Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Drills for Teachers

What does it take to become great at teaching?

That guy looks pretty good. He's got a tie. His arms are crossed. He moves SUPER SLOWLY.

Anyway, if I polled 100 teachers about what it takes to be great, I think 75 would say "experience." Then 24 would say "reflecting on experience."

Part of the getting great definitely involves the classroom experience. Good teachers use the classroom to try new lesson structures, practice tricky management techniques and ask subtle questions of students. When classroom experience is combined with regular reflection, these teachers do get better.

Good teachers know how to use the classroom to improve. But I don't think that's enough to get great. I've got a theory about what it takes to become a great teacher. I think that great teachers find way to practice regularly, outside the classroom. But what does it mean for a teacher to practice?

"The Mistake Most Weak Pianists Make is Playing, Not Practicing."

Study Hacks is one of my favorite blogs, written by Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown. On the blog he published a letter he received from an accomplished piano player. The letter details the differences between the habits of the top piano players and those of the musicians just below the top. Here's an excerpt, with four strategies for practicing that separate the top musicians from the rest:

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”

The best musicians figure out ways to focus on the hardest parts of their skill. They don't just practice by performing complete pieces all the time and reflecting on the performance. As important as planning for their performances are, that's not all that they do.

When teachers try to get better using the classroom they're playing, not practicing. It's good, but there needs to be something else.

In the excerpt from the piano player above he advises focusing on the hard parts of the skill and systematically focusing on weaknesses. How many teachers think like this?

Drills for Teachers

Good drills are focused, purposeful and difficult. Reflecting on a recently delivered lesson is purposeful, but not focused. Planning a lesson is purposeful and focused, but not necessarily difficult. If you're intellectually drained after planning a lesson then it's probably a drill. If not, then planning that lesson is probably not making you much better.

Piano players get better by running scales, strengthening their fingers, training their ears, focusing on the hardest parts of pieces, and complicating tricky sections of the piece. What are some analogous drills for teachers?

This question is important and exciting to me. I am dying to know what you guys think. Here's what I've been able to come up with so far:
  • Designing curriculum - This is a common drill, even if many teachers don't see it as such. When you design your own curriculum you need to think hard about multiple aspects of the lesson. You are forced to be creative, as opposed to reactive. 
  • Mistake Analysis - This is why I made my MathMistakes site. One of the skills that great teachers have is the ability to quickly analyze student work and offer a response. The classroom is an inefficient way to improve at this, but fortunately there is a large supply of student work that we can practice on. This is focused on a particular aspect of teaching, it's purposeful and oh-my it can be hard.
  • Analyzing the work of others - There a bunch of ways to do this. One way is to analyze video of other teachers. This is why I've curated a Classroom Footage page (see the link at the top). You could also focus on the curricular work of others, or on short Khan Academy videos. Via @Trianglemancsd a good question to ask is "What are the pedagogical assumptions of this video/curriculum/text?" Another way that I like to structure this drill is to list what's working and what could be improved.

Are there drills that you use, or have seen used? Can you think of any drills for classroom management? Comments are open for business.


  1. It would be really cool if teachers took turns submitting videos of their classes and getting feedback from everyone else on ways to improve or good questions to reflect on.

  2. When I mentioned something like this on twitter, there was enthusiasm. How would we organize it?

    Also, John Burk said that there was already something like this:

    I'm happy to do my share of the organizing.

  3. This is one of those posts that I can tell is going to stay with me, and make me a better teacher. Thanks SO much!

  4. Michael,
    I completely agree with your three drills for teachers. As a math teacher for other teachers, my colleague and I are always getting the Alberta teachers to look to their curriculum. We do not get to create our own curriculum but use what the government has created for all students in Alberta. However, there is flexibility with how you go about teaching it and resources used. The problem we face on a regular basis is getting teachers to "understand" what the curriculum is stating and teaching from this rather than the textbook.

    I just came across your Math Mistakes page and I love it. It is nice to see such a space for those of use who value student work. I tried to do the same thing on Flickr with photos of elementary student work along with problem posted. It has not been very successful. I would like to submit some elementary samples in the coming weeks. I think analyzing student work is critical when wanting to improve your own practice and your students' understandings with math.

    I am going to look forward to returning frequently to look through your Math Mistakes site.

    April Brown
    The Math Whisperer

  5. I'm not sure if this quite fits your idea of a drill, but I'd
    recommend tutoring students of other teachers. Tutoring made me a
    better teacher, before I ever stood in front of a classroom. I've
    learned about what trips students up in a way I wouldn't have seen
    from any other vantage point. The result is that I say things like,
    "don't cross-multiply, until you can tell me why it works" because
    I've seen people do it in the wrong circumstances, more often than the
    right one.

    In tutoring, I have to make students comfortable and earn their trust.
    They aren't forced to come to me, and I can't depend on authority to
    get them to follow my advice. I think I would have been better at
    classroom management when I started, had I ignored the older teachers
    telling me to be a tough authority figure.