10,000 hours of school

Here’s a thought experiment: If you were a teacher candidate about to take over a classroom of your own, what personal learning experiences would you draw on when designing lessons and learning experiences for your students?

A few years ago, I spent of the better part of a school year sitting in the back of classrooms in 20 different high schools. I spent more than 150 hours over about 30 weeks observing nearly every subject and content area an American high school might offer. Some mornings I walked on gleaming, just-polished floors through brightly lit corridors. Other mornings I stood in line with students, waiting for security to wave us through metal detectors. But every time I visited a school that year, I always found at least one student to answer the prompt: “Tell me what you’re working on today.”

More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to sit in the classrooms of some of the folks who prepare teachers in this country. I’ve visited the classrooms of teacher educators and methods faculty from four teacher-preparation programs in four different cities. I’ve also listened to teacher-candidates describe their successes, and where they are struggling to prepare for the classroom. And I always find at least one teacher candidate to answer the question, “What’s one part of your teaching practice you’re working on right now?”

I’m grateful for the educators in both settings who opened their classrooms to me. These are educators who contribute meaningfully to the development of our profession through their willingness to have others observe them. Still, something has been eating at me about this experience:

1) The typical classroom interactions in the high schools and teacher-preparation classrooms I observed are nearly identical: high school students and teacher-candidates are most often sitting silently, some taking notes, while a faculty person or teacher does nearly all the talking.

2) The typical response to my question “What are you working on?” was also nearly identical in both settings. Most students and teacher-candidates are unable to articulate with any specificity a problem or question that drives their work.

For example, most high school students I spoke with were likely to describe a general procedure, like “taking notes” or “answering the questions on this sheet.” Similarly, I found that teacher-candidates spend a great deal of time writing lesson plans, often from templates, and “aligning lessons to the standards,” as one explained to me. Teacher-candidates were also likely to say that they were working on very general classroom procedures, such as “learning how to manage my classroom.” But, very few candidates told me they were learning specific teaching practices. For example, how to design a task and student roles for small group work, how to describe and model equivalent and non-equivalent fractions, or how to elicit and evaluate student thinking when asking probing questions about excerpts of a text in a whole-class setting.

In many respects, the experience of the typical teacher-candidate is a continuation of their high school experience: they are supposed to learn by listening to others and master general procedures that are mostly completed on paper. If you took me up on my thought experiment earlier, then maybe you have a learning experience in mind that looks very different from what I’ve described thus far. But, the typical American teacher candidate has conservatively spent something like 10,000 hours (9 years, 36 weeks/year, 6 hours/day) learning procedures, taking notes, and listening to others talk. If you were this teacher candidate, you would most likely have learned, through observation of your instructors and direct instruction, to teach young people procedures by explaining those procedures to them. (I’m just focusing on high school and college here. But, the classroom arrangements I’ve described are very common in early grades and middle school as well).

In the meantime, the job description for the typical American teacher increasingly looks something like this:

-Create and implement academically rigorous lessons and assessments
-Assess individual student’s progress and learning needs; demonstrate a relentless focus on helping students achieve
-Support general education and special education students in achieving academic success and character growth
-Facilitate the development of character and community in the classroom
teachers, and families
-Communicate students’ progress toward realizing academic and character development goals with families on a regular basis

-Increase student growth and achievement in content area of focus
-Meet desired goals/benchmarks on district-wide, state, and national assessments and measures of growth
-Ensure growth, development, and demonstration of student character

-Experience working with English Language Learners (preferred)
-Strong knowledge of subject area
-Experience with Readers/Writer’s Workshop (preferred for some ELA roles)
-Bachelor’s degree (required)

If you were a teacher-candidate, and you were asked to “create rigorous lessons,” “assess learning,” and “increase growth,” perhaps in two or more languages, what previous learning experiences could you draw from that would inform the design, delivery, and acceptable range of outcomes in your classroom? Which workshop models or classroom configurations could you imagine as you asked your students questions, probed their thinking, designed whole-class discussions, arranged small-group tasks, or wrote individual assessments? The unfortunate answer for many teacher-candidates is that they have a very narrow range of experiences from which to draw, and the experiences they do have rarely help them do the job described above.

In my view, learning how to teach requires a teacher-candidate to unlearn nearly 10,000 hours of previous schooling. In the absence of this unlearning and new learning, the experience of the typical new, American teacher is a bewildering job. In short, we are asking her to:

  1. design, model, and deliver academic tasks[1] to young people that look vastly different from the learning she did in school or in her teacher-preparation program;
  2. develop, on her own, diagnostic capabilities for assessing student responses to those tasks, even though the tasks are relatively unfamiliar to her;
  3. build a model in her head for how her specific teaching practices do or do not elicit the student responses she desires, even though she may not have received any feedback or guidance for doing that.

In other words, the typical new, American school teacher is unable, in most circumstances and mostly through no fault of her own, to draw on learning experiences from her past, from her teacher training, or with her colleagues, that might inform the design and assessment of learning experiences we’ve asked her to create for students.

The good news is that we’ve seen a better way forward at Deans for Impact, and it starts early in the program of a teacher candidate. In our next post, my colleague, Charis Anderson, and I will describe some building blocks that we think teacher-preparation programs can use to create strong learning experiences for candidates. Programs that use these building blocks 1) provide a coherent sequence of learning experiences and courses that eliminates silos among faculty and ensures all stakeholders have a common language and expectations for excellent instruction, 2) require teacher education faculty and other instructors to regularly model the practices that they expect candidates to learn, 3) require candidates to practice and rehearse specific teaching moves early in the program, like managing small group work or facilitating a whole class discussion, and 4) provide regular feedback to candidates about their progress towards those specific teaching practices.

[1] See for example, “Academic Work” by Walter Doyle.

John Roberts

Senior Program Director

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