Monday, September 12, 2011

Effective Use of Homework: an example of developing great teachers

I want to talk a bit about developing good teachers.  My post is inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, called "The Trouble with Homework" by Annie Murphy Paul.  Paul argues that teachers are failing to use homework effectively.   She writes:

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade. Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December. 
Paul  argues that there are a variety of techniques, some of them quite simple and straightforward, that can make homework a more powerful teaching aid and significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction.  One example, is the use of so-called “Spaced repetition" a technique that spreads the learning of particular skills over the entire school year.   We learn about the definite integral in one compact unit in calculus, but in spaced repetition, we attack the definite integral over and over again, throughout the entire calculus course, and learning research is telling us that when students do that, they understand the integral more deeply.  We learn complex concepts best by visiting and revisiting those concepts throughout the school year.   Using this technique is not a function of being a good teacher or a bad teacher, its a function of becoming an improved teacher by developing new strengths and capabilities throughout ones career.  Paul writes: Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007.

What does this have to do with the topic of good teaching and good teachers?   Its an illustration of the fact that good teachers are developed over time and that good teaching is promoted through a process of mentoring, professional development and ongoing professional growth.   Often, I hear people claim that there are good teachers and bad teachers, and the way to promote good teaching is simply to get rid of the bad ones.   There's a certain macho pleasure that some people take in thinking that if we just got tougher and weeded out bad teachers, that all of a sudden the quality of teaching would improve markedly.  They believe what they hear on Fox TV, or on the Rush show, from people who fill time on the air with grumpy uninformed macho talk.    Of course, we should get rid of teachers who have no aptitude for teaching and who simply display no potential to become quality teachers.    Bad teachers represent  a tiny percentage of the teachers in most school districts.    You could get rid of every last bad teacher and barely make a dent in the overall quality of teaching, because developing quality teaching is just a whole lot more complicated than the macho crowd can envision.

Paul writes as well about what she calls “retrieval practice," another application of modern learning theory that, she claims, really works.
“retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool — the test — in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it......Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways, reported researchers from Purdue University earlier this year. Students — and parents — may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety. It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).
Another great idea, but my purpose here is not to regurgitate Paul's position on effective use of learning theory.   My purpose is to make the point that the bag of tricks used by teachers include all sorts  of techniques that really work, and we can develop better teaching if we make the improvement of teaching and teachers systemic in our schools.   One way to do that is to find more time for effective professional development.   Another way is to put teaching coaches on staff.  A third way is to insist that principals are true instructional leaders with strong teacher development skills.    Now, every time I say something like this, some self styled macho commenter comes on line and says, stop coddling teachers, if they don't know how to do these things, just dump them and find someone new!   But the truth of the matter is that that's not how effective organizations treat their most precious assets, their teaching professionals.   Not even macho ones.

Organizations become effective by investing in their employees through effective professional development.   Increasingly,  then, proponents of meaningful reform in public education are recognizing that the key to improving teaching quality  is helping teachers -- new teachers, average teachers, struggling teachers, and even excellent teachers -- to improve their teaching by implementing proven practices that work.   Part of the problem is that schools of education tend to view teacher education as just another academic discipline.   The people who teach teachers to teach, often consider themselves as academics, just like biochemists, sociologists and literary academics.   Teaching is a profession, best taught by excellent teachers as an apprenticeship.   Its not about John Dewey or any other theorist.  It is about assembling and applying  dozens and dozens of tricks of the trade, some of which are specific to the discipline --mathematics, science, language arts, or social studies -- and some of which are native to all teaching.   The art of teaching can be learned, but it takes lots of work and lots of dedication.   You don't come out of teaching school an accomplished teacher, any more than you come out of law school an accomplished lawyer.   Good teaching is developed and nurtured.  

Developing effective us of homework, or using tests to promote learning, are just two examples of the kinds of things that a good school can do to promote effective teaching.    What we need to do is recognize that that there are hundreds of practices, maybe thousands, that can be learned over time.   We must insist that our public school systems install first class professional development systems that grows our good teachers into great ones.

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