Monday, August 11, 2014

The Question-Notes-Questions Format For Self-Study

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
  1. 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?
  2. Teaching is a skill, but so is painting. Does the author's argument apply to painting? What about to other skills? 
  3. "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?


  1. That graph doesn't terrify me. It's like saying an artist should get exponentially better throughout his career. Don't artists instead get different, explore new ways of achieving things, adjust with the times (in our case, students)?

    On planning--you saw that conversation I had with grant wiggins, yes? Did that affect how you did the work?

    My starting process is similar to yours--I page through a book. Difference (maybe) is that I expect things to percolate when I'm doing long-range planning. I put questions in my head, they come up in unexpected ways. Don't think the graphic organizer does any harm. It might be a good way of watching your progress and thoughts change over time.

    1. I'll think more about your second and third points, but your first is the one that really grabs me immediately.

      Don't artists instead get different, explore new ways of achieving things, adjust with the times (in our case, students)?

      I think the thing that I'm really worried about is that what's driving teacher-improvement in those early stages is the dissatisfaction of students and administrators. Those pressures matter, but I think that the Year 5 threshold doesn't really represent the "good teaching" line as much as it represents the "not everyone's mad at you" line.

      In other words, under different constraints that period of faster growth would extend to Year 10. I'm about to start Year 5 and my read of the research is that there are a ton of things that matter immensely to student learning that I'm just scratching the surface of. I bet I've got at least 5 more years of big improvements that are strictly optional in my current environment.

    2. That's an interesting thought; I don't think it's correct because many teachers go to middle class or higher schools, never get the "everyone's mad at you", and still plateau.

  2. I like the QNQ template you shared and will definitely use it. My main take away from TMC was that I need to focus on asking questions to improve my learning.

    Writing down questions in an organized way like this will help my "summer studying" and preparation...usually I just star stuff and think I'll go back to it later, but this will help give my studying a vision.


    1. I think I'm just coming around to your take away a bit late. If you make any tweaks or adaptations, you'll share them? Please??

  3. I'm halfway through my fifth year, so that graph certainly gave me pause. Just a couple of theories (with nothing to back them up).
    Maybe teachers start feeling like their teaching is 'good enough' by this point? As confidence increases with experience over those first few years, there's a risk that the desire to improve gives way to complacency. I don't think this is a conscious choice, but the self-imposed pressure of "I want to be the best teacher I can be" isn't as forceful as "I have no idea what I'm doing, oh why did they let me be responsible for these kids?". That second one doesn't go away, but it does lessen; also, while that pressure may lead to teacher improvement, I'm not sure if it's all that healthy.
    Maybe non-teaching responsibilities start to increase at this stage in a teacher's career? I've taken on a new role this year, which has significantly reduced the time I've had at school for planning lessons. I'm finding I'm taking a lot more work home with me than I did last year. That temptation to "cruise" is sometimes difficult to fight.

    1. Good thoughts, Shaun. I'm wondering what percentage of teachers end up with extra responsibilities after that fifth year. I think it's certainly true that we teachers take responsibilities when we can, especially when they come with a some $$$.

    2. It's not just the money, it's partly "what you're supposed to do". For my role, I don't get paid (I do get two extra free lessons). But in my small school, I'm the most experienced of the staff prepared to do it.

  4. Maybe you don't think it's brilliant, Michael, but this post resonated deeply for me. It's amazing to me how the days can slip away while I am trying to plan or put together lessons/activities/curriculum modifications. Your questioning structure, I'm hoping, will help that process be somewhat more efficient and productive.

    I am a quilter, and to a certain extent this model applies - but there is a wide range between learning how to quilt effectively (i.e., complete quilts that are pleasing to look at, relatively rectangular, and serve their function) and becoming a master quilter, creating works of beauty with exceptional technique. With quilting, the learning comes in the DOING and the practice, with guidance along the way. The analogy holds for what is referred to as 'master teachers' in some respects. But teaching and learning are a little different, because techniques don't always work the same way with different students (including ourselves).

    As far as the five-year plateau, I think that the excruciating adjustment to teaching eases up at that point - you know how to manage a classroom (hopefully), you know how to plan and deliver lessons accordingly to a curriculum, and you have figured out a system to manage the grading/paperwork. I imagine that for many, this becomes a time to try and regain some of the personal life that may have been sacrificed or compromised along the way. I think some people will independently seek more professional growth at this point, and others will 'go with the flow', learning when they need to in order to stay above your 'not everyone's mad at me' line.

    Great post - thanks for sharing your process.

    1. Interesting thoughts. You've especially got me thinking about performance/knowledge skills, and what I would try to do if I wanted to be a master quilter...

      Can you let me know if this -- or any structure -- ends up helping out your pre-school prep? I'm really curious what techniques people find helpful.

  5. I'm with hermathness on this one. This post was a big deal for me as well. I've done loads of reading and flipping through resources this summer, but I fear that I won't remember most of what I read. Your structure is simple, and I really appreciate the reminder to be reflective. Thanks so much for this post!

    1. Can you let me know if this structure ends up working out for you? I'm curious whether it actually ends up working for other people.

    2. Will do. I have used this structure twice so far, and it has helped me reach some conclusions that I wouldn't have reached otherwise. But I was still on summer vacation at that time, so we'll see how I hold up when I am more pressed for time. Thanks again!