referrals to be written to guidance and the administration.

Yes, certain foundational knowledge in pedagogy is an absolute necessity for all teachers, especially those just entering the profession.

However, it can also be vigorously argued that, to date, countless hours of seat time in college courses devoted to educational theory have failed to deliver adequate numbers of proficient instructors prepared for the travails of the modern classroom.

So, what makes us think that attempting to cram entire three-credit classes into three-hour presentations every other month, or so, will drastically improve the performance of classroom instructors? When fortunate enough to encourage attempts at implementation, the first attempts range between rough around the edges to abject crash & burns. Without follow-up and coaching, a promising new protocol is frequently abandoned out of frustration. Professional Development as an isolated event does little more than frustrate and annoy presenters and spectators alike. That heartfelt observation comes from a professional educator that has spent time on both sides of the podium.

So, what will dramatically improve instructional practice across the board? Allowing teachers to spend less of the schools day in front of students and more time in the classrooms of more experienced colleagues delivering instruction. Telling teachers how to teach is far less effective than demonstrating effective practices.

New teachers too often find themselves isolated and floundering in a classroom with who-knows-how-many-children for approaching 300 minutes each day. Call it what you will: “sink or swim” or “trial and error”.  At the very least, newcomers to the profession need time set aside to observe successful teachers in the act  of teaching to see the subtle tricks of the trade in practice. They also need to be frequently observed by other teachers who can provide prompt – and appropriate – feedback without the interference of what can sometimes be an “adversarial” relationship with a supervisor.

Experienced teachers would likewise profit from regular opportunities to observe their colleagues. It is impossible to know where a new insight or practice will be discovered and later applied. Decades ago, a certain foreign language teacher observed a renowned math teacher and adapted several of the observed techniques for use in the foreign language classroom. That math teacher later expressed wonder that “math” ideas could transfer into another discipline. Teachers will imitate effective instructional practice once they see it implemented effectively. 

Moreover, systematic observation should not be limited to new teachers and a few mentors. All teachers would profit from frequent collegial observations. First, teachers are far more likely to try a new technique when they have directly witnessed its successful implementation. Second, it is just human nature to put on a bit more of a show for spectators. Third, just as Tiger might have asked Butch if he is turning his wrists over too early on the downswing, one colleague might ask another colleague to look for certain behaviors and solicit advice on overcoming challenges.

Welcome to my pipe dream.

Instituting such a program would require a staffing ratio that would furnish adequate time for teachers to expand their pedagogical repertoire in a school system that has yet to furnish sufficient time for corrections and planning.

You may wonder why systematic observation of colleagues is so important….

If your child had serious legal difficulties would you seek out legal counsel that had never spent a day in the second chair observing other, more experienced attorneys navigating the intricacies of the courtroom?

If your child needed a complex medical procedure would you seek out a surgeon who had only listened to descriptions of the the medical protocol to be employed, or one who had observed and assisted more experienced colleagues with that procedure countless times?

Would you question the cost?

Does it sound reasonable that a teacher candidate can graduate from college one day, enter the classroom as a teacher on the morrow, assume total responsibility for the intellectual development of a room full of children and seldom, if ever, have opportunities to observe experienced and successful teachers?

It is only reasonable if your children are not accompanying their teacher on the long, solitary journey along the serendipitous path of trial and error.


Further Reading: Gates Foundation: Impatient Optimists



[The original “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in September/October 2001. It has been revised. ]

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