The Perils of Practice: Teacher Version

David Blitzer, a teacher, wrote a thoughtful comment on this blog a few days ago.  I wanted to share it as it's quite thoughtful.  He writes:


I would also argue that the "perfect practice" is much harder to come by as a teacher.

For example: I could spend 5-10 minutes rehearsing and performing scripted parts of my lesson in my classroom the evening before I'm about to teach it. No doubt that would be beneficial, but I would argue that gains from that would be minimal, especially as a rising third-year teacher. I might be slightly more fluid in my presentation, but I can get up in front of a class and teach without practicing my scripted parts pretty well at this point.

What would be awesome practice is trying out the different ways I could teach a lesson.

Here are a few examples:

1) I'd like to try it out my classwork in partner work with turn and talks vs. in group work with four students to tinker with which way is more effective.

2) I'd like to see whether or not my independent practice is at the right instructional level (something you get better at predicting the more you teach, but also something that there are days where you can hit or miss) by having students work on it.

3) I'd like to practice my responses to students when they encounter different misconceptions during their independent practice so that they are more automatic.

Let's pretend that teachers had built in time to practice with each other. Of those, I could probably practice #3 with other teachers standing in for students. I think this could result in some gains in my teaching.

For #1s and #2s, I would need a group of students (more like a laboratory) where I could actually test these different scenarios and also probably elicit some student feedback to ask them what worked and what didn't -- what was confusing and what could be sharper. I think this would provide more substantial gains in my teaching.

(I could use other teachers for this, but I would argue it would be harder to provide meaningful feedback for veteran teachers. A lot of the methods would "look good," but unless something was really unclear, it would be harder for those teachers, especially if they haven't taught that subject / grade level, to predict where the lesson could be better - feel free to push back on this).

But I don't have an extra group of students to use to practice a lesson beforehand.

Potentially, one could use detention students to practice new material on (although the institutional purpose of detention might become diminished, depending on what that message is).  Plus, even if somehow I could get students to stay after (using incentives, extra credit, etc),  is that worth the tradeoff of their using time they could otherwise do homework, extra curricular activities, being a normal kid, etc? 

I've sometimes used tutoring time to practice a new instructional method so that I can get some initial feedback before trying it out on a class, but that obviously comes at the expense of other uses of tutoring time. Also, at Boston Prep, students who are failing are required to attend Saturday Academy.  I've sometimes used that time to preview concepts they will see in the upcoming week and tested out instructional methods there.

I agree that finding ways for teachers to get that kind of "perfect practice" could be a real game-changer, however.

Bottom line, on practice logistics:

Running is an easy sport to practice.  Basketball is a medium easy sport to practice.  Football and golf are harder to practice -- few "pick up" football games to simulate conditions, golf is expensive to practice in actual dollars. 

I think teaching is more like football and golf....reading Blitzer's logistical challenges above, it's hard to imagine a single teacher organizing himself to do much practice.  We'd need a profession that has a systematic approach.