Friday, January 25, 2013

Trying to avoid the plateau

Here's a quick summary, because you're all busy people and this is the internet where distractions are bountiful
  • Teachers don't know how to get better past their first few years.
  • Even teachers who think that they're getting better aren't really.
  • I'm committed to searching for ways to introduce hard practice into my teaching life.

My Piano Skills

I took piano lessons for 5 years. I kept on getting better. I played harder and harder pieces. My teacher helped me train my ear. I wasn't winning awards or anything, but I was clearly on the upswing. 

High school started, and I dropped out of lessons. I stopped getting better. Sad face.

 I made some friends in high school. Some of these friends played music together, and they invited me to join them. They were into rock, and I played an electronic keyboard.

I sucked. All I knew how to play were sonatinas and Czerny's "Finger Exercises for the Weak." They were handing out chord sheets and politely requesting that I try something that sounds less awful. ("Let's take it from the top. Michael, could you turn down your volume?")

The biggest problem was my ear. They would make changes in the song in the middle and I couldn't pick up on them. One person would start playing a song and everyone else just played along. I couldn't do that. We'd have to stop in the middle of songs so that someone could explain to me what we were doing.

I started sitting down at the piano, outside of practice, and trying to play songs that I'd heard from memory. I'd try to improvise in ways that sounded a tiny bit like that thing that Elton John does on this one song. (Lots and lots of Sus2 and Sus4 is half of most rock piano.)

After I got over that bump, it was awesome. I could play with these guys, and I could keep up with them. I played all the time now, at home and with friends, just for fun. I would play by ear, I would play my favorite songs, and I learned more and more songs.

But a funny thing happened: I still couldn't play the harder songs. I sort of assumed that as I kept on practicing -- and at this point, I was playing songs pretty much every day because I enjoyed it so much -- that I would be improving. And I was improving, sort of. After all, I knew way more songs that I ever did. But I couldn't improvise any better than I used to -- I still didn't sound anywhere like the people did on the songs I listened to. 

Why did I stop getting better?

Learning to Teach

The first few years of teaching are truly difficult. With little support you get thrown into a classroom and you just have to figure it out. Teachers get so much better during those first few years of teaching. 

And then there's this plateau in teacher growth that creeps up on teachers, some time around years 3-5.

What's the cause of this plateau? 

I think teachers plateau for the same reason that I'm no better at piano than I was five years ago. I got good enough to get by, and improving past that point requires a focused, systematic commitment to improvement that I didn't have. Or, as Cal Newport puts it, "if you just show up and word hard, you'll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better."

Practice and Hard Practice

How can I avoid the plateau in teaching quality? It's not about practicing more. I was practicing piano all the time but not getting better. Well, that's not entirely fair. I was getting better in some misleading ways that hid from me the fact that I was plateauing. After all,
  • I was learning new songs
  • I was slowly picking up new tricks
Maybe this is just the way progress has to be after the first few years. Maybe progress is about expanding your repertoire and slowly picking up some new tricks.

And maybe mid-career improvement as at teacher is the same. You learn how to teach and then you expand your repertoire. You teach courses that you've never taught before, and that's pretty difficult. After all, it's awfully time-consuming. You make tweaks to your lessons. You take on leadership roles.

But that can't be right -- after all, there are musicians who become great at a much faster pace than I was moving at. They have systematic ways of practicing that are much more difficult than what I was doing. They drill themselves. They sit at the radio and transcribe solos. They seek feedback on their playing from people more accomplished than their high school bandmates.

There's a difference between practice and hard practice. Hard practice makes you better quickly. Practice lets you, essentially, plateau.

Most teachers plateau because they don't do hard practice.

Ah, so blogging and sharing on twitter is the key. That's hard practice, if there is any, right?

Reading and writing blogs and tweeting is* not hard practice. Having deep conversations about teaching and math is* not hard practice. Learning a new technology is* not hard practice.


Blogging and tweeting is like expanding the list of songs that you can play. You read blogs and become aware of things that other people are doing. There isn't enough time to read everything deeply, so you are drawn to people whose work is consistently useful to you. Inevitably, these are the people whose approaches most closely resemble your own. You write blog posts to share work that other people can benefit from. Inevitably, these posts reflect the things that you're already good at, because those are the lessons that tend to go well. 

Blogging and tweeting are great for many, many things. Sharing is good. Expanding your repertoire is good. But they don't constitute hard practice.

Put it like this: do you feel like you're a 1st year teacher when you blog? Does your brain hurt? Do you feel as if you're lost, unsure how to proceed, confused? 

If not, you're not engaged in hard practice.

Hard Practice for Teachers

A lot of my work over the past year comes from the idea that hard practice matters, a lot. I worry about whether my students are practicing hard enough. I worry that online learning lets kids off the hook. And I've been searching for ways to avoid the teaching plateau, though I think that my initial attempts have mixed results.

It's time to redouble my efforts. I'm half way through my third year, and this would be a great time for me to ease into a comfortable routine of expanding my repertoire without improving my skills.

I'm going to commit to finding things that are intellectually taxing that are central to my teaching. It's going to require experimentation to find the right combination, but I think this search itself constitutes a sort of hard practice.

Here's my starting set of exercises:
  • Last year I would often start planning my lessons by spending several minutes thinking about where my students would get tripped up by the topic of the day. I eventually dropped this practice, because I didn't need it to get by. Now I'm thinking that dropping this practice was a mistake, and the fact that I lazily dropped it is evidence that it's the right sort of thing for me to be doing. So I'll be journaling daily about what my students are going to have trouble with in the day's topics and lessons.
  • Writers read great novels. Musicians hear great music. Craftsmen apprentice under master craftsmen. But I stopped consuming teaching several years ago. On the analogy of other crafts, I need to consume more great teaching to get better. I'm going to commit to watching experienced teachers twice a month. Watching a teacher will sometimes involve watching a video, though I hope to get myself into some actual classrooms, both in my school and out of school.
  • Blogging isn't usually a difficult exercise, but I think that it could be. I'm going to attempt to flip the usual blogging process by writing about at least one failed lesson a month. I'm confident enough now to post my worst work for the world and attempt to come to grips with why it failed and why I thought it would work.
One last tentative thought: Teacher training programs tend (tend!) to be poor. Teacher improvement past their 3rd year tends (tend!) to be poor. Is this a coincidence? If we knew how teachers can become great, would that transform our ability to systematically improve the quality of beginning teachers?

Share exercises that you've used on yourself or your students in the comments, please. And, as always, please let me know if you've think I've gone wrong here.