The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start. Click for a larger view (and to download).

December 29, 2012

Getting It Wrong

Every year during the spring testing season, my high-school students have to take the state-mandated standardized tests needed for graduation.  One year I was serving as a hallway monitor and helping the test administrator to organize and coordinate the various proctors.  He had written detailed instructions for the staff, details somewhat different from the details in the test booklets but details that made sense for our schedule and space constraints.

When it became clear to me that the proctors were confused about the scheduling, and had begun improvising, I reported to the administrator, who then scurried about trying to re-align the proctors, with mixed results.

The administrator and I compared notes later in the day, and he asked if he hadn't made his instructions clear enough.  I replied that they were clear, but because they had differed slightly from the instructions in the test booklet, the proctors had become confused.  "But I said in the instructions to ignore the booklet's recommendations," he said with exasperation.  "I know you did," I agreed.  "Tell me, Bill, how do you explain things to people?" he asked, quite genuinely.

I have no idea where my answer came from.  I don't think I had ever really thought about it overtly, but of course the question cut to the heart of what I do as a teacher.  Without hesitation I replied: "You have to anticipate how people will get things wrong.  Then you can write instructions so mistakes are caught before they happen."

I think about this exchange often, and its implications for teaching.  I can listen to a teacher explaining something to a student and can tell immediately if the teacher has any idea how the student might be getting it wrong.  So much emphasis is placed on getting it right!  But each student gets it wrong in his own way.  An experienced teacher anticipates that, or reads it when it happens.  That's why you can't just lecture students.  They aren't thinking what you think they're thinking.  They're certainly not thinking the way you are thinking.

Experts can have a tough time teaching novices.  The expert was a novice once, but he can't imagine thinking like that now.  Some experts have become so fluid and intuitive at what they do that they can't remotely explain to a novice what they're doing.

I remember watching a video of a piano player trying to show how he played.  When he tried to simplify or even slow his playing down, he couldn't play at all.  So he resorted to vague explanations of what he was doing, and then played as he would have in a performance.  It was entertaining, but not very instructive.

I have taught physics long enough that I know what mistakes to expect from my students, the many ways they will get it wrong.  Sometimes I let them get it wrong, and then guide them to discovering the mistake on their own.  Other times I talk them through the error before they have had a chance to get it wrong.  And at all times, I think a lot about how to explain and describe physics in a way that sidesteps the potholes without oversimplifying the journey.

December 23, 2012

Best Practices

No phrase strikes more fear in my heart than "best practices."  It's not the graceless language that gets me, or the mindless use of the phrase as a magical totem, but the underlying implications.

The phrase is fundamentally arrogant, pretending authority and omniscience.  But why am I being so harsh?  Are there not teaching practices that are better than others?  Well, of course.  But that's never how the phrase is used.  The phrase is always used to mean this: "because it is established beyond any doubt which practices are best, and because we all know (or should know) the full and complete list of best practices, then we are in perfect agreement."

It really gets my hackles up, even when someone uses the phrase lazily as short-hand for "good teaching" or maybe even "consciously-aware-and-striving-to-improve teaching."  "Best practices" is always a conversation-stopper, an appeal to higher authority, slightly scolding in that schoolmarm way.  Who are we to question what people wiser and more powerful than us have established?

I have experience performing on stage as a professional musician.  It looks like fun, but, believe me, it is very hard work.  You never really know how the audience will respond, or what will happen.  No amount of rehearsal, by definition, can prepare you for the unexpected.  You have to be quick on your feet, ready to improvise, because there isn't a ready-made answer for every situation.

There are definitely some things you should avoid doing on stage, and there are some general principles you should bear in mind about performing.  But if a fellow musician had a rough night, and came to me for advice, and I suggested that he rely on "best practices" of performance, I would deserve the punch in the nose I'd get.

So it is with teaching.  There are definite principles and concepts worth following, habits worth building, and you can always learn from both the published research and the old hands.  You need to have a clear and conscious picture of what you are trying to accomplish, and it helps to be able to articulate your vision.  Then we can have a conversation about that vision.  Every teacher has a unique vision, our dignity as teachers rests on that vision.  We can agree and disagree.  And we can point out to comrades, or realize personally, that a particular practice or technique does not effectively advance that vision, and replace it with one that does.  There is no omniscience, no "best practices," just good practice.

August 28, 2012

The SAIL Teaching Framework Interactive Chart

I have made many different versions of the SAIL Framework chart.  There are two images, one a condensed version and another a full version. There is a PDF version that can be downloaded. And I've finally finished my Web version, an interactive chart that can be downloaded. These links are all in the left sidebar.

You can see (and manipulate) a little piece of it in the window above. If you click the arrows, different parts of the chart fold in and out of view, up, down, left, and right. Use the sliders to see different parts of the chart, or just click here if you want to see it in its own window. The chart is a stand-alone webpage, so if you download the page or the source code, you can save it as a single file anywhere in your computer.

I wanted to make this version so that I could view the framework from many different angles, as it were. For instance, you can isolate just the "engaging" part or the "effective" part. You can see just the headings without the list of items, or see a condensed list of the items.

Whenever I explain my framework, I use this chart to take it piece by piece. Try it yourself!

August 15, 2012

The Tyranny of Statistics

It's problematic enough that people, even experts, misinterpret statistical data (see Kahneman), but statistical data in the absence of a reasonable paradigm just becomes tyrannical.  We pursue or are pursued by data without rhyme or reason.
Matthew Di Carlo:  One can only cringe at the thought of the groups of hard-working teachers in high-poverty schools being shamed annually by a system that dooms them to low ratings by virtue of their dedication to serving the kids who need them the most.
This is why teachers need to articulate what teaching is.  Without a clear and concise description, the bureaucrats, statisticians, politicians and corporations will decide what it is for us.

How Science Can Improve Teaching

Nice article in Scientific American by Daniel T. Willingham.

August 12, 2012

Down to One Sentence

Teaching is a complex activity, but it isn't beyond comprehension. I have tried to understand teaching well enough to define it in a single sentence. This isn't just an idle puzzle - I think it's important to be able to describe, succinctly yet completely, what one does. The process of boiling it down forces one to focus on essentials, but the danger is in going too far, distilling past the point of usefulness. The definition needs to be an effective tool, not just an evocative vision.

So what is teaching? Well, the teacher does something, and then the student does something and thereby learns. What kind of something? Let's say that the teacher performs a certain action and the student mimics the action. The teacher watches the student, intervenes when necessary, and repeats the action. The student tries again. The process is repeated until the student is capable on his or her own. Teaching by example is probably the most fundamental and natural form of teaching.

But more is going on than meets the eye. A relationship of trust has been built between the teacher and student so that the interaction can work effectively. The teacher's intervention is extraordinarily important, and will depend exactly on what the student has grasped and what he has missed. The teacher directs the student's attention to the work: like this, not like that, here's why, can you see? Mere mimicry is not enough, the student must develop some understanding. The teacher will not always be there, the student must learn to correct himself, must learn how to learn.

In the modern classroom, teachers work with groups of students, sometimes large groups. Directing the attention of a group is an act of performance. For good or ill, the students reinforce each other. Trust is built between teacher and group, usually one student at a time. Each student brings his or her challenges, and instruction must be tailored accordingly.

The instruction is carefully designed so that if the student attends to the instruction, he will learn something. The student may need to have his attention corralled and directed. The teacher may employ a number of behavioral techniques to do this. So we approach a single sentence: Using behavioral techniques, a teacher directs a student's attention to instructional activities designed to help the student learn. Now I have a tool that can help me understand and improve my own work and help others see what it is that I am doing.

Of course, teaching does not happen just in classrooms. It happens all the time, as does learning. Deliberate teaching in any environment can be broadly defined in a similar, more comprehensive, sentence. Teaching is a kind of performance in which the attention of the student is exploited to induce an experience that will change the way the student thinks.

The Halo Effect

The first impression we have of a situation or a person will often color any subsequent judgements we make.  If we like a person, we will tend to like everything about him, even the things we know nothing about - we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.  This tendency is called the halo effect, and it has been studied for many decades.

From Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow:
Early in my career as a professor, I graded students' essay exams in the conventional way.  I would pick up one test booklet at a time and read all that student's essays in immediate succession, grading them as I went.  I would then compute the total and go on to the next student.  I eventually noticed that my evaluations of the essays in each booklet were strikingly homogeneous.  I began to suspect that my grading exhibited a halo effect, and that the first question I scored had a disproportionate effect on the overall grade.  The mechanism was simple: if I had given a high score to the first essay, I gave the student the benefit of the doubt whenever I encountered a vague or ambiguous statement later on.  This seemed reasonable.  Surely a student who had done so well on the first essay would not make a foolish mistake in the second one!  But there was a serious problem with my way of doing things.  If a student had written two essays, one strong and one weak, I would end up with different final grades depending on which essay I read first . . .

I adopted a new procedure.  Instead of reading the booklets in sequence, I read and scored all the students' answers to the first question, then went on to the next one.  I made sure to write all the scores on the inside back page of the booklet so that I would not be biased (even unconsciously) when I read the second essay.  Soon after switching to the new method, I made a disconcerting observation: my confidence in my grading was now much lower than it had been.  The reason was that I frequently experienced a discomfort that was new to me.  When I was disappointed with a student's second essay and went to the back page of the booklet to enter a poor score, I occasionally discovered that I had given a top grade to the same student's first essay.  I also noticed that I was tempted to reduce the discrepancy by changing the grade that I had not yet written down, and found it hard to follow the simple rule of never yielding to that temptation . . .

I was now less happy with and less confident in my grades than I had been earlier, but I recognized that this was a good sign, an indication that the new procedure was superior.  The consistency I had enjoyed earlier was spurious; it produced a feeling of cognitive ease, and my [judgement] was happy to lazily accept the final grade.

Related websites:
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Halo Effect from Wikipedia

August 2, 2012

Magical Thinking

When I was a boy, I was considered "smart" because I had good grades.  I had no idea why I had good grades, or what "smart" even meant, I was just a boy playing with my friends and going to school because I had to for some reason.  I rarely saw my neighborhood pals in school; I was placed in classes with other "smart" kids and had to wait until the end of the day to play with my friends.

The parents of my friends knew I had good grades, and thus was "smart" (though I doubted they understood the connection any better than I did).  They were happy that their children played with me because this meant that somehow their children might also become "smart."  They even encouraged their kids to stick close to me and watch me because "maybe you'll learn something."  This bothered me tremendously because it not only put my friendships at risk, but it also was patently illogical, even to a boy in elementary school.  "Smart," whatever it was, was not contagious, like a disease.

Now I understand that this was an example of magical thinking.  "Thinking" because it is a kind of thinking, though not logical, and "magical" because belief in the thought is so compelling that evidence or logic to the contrary does nothing to dispel that belief.  It just seems like it ought to be true no matter what.

There is a great deal of magical thinking that goes on in both families and schools.  The example from my boyhood is just one instance of the magical thought that being near something (or looking like or acting like something) will endow you with the qualities of that something.

Here's an example of a kind of magical thinking that happens in schools all the time.  A certain ability or act, like being attentive, often has a certain appearance, like being still and focused.  Taking on that appearance, therefore, will result in that ability.  In other words, if A results in B, then certainly B must result in A.  According to my example, forcing students to be still and to look focused will result in their being attentive.  A variation: students who are still and who look focused ARE attentive, by definition even if not by evidence.  And a corollary: students who are not still and do not look focused can't possibly be attentive to anything.

I am not saying that there is no connection between being attentive and being still.  Certainly both activities often occur together (are highly correlated), and stillness may, under various circumstances, aid attentiveness.  The relationship needs to be clarified, studied, and understood though before we draw the magical conclusion that B must result in A.

I'm sure that my friends' parents saw that I was not a troublemaker, and that I was more likely to correctly weigh the consequences of my actions.  I could be a good example for those of my friends inclined to copy me.  One could conceivably make a connection between these favorable traits and high grades in school.  Somewhere in the mystery of how all this goes is the idea of "smart."  But I guarantee you that the only thing contagious about me were my germs.

July 26, 2012

Why Stagecraft?

Teaching in a classroom is a kind of performance. All teachers know this, but some are uncomfortable with the word "performance." For me to invoke stagecraft as a pillar of my framework thus requires some explaining.

The anxiety around the word "performance" stems from a misunderstanding; performance means entertainment, and entertaining is the opposite of boring. Students hate boredom and like entertainment, so if you're not entertaining enough as a teacher, the students will hate you. But if you are nothing but entertaining, you are not doing your job. You can't win.

So first, performance does not mean entertainment. Performance means taking physical charge of a roomful of people in a way that is planned, practiced, aware, and proactive. To perform well is to do it gracefully, with poise and presence, humor and seriousness, using both training and improvisation. The performer is acutely aware of the audience, and knows how to read and work with their emotional energy.

Second, all teachers perform in the classroom - it's just a matter of whether the performance is deliberate or haphazard, the teacher conscious or unconscious. Wouldn't you prefer to understand and develop the physical impact you have on your class, and put that impact to work in your teaching?

Read this statement from the Circus Center in San Fransisco, where one can get training in physical performance. As you read, substitute the word "teacher" for "clown", and "classroom" for "stage." Then ponder your own level of teacherly stagecraft.
The clown teacher knows no limits, recognizes no rules or boundaries. Not because the clown teacher is rebellious or anarchic, but because they are infinitely curious about the world. They have a powerful desire to relate on all levels – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Clown comedy teaching is born out of this unbridled curiosity, this desire to play with learn everything. This is not the play of the child but of the adult, who enters into the game with a greater level of experience, awareness and a deeper range of emotion.
Read Notes from the Director on Clown.

July 23, 2012

Engaging and Effective

The goal of classroom management is the harnessing and managing of the students' attention in order to have that attention focused on the instruction.  To do this effectively, the teacher must consciously develop the instincts of a performer.  To have integrity, these instincts must arise sincerely from the teacher's own personality.  Training, practice, and the freedom to experiment and improvise are all indispensable to the development of these instincts.

The teacher who is both engaging and effective can couple this performance instinct with well-designed instruction.  What this looks like in the classroom will differ from teacher to teacher, but it will result in a student who is learning, and learning how to learn.

(read the complete essay here.)

July 14, 2012


Teaching isn't simply the inverse of learning.  A theory of teaching is not the same as a theory of learning, though there's an obvious relationship.  The young student learns; this is a process largely under the student's unconscious control.  The teacher sets up the environment that allows the student to learn effectively.  The student cannot see what the teacher is really doing in this regard, that is why the student needs a teacher.  Ultimately, the student should become able to teach himself by learning, consciously and deliberately, from others.

There is such a thing as teaching.  Teaching is not training, though training can be a part of teaching.  Teaching is not coaching, though it can include coaching.  Teaching is not supervising, it is not facilitation, not managing learning resources, not providing services, not delivering curriculum, not just the inverse of learning.  It is its own activity, its own expertise, an expertise that happens to have student learning as an end goal.

(read the complete introduction here.)

A Statement on Teaching

Potential employers sometimes ask for a statement of educational philosophy.  What is being asked for usually is a general statement about the importance of schooling, and the extent of one's enthusiasm for it.  I decided instead to write how I felt about teaching, since that is what I do.  Interestingly, my statement has been seen by some of my comrades as quirky, or even subversive.  Maybe I'm just not following the rules.

Nonetheless, here is my statement:

I am, first of all, a teacher.  My educational philosophy is a philosophy of teaching.  Teaching is not restricted to the classroom, but in the classroom I am a science teacher, a physics teacher.  Physics is a particular way of thinking, of seeing the world, of interacting with nature, and that is what I try to teach: how to think in the particular way that is physics.

For the student, this means that he must be prepared to think differently and to see differently.  This is what it means to learn.  He must also learn how to work with the tools of physics: the language and vocabulary of physics, the equations of physics, the ideas and concepts, the solving of particular kinds of problems in a particular way.

This is not easy work, thinking differently, and I must use the tools of teaching to bring the student to the point of change and learning.  The student must trust both me and herself, and she must be convinced that the journey is possible.  It is up to me to make physics engaging, intelligible, and achievable for the student.  I must help her experience it from every conceivable angle until she can see its many facets on her own.

In the end, the approach and goal of teaching is the same whether I am teaching physics, chemistry, philosophy, or music.  The young student’s vision and abilities are limited, but the capability is there.  A journey is embarked upon by both teacher and student.  Enlarging his vision, expanding his ability, tapping into his capability, employing what he already knows and can do – this is what the student must do for himself, but with guidance from a teacher who can see who the student is and what he can accomplish, and who knows the appropriate route and all its vicissitudes.

The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start.  Click for a larger view.