Wednesday, March 15, 2017

4 Key Ways to Teach a Concept (Part 2 – Professional Learning)

Recently I was thinking about the four ways of teaching a concept to students and how some of these methods are more helpful than others, when it hit me – these four ways of teaching also mirror the ways we experience learning as adults. And in much the same way as with students, some methods work better than others in particular settings.

As a quick review, the four ways to teach a concept are: demonstration (modeling), guided practice, explicitly telling and showing, and inquiry. As teachers, we may experience demonstration when a coach or consultant models lessons, and we might learn through guided practice as we try a new strategy and receive immediate feedback from the coach. Very occasionally we may engage in inquiry groups. More often, however, professional learning entails “explicit telling and showing” or the “sit and get” model. Each of these methods have very different structures and require different types of thinking from participants. It’s worth thinking about the type of learning and thinking required of each method.

My guess is that most teachers experience “explicit telling and showing” as their main form of professional development. Or maybe it’s more just “telling and showing” without much explicit-ness. These are the after-school faculty meetings when a coach, consultant or administrator shares the latest, greatest method for close reading or word study instruction or whatever new approach has come down the pike. If we’re lucky, we are somewhat active participants and get to try the strategy with a partner, but more often we sit and listen to a PowerPoint being read slide by slide. It brings to mind the viral quote I saw not long ago:

Research shows that simply being told something does not transfer to classroom instruction. And yet, many schools and districts continue this method as the primary form of staff development…

I have found it to be much more effective to provide professional learning in a coaching lab approach, in which I meet with teachers during the school day so that we can work with actual students and try out the methods we’re learning about. We usually begin with theory and discussion about the topic, then move on to a demonstration lesson with students and finally guided practice as the teachers partner up to practice with small groups of students. The feedback I get from teachers afterwards is usually very positive – people enjoy seeing the teaching strategy in action, and after initial trepidation, they really like seeing each other teach – a luxury that is oddly absent in our profession. My sense from talking with teachers is that they’re much likelier to bring the teaching method back to their own classrooms after having tried it with colleagues in the lab.

Another method I’ve found to be very successful is Lesson Study This approach uses inquiry, the fourth method for teaching a concept. Lesson study involves teachers creating lessons to address a common problem of practice, then taking turns teaching the lesson while their colleagues watch the effects on the students. It may be the most nontraditional method of professional development most teachers experience, and it can be very difficult to facilitate, but it often results in deep reflection and feelings of empowerment for the participants.

One final thought about these four methods as they pertain to thinking: over-use of “explicitly retelling and showing” tends to lead to a procedural approach to teaching, a sort of “here’s what you need to know to be able to be successful, just follow these steps or guidelines.” Procedural learning leads to procedural teaching.

In contrast, modeling a teaching strategy, then providing teachers time to engage in guided practice is less about discrete procedures and more about deep processes. These approaches, along with inquiry learning, honor the difficulty of the teaching profession, and invite teachers to engage in and explore the complex choices we must make in the act of teaching. Teaching cognitive processes IS rocket science, and cannot be accomplished by following a series of procedural steps.

There will be times when a concept is simple enough to call for the procedural thinking that comes from “explicitly telling and showing,” but I argue that both teachers and students deserve to experience the process learning that comes with modeling, guided practice, and inquiry learning.

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