|Ambiguity, Craftsmanship, and the Art and Science of Teaching|
One observation about teaching is that it does not take a lot of effort or skill to be “OK” at it, but that it takes enormous skill and sustained effort to be really good.
Instructional techniques are cheap. It is so seductive to give both novice and experienced teachers bagfuls of them because their immediate applicability feels so satisfying. “Use this ‘whip-around’ as a way to have students report out on what they have done in class.” “Make sure they give you an ‘exit card’ with three things they learned in class before they leave.” “Put students into expert groups to learn the content. Explain that they should pay attention because they will have to teach it to the other students when they return to their base groups.”
Without an understanding of the cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning (that is, the theories and strategies behind various techniques), one is left always wanting and needing more technique. This understanding of the deeper epistemology behind why one is doing something in the classroom brings an important level of coherence to the design and delivery of instruction.
It has been said that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. When a teacher understands what works and why it works, he/she can determine when a technique is appropriate or inappropriate. This is called “conditional” understanding. The way I often explain this concept is to use the metaphor of driving a car. When you are a novice, you may learn the best way to come to a stop. When you become more skilled, you may learn that you need to adjust how you come to a stop if you have a pizza on the back seat, or if the road is covered with ice. That is the “conditional” understanding of how to stop a car. In the classroom, knowing that an “exit card,” for example, is one of many ways that students get an opportunity to process their learning (leading to an increased rate and degree of instruction), then you will know that if you check for understanding all throughout a lesson, convinced that the content has been processed --even processed multiple times in different ways-- using the “exit card” becomes unnecessary.
Here is another example of applying a technique based on a deep understanding of the “big why.” The purpose of a “do now” is to get students focused on what you want them to learn. If students are already focused, then using a “do now” could be just as ineffective as not using the technique if the students are not focused. Everything comes down to the appropriate, contextual, and intentional use of skills, strategies, and techniques. For example, here is a common understanding: The consistent engagement of students increases the rate and degree of learning, and hence, decreases the need for complex classroom management systems. Let us suppose that a teacher is taught to “beam” a question to the whole class, provide wait time, and then call for a response for the purpose of increasing student engagement. However, if the teacher’s “intent” in the moment is to re-engage a student who is off-task back into the lesson, then using the student’s name first is appropriate because the intent is different.
Closure remains one of the most misunderstood instructional strategies to come out of the Effective Schools research of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Perhaps the name “Closure” has something to do with its misunderstanding. To this day, we intuitively think that Closure is something that comes at the end of a lesson. It comes at the end of learning. The purpose (which I suggest we always return to when talking about teaching and learning) is to have students process what they have just learned. No learning takes place without it. Either the teachers provide the opportunity, or the students do it on their own. Rather than keep one’s fingers crossed in hopes that the students process what they learn, effective teachers provide the opportunity. This opportunity to process what they learn might come after a definition is introduced at the beginning of a lesson. It might come after a concept has been clarified, or a new idea has been introduced. It could be that the teacher wants students to explore a connection between two concepts before adding a third. And it could be that the teacher wants students to process the learning that unfolded in a class period, which would naturally come at the end of class. The point is that an effective teacher is not “cementing” the class; they are consciously and deliberately providing opportunities for students to “cement” learning. For this processing to take place there needs to be proximity to instruction. Homework can serve as practice, but it is not Closure --too late! Facilitating Closure at the end of class might be appropriate (usually is) but there may have been multiple times during a class when Closure would also have been appropriate. Only using it at the end, or thinking it only comes at the end (or worse, thinking that Closure equals “exit card”) misses the point entirely. In fact, any approach that reduces teaching to a mechanical list of things one does, in some particular order, trivializes the art and science of teaching.
“The life too short, the craft too hard to learn.” Gustav Stickly
Learning to teach really well takes time and a commitment to being a reflective practitioner. Becoming a master teacher requires a willingness to stay focused on learning the “what” of teaching. This is known as propositional learning. If one stays with it, he/she moves to the procedural level of understanding. This is the “how to” part. Once the practitioner knows the “what” and the “how to” he/she can evolve to the “conditional” level of understanding; that is, the “when not to” level that allows the master teacher to make the kind of nuanced, contextual decisions that reflect a highly sophisticated level of practice. This level of sophisticated practice can be so subtle, so integrated into the master teacher’s entire being, that it is indistinguishable from personal style, or personality. It no longer looks to the untrained eye as “technique.” The master teacher operates on a level that is so complex it looks and feels simple, so beyond science that it is artful, and so transcendent that the line between teacher and student is erased. The road to that level of mastery is not that different from the road to mastery of anything. Whether it is archery or surgery, journalism or law, teaching or architectural design, playing the piano or mapping the human genome, one has to respect and master the fundamental principles of the craft. The brilliant jazz pianist Keith Jarrett didn’t just sit down one day and start improvising. He practiced scales. He mastered technique so he could move beyond it. Before novice teachers get to the level where they can transcend technique, and before they can find the kind of simplicity that Oliver Wendell Homes says is “on the other side of complexity,” they have to practice their metaphorical scales. Open the lesson with the “do now.” Close it with the “exit card.” Trust that over time, you will fill in the deeper understanding of why you are doing what you are doing, and under what conditions you would do it differently. Furthermore, you will think deeper on how you can turn things around to work for you in a way that allows the “essential you” to be integrated with the essentials of effective practice.
In the end, university graduates who are “certified “to teach are really “certified” to begin the process of learning the art and science of teaching. Mastery is a lifetime endeavor that requires a lifetime commitment to reflective practice.