The above graph should be terrifying if you're anywhere near year five of your teaching career. Horrifying. If you're a typical teacher, the things that you learn about teaching do not make a big dent in achievement past that threshold.*
*The regular caveats apply. "Achievement" was measured using value-added models from state tests. Maybe mid-career teachers don't get better at teaching basic skills but do get better at teaching forms of creative reasoning that don't get measured on state tests? I'm skeptical, but haven't researched or thought this through enough to really defend the position. Anyway,
We teachers can be endlessly creative when it comes to creating structures to help students learn. We'll play games and run activities, we'll create rules and constraints that help nudge kids in productive directions.
What drives me nuts is that we don't apply the same creativity to our own learning. If structure helps learning and studying for kids, then it also helps adults. I think discovering and adopting strategies for self-learning about teaching is a huge key to putting a better teacher in front of my students.
The trouble with flipping through resources
A lot of my summers have been spent with this vague idea that I want to "work on curriculum." What does that mean? Usually it means that I sit with a textbook and start flipping through pages. Then any number of things might happen.
- I notice a cool activity, I start thinking about that activity and then I go off and I start thinking about that lesson. Maybe I write it down, or maybe I just drift off and then come back and flip through the book some more.
- I notice the order of the chapters. I start thinking about the order of chapters that I'd like. Maybe the order surprises me, maybe I start thinking that it was a mistake to really look at this textbook because I can't use it anyway because of the sequencing. Then I go back to the book.
- Maybe there's some math that I don't understand and I work on that. Then go back to the book.
Are you like me? Does this process sound terrible? The problem is that these thoughts are disconnected and random. I end up feeling no wiser after I spend some time flipping through the book, because the things I thought about in that hour were completely isolated. I usually walk away full of ideas that disappear in an hour.
Plan for getting smarter about teaching
This summer I've been doing things differently. When I spent an hour looking at a curriculum for a new class I'm teaching, I made sure to structure my time around questions.
Here's the thinking: Pushing kids to formulate questions is something that we know helps learning. So why not apply this idea to my own studying? But not only is the act of question-asking is helpful, it also helps keep me focused on productive questions when I'm looking through resources. When my mind wanders I have a decided-on point to return to, which helps me make sure that I'm thinking about questions that matter, instead of questions that just happen to be interesting at the moment.
My notes from this morning had three sections: opening questions, notes, and closing questions.
I wrote some questions down when I started. ("What does it look like when 3rd Graders don't understand place value?") I used those initial questions to guide my study of the text I was flipping through. I took some notes on things that I noticed or relevant thoughts that I had, and I also gave room to ask myself questions along the way. ("What's that thermometer question doing here?") Then, at the end of my session, I forced myself to ask some new questions that seemed worth asking. ("Why does it matter to be able to answer questions like 28 + ____ = 100? This book gives a lot of space to it.")
I'm calling this the "Questions-Notes-Questions" structure for my studying. I made a template today so that I can plan to use the QNQ format when I need to. (link)
To be clear: I don't think that this is brilliant or innovative or anything. It's stupidly simple. But I think that being productive when you're working alone is ridiculously difficult. If I wasn't so easily distracted and flimsy in my commitments, I wouldn't need a template for my learning. But I am, so I do.
Extra Credit Questions
- The author claims that the strategies we use to guide student learning in class should be used to guide our own studying. Do you agree/disagree with this claim? Why?
- Teaching is a skill, but so is painting. Does the author's argument apply to painting? What about to other skills?
- "Every study strategy is going to have some drawbacks. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs." Do you agree with this statement? If you do, what are the costs and drawbacks of the QNQ study strategy?