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December 7, 2009 / Ben Chun

Beyond Cynicism

I’ve noticed that a certain subset of newer teachers, say those who started in the past 5 years or so, have this really intense emotional reaction to certain activities within the realm of professional development. Specifically: If you put a photocopied packet in front of us containing strategies for organizing classroom activities or groupwork, we will go ballistic on you. Mild-mannered English teacher start composing death threats in rhyming couplets. Normally rational physics teachers start calculating how much force it would take to throw you out the window. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why this is, and I think I’m starting to get a handle on it.

Last week Jennifer Abrams (the educational consultant, not the bodybuilder) was at my school to give a workshop on working with adults. This is something I definitely need help with. In the context of my social group — mostly early 30s overeducated progressives with a bent for alternative culture — I know how to run an effective meeting and how to get a project off the ground. Among the mostly career teachers of widely varying age and experience levels that make up my professional group, I have a much harder time.

The workshop started with Jennifer reviewing some of the things that set adult learners apart from children, and she modeled some approaches to dealing with these differences. The points she raised — that adults want to be seen as competent, that they want to be involved and self-directed, that they need context, and that they need time to process experiences in order to truly learn from them — were all, I think, spot on and rang true for me. We ran through a basic set of questions from The Presenter’s Fieldbook – A Practical Guide by Robert Garmston which I thought were a great framework for stepping back to consider both the purpose and structures around work we want to do with other adults.

Then we jumped to the sample activities. And Jennifer modeled the idea that adults need some autonomy and self-direction in order to be engaged by letting us look at the activities on our own. These activities have names like “Say Something” and “Head, Heart and Hand” and “Seeds, Weeds, Needs”. I and some of the other teachers in the workshop immediately got frustrated. Here was another set of “strategies”… the sort of thing we’ve seen a thousand times held up as a examples of good instructional practice, but rarely, if ever, seen demonstrated in real-life teaching situations.

Dippy Birds

I don’t think it’s possible for even the least-sharp of blades to cut through the years of credential-mandated formal education and induction programs on the way to being a Highly Qualified Teacher without hearing about Jigsaws and KWL Charts and Think-Pair-Shares and 3-2-1 Lists and Exit Tickets and a myriad of other gimmick strategies again and again. Before last week, I hadn’t quite put my finger on why these sorts of things incense a certain subset of teachers, myself included, while others are perfectly happy to take the ideas and run with them. And others, the real veterans, either instinctively know how to avoid these sort of meetings or how to switch seamlessly to grading papers without getting perturbed. But now I think I know why this stuff burns some of us up, and how to avoid falling into the cynicism that disconnects people.

When strategies are put in front of me in the abstract, without any story around them or concrete example of their implementation or justification for why they would be the right thing to do, it feels like a cop-out on the part of the presenter. Sometimes a teacher doesn’t have a solid lesson plan and thinks, well, I could just have them read from the book for 30 minutes. Handing me a packet of strategies feels like saying the same thing: Here, use this stuff to teach yourself. And often (although not in Jennifer’s case) this lazy dictate comes from someone who is also telling you how to do your job.

And I don’t mind if you have an opinion about how I should do my job. I know I have more to learn. But if you have a technique that you think is worthwhile, show me an example that I can evaluate, or put it into a larger context that frames its utility. Don’t just throw a bunch of abstract ideas in front of me and claim that they’re useful or make it my job to figure out if and how they’re useful. As the old adage goes, “If you want to help, you have to be helpful.” And what’s really helpful is if we talk about how to use techniques in ways that actually make a difference in addressing the kinds of problems that we’re actually facing. I need to be able to imagine not only using the strategy but also believing in it. That’s how I teach. If the person handing me the packet doesn’t have anything to say about when and why they think these cute little activities are worth using, why should I bother trying to guess? If you truly believe that these are powerful tools for teaching, then show me how they work!

Last week, I started to get some perspective on this position for two reasons: One, some colleagues that I like and respect got annoyed at the same thing I was annoyed at and spoke up about it. Two, another colleague I like and respect pointed out times when she’s used the very strategies I was disparaging. She then went on to point out how I could use another one of these strategies in a specific context that she knows I’ve been struggling with. Suddenly the very objects of my discontent became useful tools. Jennifer handled the feedback really well and kept the group more or less on track. To me, it felt like a turning point in my understanding.

If you, dear reader, happen to work with newer teachers who have probably had an overload of ideas pushed in front of them but stand at a deficit of working examples, keep this in mind as you help them. It would be much more helpful if they saw and heard about the details of one strategy working in one situation than to get ten strategies and zero applications. This connects back to one of the key points about adult learners that Jennifer opened her presentation with: “What is to be learned must hold meaning; it must connect with current understandings, knowledge, experience and purpose.” We know from working with students that meaning doesn’t come from a worksheet or a chalk-and-talk. But it can pretty easily come from a story or an example. If there’s no story offered, a good presenter will be able to give me one when I ask. Or I could make one up for myself using my own current challenges. These are ways for me to be beyond cynicism and to extract any available value from ideas that float by.

8 Comments

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  1. kellimcgraw / Dec 15 2009 4:05 am

    “mostly early 30s overeducated progressives with a bent for alternative culture” – wow, that summed us up so well ;)

    Thanks for a great post with ideas about approaching teachers as adult learners. I know I much rather depth than breadth in professional development, as well as time to spend creating.

    Less is more!

  2. David / Dec 15 2009 9:46 am

    This is a really awesome post with a lot of insight. It applies to every field.

    For example, I’m doing research on usability right now. I’m planning out a lesson plan sharing website and I’m trying to figure out how to solicit the best content from teachers. It’s very important to ask them questions that force them to tell a story, instead of offering dry facts and descriptions.

    For example, instead of saying, “Write an introduction for your lesson plan:”, I’m thinking about going with something along the lines of, “How did you come up with the idea for this lesson?” And instead of, “A description of your lesson plan:”, something like, “How did you use this lesson in the classroom?”

    What do you think?

  3. Ben Chun / Dec 15 2009 10:16 am

    I think questions that ask for a specific story are more likely to elicit personal and therefore meaningful responses. I also think the question, “How did you use this lesson?” is too general. But I would also ask something more like, “What parts of this lesson worked well for you?” and “What would you change if you were going to teach this lesson again?”

    The major problems I’ve seen with lesson plan sharing sites so far are related to quality and scope. Either there’s too much content available and no way to find the good stuff, or there’s nothing that addresses the specific topic that someone is teaching. I think getting teachers to write about why they think their lesson is a good way to teach the specific content would be immensely helpful.

  4. David / Dec 15 2009 10:17 pm

    Ben, thanks for the response. So, would you use the question, “How did you use this lesson in the classroom?”?

    Keeping in mind that the more questions that are asked, the more cognitive load is put on the writer, what are the essential questions that you would ask?

    So far I have, in order:
    1. “Why is this lesson effective in teaching students about this topic?”
    2. “How did you come up with the idea for this lesson?” / An introduction to the lesson plan; optional
    3. “What parts of this lesson worked well for you?” / Classroom experience
    4. “What would you change if you were going to teach this lesson again?” / Reflections and insights; optional
    5. “A short description of what this lesson will teach and with what tools.” / e.g. “Circumpherence of circles from an aerial view of a playground.”

    Combined with uploaded media (pictures and video) I think this might be enough. Do you think it could be simplified? Can you think of other questions that would be helpful?

    Thanks again!

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