Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Planning for Personal Change

How do teachers change?

I've been reading a lot of great talk lately about teachers who want to change the way they teach. Some people don't know how to change. I don't know either, but I do know that any real self-directed learning benefits from a plan. Whether you're learning new things about teaching, about math or about basketball, a bit of structure can help keep us disciplined and focused on the important things. Consider what follows an attempt to start a conversation about what structures might support a teacher's personal learning efforts.

How do you learn to write good web activities?

One of my goals this summer was to improve my computer programming skills. Early this summer I decided that I needed to make sure that I was making solid progress, so I decided that it was important to have a self-study plan. After a few different versions, this is what I've settled on:

I always have a project that I'm working on. I try to pick projects that will be useful to me, but that will also force me to learn some new skills. I don't try to just read about programming or take lessons unless I know what I need. I think people learn best by doing something, and then trying to reflect and generalize lessons from that experience. In the absence of a class or a teacher, I think projects are a decent way to consistently land on good experiences to reflect on.

I write down some questions that I have. I have a project notebook. When I sit down, the first thing I do is scribble down some things that I don't know. Below are this afternoon's questions:

When I'm stuck, I search broadly for ideas. Usually what happens is that I'm stuck, but don't even have the language or concepts to get myself unstuck. For example, today I knew that I wanted to make something that had a bunch of pages as part of one activity, but I had no idea what you'd even call this. So I had to search the internet and do research to even understand what exactly it was I needed to figure out.

I try to take breaks every 30 minutes or so. I didn't do a good job with this rule today, and it showed. I ended up spending too much time searching and tinkering, and not enough time incorporating the new knowledge. Since I think that powerful learning comes from reflecting on experiences, it's important that I take frequent breaks to give myself reflection time. 

At the end of my session, I write down my next steps. This is a helpful way to reflect on the last couple of hours and think about what I've learned and to focus on what I need to do next. I rarely need to consult my "Next Steps" list when I'm starting a new work session, but it's there in case I need a reminder. This list often includes questions or reflections on what I don't yet know. Here's what my "Next Steps" looked like after today:

I used this same process to make sure that I was making steady progress on my "Why do kids struggle with proof?" project. It worked pretty well there too.

Supporting self-study about teaching

Could the above structure help me get better at teaching? What's great about the above routine is that it keeps me focused on questions that matter instead of diving off into an endless timesuck of resources. That's why it also kept me on target while I was studying proof -- there is an immense body of literature about proof, and I needed to keep myself from getting distracted by interesting, but non-crucial resources.

(Incidentally, whenever I take one of these tangents I end up feeling massively overwhelmed. I always feel good when I'm following my central questions.)

I'll be trying to use this structure over the next month as I dive deeper into feedback, an area that I I know I want to get better at before the school year starts.

Does a plan help you change?

Learning is really hard. Change is really hard. Change is learning, so it's exactly the same sort of hard. I've found that adding a bit of structure to my self-study really helps me learn/change.

I think that this might be a good direction to take the "change" conversation -- deep down into the nitty-gritty details. What are you trying to do, and how are you planning on doing it? Answering these questions for myself has helped me be more efficient and less anxious about learning new skills. 

An added benefit of this sort of planning is that it helps me really develop my theory of how learning works. Making and improving a self-study plan gives me a chance to think through my assumptions about how people learn, in general.


  1. How funny? I'm just reading this now after our twitter exchanges today. I agree with you that, "I think people learn best by doing something."
    I'm curious to see how your plan works out. I want to talk more about the structure of your self-study and change/learning. Fascinating...

    1. The one thing I'm really unsure of is whether this applies to teaching skills. This routine really seems designed for studying and incorporating new information.

      To the extent that understanding why kids struggle with proof will impact how I teach proof, I see this routine as helpful. I'm less sure that it'll be helpful for, say, changing the sorts of questions I ask kids in class. Or maybe it will? Yeah, let's chat more about this.

  2. I followed along on the change/growth conversation on twitter the other day. At first my thinking was that there is little difference…but then I thought a little more about it. I think change may imply you are currently going in the wrong direction. I think growth happens in a consistent direction…maybe allows you to refine some things or adds to your current knowledge base. Enough growth in one direction could lead you to seeing you need to make a change. This conversation is interesting to me because it’s my job to help teachers grow…as well as move some towards making a change. Commenting on my phone right now, so it’s tricky…but thanks for making me think about it a little more.

  3. The Classroom Experiment, a documentary following Dylan Wiliam as he tries to implement change in a British school, is a really fascinating case study in teacher change. It's long, but worth watching -- first episode here:

    I think all of the changes he asked teachers to implement sound like worthwhile practices, especially if they're being consistent -- no hands up, using whiteboards to quickly see student work, colored cups to allow students to show how they are feeling. But I would feel intimidated trying to improve in so many areas at the same time. I definitely want to put some effort into planning what areas I want to focus on improving in my teaching this coming year.