A response to "How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals"

Robert Pondiscio’s article "How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals" caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.” photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.) In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice. I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much. I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is "making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design." What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students. The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck. The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards. Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is " like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before." That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals. The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management. The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional. (That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally. It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards. Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning. I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff. I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.) I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest. If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering. Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.  

A response to “How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals”

Robert Pondiscio’s article “How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals” caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.”

photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.)

In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice.

I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much.

I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is “making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design.”

What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students.

The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck.

The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards.

Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is ” like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.”

That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals.

The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management.

The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional.

(That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally.

It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards.

Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning.

I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff.

I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.)

I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest.

If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering.

Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.

 

Who’s responsible for teachers’ professional development?

I’ve participated in a few conversations lately about professional development for teachers.

Most folks, including me, say that the professional development opportunities provided teachers by school districts and/or educational institutions are, putting it politely, less than optimal.

(Such opportunities are usually what they want you to have, when they want to provide it, at a level that lets them cross “Teacher PD” off their to-do list.)

Kimo Kippen, Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Worldwide, speaking at a  webinar sponsored by College for America in March, had advice for “upskilling” employees that struck me as being as relevant to education as to the business world.

First, “establish a culture and expectation that individuals take ownership” of their own development.

Second, convince each employee that she or he is the heart of the organization.

Third, make resources available to help employees with their career path.

The third step would be relatively easy within schools.

The first and second take work.

Those steps might require a new mindset among the leadership because, if the teaching staff is to be responsible for their professional development, the leadership has to demonstrate what taking charge of one’s own development looks like.

Moreover, if the leadership is going to convince each teacher to believe and behave as if the school’s success depends on her/his work, the leadership has to make each teacher believe their work is valued.

At the same time, the leadership also has to make sure administrators don’t slack off on training just because they’ve shifted professional development from do-it-to-me to help-me-do it.

Is your school using a framework like Kippen’s?

Would it be useful in your school?

Is it doable?

What are your thoughts on this?

How would you teach teachers to teach writing?

I have  some “What would you do in my place?” questions especially for folks who teach writing to teens and adults in post-secondary education settings  (which for convenience I’ll call grades 7-14) but school administrators and other interested parties are urged to offer their feedback as well.

Suppose you were given the task of teaching in-service English teachers grades 7-14 to teach nonfiction writing well enough that by the end of one school year every student in their class(s) will be able to write in good English short, timed, informative/explanatory texts on topics with which the students are familiar.

What short title would you give the course?  There would be a subtitle that adds detail.

This would be an online course requiring perhaps a 10-hour time commitment.

I’ve played with ideas, but haven’t hit on anything that felt right.

Thanks in advance for your comments and suggestions.

Linda

Is this any way to teach writing teachers?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why American educators do such a poor job teaching people to teach students to do the kind of writing everybody must do, which is what the Common Core State Standards call informative and explanatory texts and arguments.

An article that I clipped from from Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education last year gave me some insights.

The article¹ discusses a research project undertaken by two University of Alabama education faculty, Latrise P. Johnson and Elizabeth P. Eubanks.

Basically what they did was teach a summer class for seven students seeking their secondary education certification in English Language Arts and took notes.  They used nearby Eastern High School as a place for students to try out their skills.

The high school offered a summer bridge program for rising ninth graders. The high school was willing to participate because its principal wanted to see his faculty improve as writing teachers and his incoming ninth graders learn to write better.

Two English teachers, who wanted to improve their writing instruction and were working in the bridge program, partnered with the researchers to teach the pre-service teachers. Prior to the program, the two experienced teachers taught writing by assigning  prompts and giving feedback on grammar and mechanics, the article says.

The UA students, their professor, and the two high school teachers constituted a “community of practice.”

To begin the course, the UA professor modeled a lesson on the “anthem essay” (a sample essay posted at about.com) for the pre-service teachers.

Then the seven students delivered the same lesson to their fellow class members.

The students worked among themselves, with their professor, and the collaborating teachers to improve their lesson presentation before they presented it to students.

After students taught their lesson, they evaluated their teaching and discussed with their  community of practice  ways to improve the lesson.

According to the article, at the conclusion of the course, the preservice students were able to take the downloaded content and

  • “revise handouts, create new ones”
  • decide “which parts of the anthem essay lesson were most important to teach and learn”
  • select “the delivery method and curriculum presentation that they were most comfortable with”
  • “negotiate their identities as teachers and as teachers of writing.”

What I didn’t see in the article was anything about whether the two high school teachers learned how to teach writing better, or whether the students in the bridge program learned to write better, or what the education professors expected students to do in the classroom the 179 days they weren’t teaching the anthem essay.

All I saw was a handful of green teachers being taught to pull a lesson off the Internet and make it fit the way they like to present.

If that’s a way to achieve better teaching of writing, I’ll re-negotiate my identity as a teacher of writing.


¹Johnson, Latrise P. and Eubanks, Elizabeth P. (2015) “One Good Lesson, Community of Practice Model for Preparing Teachers of
Writing,” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education: Vol. 4: Iss. 2, Article 8.
Available at: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/wte/vol4/iss2/8

Learning should go beyond teaching

Recently after I’d been talking to some folks about how to design a marketing program, someone asked me where I learned to do systems analysis work.

My answer shocked them.

I learned systems analysis while studying the Renaissance and Reformation for my Master of Arts in College Teaching in the humanities.

My courses were in literature, drama, history, and the arts, not in business and science where systems analysis is typically taught.

I had an amazing history teacher who not only presented information, but asked me questions about what the information meant, how it compared to what I learned in other classes,  how it fit with what else I knew from life as well as from books.

He made me learn to ask, “What is not here? Where are the gaps? What is the most reasonable explanation for the leap across that gap?”

Those questions—and the diverse jobs for which they prepared me—convinced me that the difference between good teaching and excellent teaching is the questions teachers ask.

Good questions not only reveal what students have learned, but also immerse students in pushing beyond what they’ve learned.

It’s not good teaching that creates lifelong learners; it’s good questioning.

Good questioning is part technique, part luck, and a whole lot of practice.

I might also add, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Is your to-do list ruining your life?

I ran across something in my reading recently that put flesh on a professional problem I’ve been wrestling with all year.

Mountains, each in different shade of blue
To-do lists, like mountains, can obscure the goal.

The reading was chapters 12 and 13 of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, not a text that one probably associates with topics like instruction and teaching writing.

Joshua is the story of the young man who succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites at the end of their 40-years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses had gotten the people so close they could see land of promise; Joshua’s job was to lead them to seize it from the people already there.

Chapter 12 relates the history of the opening battles of Israel’s attempt to claim their promised land. The chapter ends with a list of the 31 kings Israel captured. In the New International Bible, the rhetorical structure stands out: Joshua 12:9-24 is a checklist:

the king of Jericho, one;

the king of Ai, one;

the king of Jerusalem, one;

…………………………  31 kings in all

The parallel structure of those entries makes it clear that items are being checked off the to-do list.

The data is on the spreadsheet.

The results are quantified.

Applause all around.

In the NIV chapter 13 opens with the statement, “When Joshua had grown old, the Lord said to him, “You are now very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over.”

I’m at the Joshua point in my life.

I’ve been ticking things off my professional to-do list.

I’ve done work that’s been good quality, useful, helpful, worth doing.

But I didn’t conquer “very large areas of land” that were waiting to be conquered because I lost sight of my vocation.

Yes, I messed up.

My vocation is teaching teachers to teach students to write nonfiction.

I need to refocus on my vocation in 2016 and not let unrelated tasks dominate my to do list.

As the year comes to an end, do you have a sense that your to-do list is aligned with your core work as a teacher?

Or do you feel that you’ve gotten away from what you believe is your vocation?

Formative assessment aids explanations

The always-stimulating Maryellen Weimer has a post in the teaching professor blog this week in which she gives suggestions for crafting better explanations.

Although Weimer is writing primarily from the position of the teacher-as-lecturer, what she has to say is appropriate to anyone who is teaching, regardless of the setting, subject, or level.

Unless feedback from students comes close on the heels of our explanation, we often don’t realize that our “explanation” was a problem rather than a solution.

I never cease to be surprised (and dismayed and often appalled) by the misinformation students learned in elementary school that they continue to rely on when their own children are in elementary school age.

  • I’ve seen mid-career professionals who, even though they were able to use fire as a verb and a noun, insisted that fire is only a noun.
  • I’ve seen a 60-something read definitions from a dictionary whenever he gave a speech because he’d been taught as a youth to define his terms.
  • I’ve had a library aide tell me that “Joe the plumber” was a sentence because it had a subject (Joe) and a verb that showed Joe’s state of being (the plumber).

Our students may understand our explanation well enough to repeat what they heard, but not well enough to put the idea into some other wording or some other context.

As teachers we need multiple ways of phrasing formative assessments that force students to tell us what they understood from what we said.

Getting that kind of feedback from clickers or multiple choice items is tough.

It’s a whole lot easier (although not actually easy) to craft an informal writing prompt that reveals what students thought the teacher said.

Core skills for teaching writing

I read a blog post this week  about teacher preparation that has my brain whirling:  “What Core Skills Do Teachers Need to Be Effective?” by Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks.

Great teachers aren't born. They're taught.

The article, which is worth reading in its entirety—a fuller version of Hanford’s piece is on the American RadioWorks website—prominently features the work of Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

The article talks about the inadequacies of teacher preparation programs and the necessity that prospective teachers learn not only their subject but how to teach the subject.

Of course, I put the article immediately into my own frame of reference. Writing and teaching writing are different skills.

Haven’t you observed that the ability to write well does not qualify people to teach writing?

Ball and colleagues are attempting to prepare teachers for the classroom by teaching them how to teach.  They have identified 19 core skills Ball calls “high leverage practices.

To get teacher ed students to use the practices, the teacher education faculty:

  • put prospective teachers in classrooms with outstanding teachers
  • greatly increased the time prospective teachers spend studying how to teach
  • use video to allow prospective teachers to see their mistakes and build skill at better ways of teaching
  • insist prospective teachers figure out how students derived their answers

That last bullet point is a skill that is particularly important to those of us who must teach remedial grammar;  I never cease to be astonished at ideas students misunderstood in elementary school and continue in their thirties and forties to believe is what the teacher meant.

I can readily understand how Ball’s high leverage practices apply in teaching situations where there are right and wrong answers, or at least poor, good, and better answers.

I’m not sure they explain the best way to go about teaching nonfiction writing.

I’ll have to chew on that for a while—perhaps a few years—to see if I can identify what I sense is missing.

Meanwhile, I recommend Hanford’s article and some study of the TeachingWorks resources for your teaching and reflection.