Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How To Write About Teaching... (Post 9 of 10)

...question mark? This is really an open question for me. I am far less confident about how to write about teaching than I am about how to teach.

Here's what we know: teachers don't like educational research.

Another thing we know: there is a lot of educational research about feedback.

Look: if you're reading this then you're probably a math teacher. And we've already established that math teachers don't really care for educational research. You might have a faint interest in what the research says, but in all likelihood you don't find that research compelling in any way.

Q: What does compel a teacher, then?

A: Twitter.
Where is the middle ground here? Social media doesn't offer much argument, but academic research is toxic for teachers. Is there any intellectually respectable way to talk about teaching that teachers will care about?

Like I said, to me it's really an open question. I don't know how to do it. I'm struggling here.

My recent writing about feedback is an attempt to find a place to land. Here are the (loose) guidelines I had for this series of posts on feedback:
  • Talk about a kid, not "the kids." Whenever possible, I tried to focus in on a specific student. That helped me give enough context about the kid's specific needs (social, cognitive, motivation, etc.) that you could understand my situation better.
  • Talk about decisions instead of what happened. I tried to avoid the "Here's what I used to do...here's what I did instead...it worked!" cliche of teacher-writing. It's hard to know what's really happening in someone else's classroom. I can't help you see that my feedback is working, and you shouldn't just take my word that it is. Instead, I tried to argue for the way that I was thinking about teaching.
  • "Enough Context" = The math goals + kid's thinking + kid's social status. It was important to me that I give you enough detail so that you could be capable of skepticism. I found that three things often felt important to offer: what I was trying to do, what the kid thinks about the math, and how he/she interacts with math and her peers.
Here's what we know: teachers don't like reading research, but we have no good substitute for it. In a world like ours, the only sensible thing to do seems to be to read research but write from experience. But experience is famously unreliable. We need to find some way to raise the bar on writing from experience. 

But I feel very unsure about this whole thing, so here are some questions.
  1. The nutty thing is that sometimes teachers -- even the very teachers who poopoo research! -- cite or rely heavily on the research world. "Research shows that white boards work," or "Science shows that timed tests are bad for kids." I mean, what's the deal here? (See Schenider, to start?) 
  2. Is blogging the solution?
  3. Forget research for a second. What do you like/hate about non-academic writing about teaching?
  4. The test for teachers often seems to be usability. "It has lots of practical, simple suggestions that I can use in class the next day." Is this what's missing from writing about teaching? Maybe a mix of instantly usable ideas with longer-form arguments could help?
This is the ninth post in a series on feedback. To read the rest of the posts click here.


  1. Replies
    1. Yeah. I actually first read it in the forward to Schneider's book which is also very worth checking out.

  2. On your last 4 questions.
    2. Blogging is not a solution, it's a method for reaching others. It is very useful to comment on other blogs, people find you that way.
    4. yes,yes,yes. Suggestions are more likely to be acted on if there is a rationale, including some background and some theory. The mathematical knowledge really needs some enhancing !

  3. The responses to this prompt (https://twitter.com/dandersod/status/545022879864479744) are the reason that I don't know what to make of research. How are they measuring academic progress? A lot (most?) use standardized tests right? If the measuring tool isn't accurate then how consistent are the results?

    1. I'm not in a position to defend the use of research (let Ilana Horndo that). And I've certainly written my share of research-hating things in the recent past.

      A few quick thoughts.

      1. Lots of research doesn't rely on analysis of statewide or national exams.
      2. Lots of research doesn't rely on analysis of any tests at all.
      3. Lots of the feedback research depends on laboratory settings. That might be the seed of another criticism of research, but I think there's good classroom research supporting the laboratory studies when it comes to feedback.
      4. My most rewarding experiences with research have come when I have an area or question that I want to understand better. I don't like reading papers haphazardly. I like digging into an area, because then I can start to see the structure of the field: who gets cited a bunch, what's important, whose results seem minor or implausible, etc.

  4. Hi Michael,
    Three brief comments:
    1) I like the way you write about teaching for the reasons you cited, but also because (a) you have an argument to advance (not just a practical idea, or interesting story), (b) your accounts ring true, resonate with my experience, (c) you provide sufficient detail (including actual examples of students' work) to let the reader sink their teeth into them (and also thereby lending further credibility to the account), and (d) you engage critically with a lot of the common nonsense that plagues the profession.
    2) Not all research is good, or necessarily worthwhile, but I wonder if you have unreasonable expectations. In this regard, I like Carol Weiss's idea of "Knowledge Creep". Here's how she explains the concept: "knowledge, at least the sub-category of knowledge that derives from systematic research and analysis, is not often utilized in direct and instrumental fashion in the formulation of policy. Only occasionally does it supply an answer that policy actors employ to solve a policy problem. Instead, research knowledge... provides a background of empirical generalizations and ideas that creep into policy deliberations" (http://scx.sagepub.com/content/1/3/381.extract). So, for example, while there may be few or no individual studies that guide teachers on how to support students' intrinsic motivation, this idea has crept into teacher discourse and profoundly shapes our thinking.
    3) You write, "the only sensible thing to do seems to be to read research but write from experience". In my mind, the key challenge is to write from experience in a rigorous, critical manner. And I would call such rigorous, critical, empirically grounded writing research.
    Warm regards,