Friday, January 28, 2011

What Great Businesses Can Teach Us About Teaching

Generally, I hate comparing schools to businesses.  Why?  The comparison usually involves students playing the role of products and teachers, administrators, support staff, etc. playing the role of manufacturers.  The business analogy usually involves finances and is used to show the inherent inefficiency of schools.

This analogy is stupid for an obvious reason- as schools, we have no control over the raw materials needed to manufacture our "goods".  It would be akin to going to a junkyard to collect part to make 150 exact replicas of the same car.  It's simply not possible.  I view this analogy as a ploy by uninformed politicians with skewed anti-public school agendas.

Here's a better business analogy- students are our customers. The product we're trying to sell is the knowledge we're teaching

This model accurately reflects what we do as teachers.  If we are successful in "selling" the knowledge, our students benefit.  This model will allow us to utilize some lessons from the business world that will actually result in a positive outcome.  Furthermore, this success can easily be measured with the proper assessment.

Now that we have a workable analogy, let's look at how businesses sell.  Good businesses sell a lot of products, so we should examine good businesses.  How do they do this? 

One method is great advertising.  Some companies spend a tremendous amount of money to capture buyers.  Think of Coca Cola.  They spend billions of dollars per year on advertising.  In the teaching world, this could be analogous to window dressings like fancy bulletin boards, snazzy computer software, colorful textbooks, and other such gimmicks.  These items, while expensive, do result in some degree of success.  Humans like new, shiny stuff. 

The problem, aside from expense, is the novelty effect.  We get bored of shiny new toys.  We need a steady stream of new, expensive toys to hold our interest.  In an era of strained budgets, this approach is stupid because it is not sustainable.  School cannot and should not have to fork out huge sums of money to capture kids' interest.

Some businesses find success by offering awesome products.  A good example would be Apple.  Their products develop a huge following.  In the classroom, this would be analogous to great lesson plans that engage each and every student simply on the merit of the lesson itself.  This is great and should be the ultimate goal of each and every lesson we teach.  However, this also requires a ton of long, hard work.  It may take 20-30 hours of development to create a single awesome lesson. 

This kind of workload is not possible, so we have to develop a process to slowly craft great lessons year after year.  The idea is to slowly turn each and every lesson into an iPhone.  Unfortunately, this model has several problems. 

First, it doesn't help kids today.  Not all of our lessons will be perfectly crafted masterpieces.  Some will; some will not. 

Second, ever-changing curriculum and an ever-changing student population will slow the ability to craft perfect lessons.  The solution is to always assess what works and repeat it; assess what does not work and eliminate it.  It is also useful to perpetually experiment with new methods, including methods abandoned in the past.  Learn what works for you and what works for a very wide range of students.

This solution is a noble goal, and many will expect teachers to always have perfect lessons.  However, expecting constant perfection is simply foolish and ignores the logistical difficulty of this endeavor.  We should work towards this goal, but realize we will never fully accomplish it.

Okay, so these two methods, heavy advertising and creating great products, are two of the most popular models used by businesses.  Is there another solution?  You bet.  Best of all, it is perfectly suited for the classroom

Smart companies realize advertising and product development are expensive in both funding and time.  Despite these limitations, they thrive.  How?  They take advantage of an obvious but under-utilized element of human psychology... they don't try to build a customer base, they build an audience

A customer base has to be wooed with fancy advertising or exceptionally good products.  They have to be persuaded to buy products.  An audience, if properly nurtured, will buy anything.  Best of all, it takes neither advertising dollars nor expensive research and development.  The audience is hungry for anything and everything the company produces.

If we think of our students as our audience, our perspective changes immediately.  If we begin fostering this relationship with each and every one of our students, they will willingly devour anything we feed them.  There are other educational theories that attempt to teach this very concept, but they come off as cheesy, unnecessarily complicated, or fail to explain the direct benefits.  "Capturing Kids' Hearts" comes to mind.  The company sells seminars that basically teach teachers how to be human.  It's like the bottled water of education... making money off of something that should be freely available.  

How is this accomplished?  As it turns out, it's pretty simple... just follow these steps:

1. Generate excitement.  Excitement leads to intrinsic motivation.  If you're not doing something exciting, you shouldn't be doing it.  At the very least, pretend you're doing something exciting.
2. Inspire.  We love people that inspire us.  Nothing builds a loyal audience faster than inspiration.  The key- it doesn't really matter what you are inspiring kids to do, just inspire them to do something.
3.Occasionally engage each and every students in conversation, and really listen to what they say.  I accomplish this by asking kids if there's anything new going on in the world.  The conversation can go pretty much anywhere, and it is important to allow this freedom.
4. Make eye contact.  Use Bill Clinton's technique... make eye contact when talking with someone.  When you move on, reestablish eye contact for a brief second.  It dramatically increases that person's sense of importance.
5. Talk about interesting stuff completely unrelated to the class.  Everyone loves to learn about interesting stuff.  Engaging kids here will dramatically increase the likelihood that they will listen to you when presenting a lesson.
6. Be honest.  This is more difficult that it seems, but gives you immediate credibility.  Many teachers consciously or unconsciously give off a vibe of superiority which usually manifests itself as "I am an all-knowing expert; you are inferior".  Check your ego at the door and let kids see your flaws.

There are many more subtle techniques that can be used to create a loyal audence; I will attempt to list more in a future post.  Which reminds me...

7. Always leave your audience hungry for more. :-)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Easy "Differentiated Instruction" Hack

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in a professional development session with a professor that specializes in instructional differentiation.  The concept is great- tailor education to individual learners.  The implementation, unfortunately, often falls short.

This is not my first exposure to differentiation.  While working on my undergrad degree, I was a teaching assistant for a psychology professor.  She taught me more about teaching than my education classes combined.  Her approach was simple: Start with your students.  

Everything flows through them.  Before tackling issues like curriculum, classroom management, or any of the myriad of other things we do as teachers, we must consider the characteristics of the individuals.  Specifically, what excites each student.  Understand this and you will unlock the key to an unlimited reservoir of enthusiasm.  

The professor that gave the presentation mentioned a pet-peeve statistic I hear in education on a frequent basis- humans have an attention span of x minutes, where x equals a very short time.  In this case, I think it was five or six minutes.  Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of human behavior will understand that this is an average; attention capacity is directly correlated to interest.  As interest increases, so does attention span.  

Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and effort designing lessons that include a great deal of variety.  This is a good thing; it is the very idea of differentiation.  However, they are often ineffective for a simple reason- the teacher is adding variety without first considering the audience.  

Teachers have a tendency to begin planning with the curriculum in mind.  This is logical as teaching the curriculum is our primary responsibility.  Once teachers determine what should be taught, they try to figure out effective methods to deliver the curriculum to their students.  Great teachers use variety that reaches wide range of students.  Not so great teachers pick a method that aims at the middle of the bell curve, thus capturing as many kids as possible while largely ignoring the exceptions at both ends.  Both have serious flaws.

Adding variety takes a lot of planning time.  While this is a great short-term solution, it is not sustainable.  It is simply not possible for a teacher to plan for several hours every day for the length of their career.  Burn-out is inevitable.

Aiming toward the middle is much easier, but should not be an option.  The idea that any student will be left behind because of lesson plan design is inexcusable. 

What is a teacher to do?  Get to know your students.  Know what they like.  Know what they dislike.  Pay attention to their body language when discussing random topics.  Pay attention to the things they talk about with each other/  Pay attention to the subtext of the questions they ask you.  Above all, learn to recognize when they are are engaged and when they are checked out.  Trust your instincts.  This personal knowledge of your students should be your starting point to lesson design.

Once you gain this knowledge, you will be able to accurately predict the type of lessons that will work with certain students.  More importantly, you will know which types of lessons will not work with particular students.  This knowledge makes lesson planning MUCH easier.

Once you gain this knowledge, THEN look at the curriculum.  Use your knowledge of students to determine how you can teach each student this material.  You'll be surprised to find two or three different methods are often sufficient to reach everyone.  

Once you figure out how to teach your students, only then should you consider what you will teach them.  The material is irrelevant unless the vehicle of delivery is effective.

This idea can be applied to every aspect of the classroom.  Now you know how each kid learns, how you are going to teach them, and what you are going to teach.  The last step is determining how you will assess thier progress.

I was excited by our presenter's thoughts on assessment.  Despite the use of the terms "formative" and "summative" assessment (in my opinion, education-speak is a form of verbal masturbation... we use it to feel good and elevate ourselves in self-perceived importance), she reinforced the idea that assessment should be a tool to help teachers fine-tune instruction.  This is incredibly important, and I will address the issue in a future post.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If Only We Spent More Time Playing...

This post was inspired by this Huffington Post blog:

Joe Robinson makes a good case for adult "play".  I think the idea makes perfect sense.  Unfortunately, we do very little of this in schools.  This is especially true of secondary education.  Personally, it's all I would do if it were not for the scorn of my colleagues, administration, and even parents.

There is a widespread belief that "play" and productivity are two mutually exclusive concepts.  One cannot exist without the other.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We learn best when we play.  Teachers should strive to include more elements of play in their classroom.

Teachers are fond of complaining about disengaged students.  When is the last time you felt disengaged when playing?  Yeah, same here... never.  Let's face it, seriousness blows. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Are Teachers Becoming Obsolete?

I've commented about this phenomenon before, but new information has rekindled my interest.  Technology could kill the teaching profession.  Specifically, online learning could kill teaching. 

An interesting transition is taking place.  Online learning has been around since I began teaching 12 years ago.  In the beginning, it was horrible.  Students did not especially like it AND their performance was poor. 

Over time, students seem to have warmed to the idea.  They no longer bitterly complain about the limitations of learning from a computer screen.  More importantly, their performance is improving. 

The improvement may be the result of changes in the actual online instruction, or it may represent a changing in the abilities of students.  Regardless of the reason, the improvement is significant because it legitimizes the practice.

The only piece of the puzzle remaining is standardized testing.  The moment data arises that shows students score better on standardized tests when taught using online instruction, the proponents of online instruction will have all the ammunition they need to spread it far and wide.

Of course, any teacher that values their job will object.  After all, there is little dispute that online education comes with a huge trade-off... the personal connection between teacher and student is lost.  Personally I think this is important.  I think most people would agree... except for those that determine school funding.

In the age of accountability and dwindling budgets, it will be impossible to argue against the widespread implementation of online instruction.  It is much cheaper and, once the data is produced, more effective when measured with standardized testing.

How will this affect teachers?  It makes us mostly obsolete.  In an online environment, one teacher can manage hundreds or thousands of students from a remote location.  The students can be supervised by virtually anyone for minimum wage.

Teachers will face massive layoffs.  New teachers will go unemployed.  Those that have extensive technology knowledge will be hired as the remote teachers.  The remainder will clamor for the "supervisory" positions and accept dramatic wage and benefit cuts. 

Unions will implode as membership drops and apathy continues.  Anti-labor laws will continue to be passed with fervor.  This destruction of teacher associations will further erode teacher pay and benefits.

So what is a teacher to do?  There are ultimately two options: Put your head down and ignore everything going on in the periphery, or develop a good backup plan.  Start networking.  Consider jobs that compliment online education like tutoring or materials development.  We're skilled professionals with valuable abilities... always consider how you could leverage those skills outside your current gig.

Change is inevitable.  The life teachers have lived for decades- decent pay, good benefits, good retirement plan, are more or less over.  Over the last decade, we've experienced a slowly dying profession.  The proliferation of online education will only hasten the death.  My advice- prepare for the inevitable.