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.