Mar 18 2010

‘Teaching As Leadership’ book critique Part III

Is this ‘investment’ safe?

One thing I want to make clear is that my goal here is not simply to ‘tear apart’ this book, magnifying small errors and ignoring any of its merit. I know this book is going to influence the decisions of many new teachers, so I’m actually on the lookout for good parts so I can advise readers to focus on them and ignore the oversimplified and unimportant parts.

Good news. I have just finished chapter 2, ‘invest students and their families’ a 53 page chapter. I was getting pretty discouraged until I was just about at the end of it. Then, finally, I found a great and very important page. Why TFA chose to put this page is at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning, I wonder. In my opinion, the investment strategy they describe on this page is more useful, valuable, and powerful than all the strategies on the other 52 pages combined. Take out your highlighter again. The first great page of this book goes from the middle of page 99 to the middle of page 100.

TFA does know a lot about what effective teachers do. For some reason, they don’t seem to have the ability to ‘rank’ what practices are most vital. If they did, this page would be moved to the front of the chapter. As it is, it’s just there lumped in with a bunch of other strategies. But there it is in a section called ‘Investing Students Through Instruction and Learning’, sandwiched between two relatively unimportant investment strategies called ‘Establishing the Relevance of Content’ and ‘Empowering Students with Choice and Responsibility,’ the only great page I’ve found so far, a one-page section called ‘Teaching at the Frontier of Student Ability.’

Here are some excerpts:

When you are given a task that is much too easy or much too hard, how do you feel? How does the degree of difficulty influence your motivation to complete the task?
Like all of us, students are most likely to believe they can and want to work hard and succeed when they are working at the frontier of what is comfortable for them – the nexus of challenge and ability. Like all of us, students will be most motivated to strive for success when the work is challenging but is also ultimately doable.

Researchers call this level of difficulty “optimally challenging” or the “zone of proximal development” and posit that work at that level of difficulty maximizes motivation. When work is too easy, “while it may be accompanied by pervasive positive feedback, it will not enhance the sense of competence because the activity is already well mastered. Boredom is the likely outcome.” With work that is too difficult, “pervasive negative feedback will undermine intrinsic motivation and promote feelings of incompetence, anxiety, and frustration.”

Researcher Jeff Howard explains why … “Initial objectives should be somewhat challenging (involving a stretch and some real possibility of failure), but very realistic (failure may be a possibility, but the goal is within the range of what is realistically attainable). A starting point that is realistically geared to the present capabilities of the child stimulates a belief that ‘I can do this’ and engenders stronger commitment of effort to the task.” Howard explains that this success begets more success by helping students develop perseverance and confidence even as tasks become incrementally more challenging: “Each success generates increased confidence and satisfaction and energizes a more challenging objective for the next attempt. As goals become more challenging, they evoke greater focus; the child becomes increasingly absorbed, immersed in the detail and the work. The heightened involvement alters the experience of the task. The work becomes enjoyable, learning is accelerated, understanding is deepened.

Students’ investment increases when teachers carefully calibrate instruction to the frontier of students’ ability.

Now this great section reinforces the point I made at the end of my last blog entry. It runs somewhat counter to the oversimplified ‘set big goals’ chapter. Still, I’m happy they finally said this. One good page out of one hundred, though, is not a good percentage. As far as this chapter goes, you’d be better off reading that page 53 times than reading the rest of the chapter. I’ll discuss what I think of the other 52 pages in my next entry. For now, though, I’d like to keep this entry positive. This is the key to ‘investment.’ Telling kids they can learn, getting kids to tell you they can learn, getting the families to believe their kids can learn – none of these things can beat SHOWING kids that they can learn by actually teaching them. I don’t know if TFA knows the importance of this page, but it’s there and I think it’s great. I just wish it were emphasized more.

Continue To Part IV

2 Responses

  1. I haven’t bought this book yet, and I can’t decide if I want it now or if I should wait until the end of my two years (10 weeks away!)… At any rate, that is an exceptional excerpt!

    I agree with you on this: “TFA does know a lot about what effective teachers do. For some reason, they don’t seem to have the ability to ‘rank’ what practices are most vital.” That’s why the TAL rubric is so overwhelming… there must be some data somewhere that shows which section of each strand is *most* important, so that can be bolded. I never know where to start…

    Here’s the deal with that excerpt, though… we need more training/support on how to create differentiated work at the students’ zone of proximal development! One of the most frustrating situations is realizing that you’ve created an activity/lesson that’s perfect for some, but too much or too little for others! I can’t decide which is worse: leaving some kids in the dust while pushing others, or dragging the bored ones along. It would be awesome if that never happened at all… Ha. Maybe someday when I am a “master” teacher I won’t keep running into that situation, but for now, it seems that I’ve never quite found that balance. Hopefully there’s a chapter on that later!

  2. Jacob

    When I think back to my first year teaching (2000!), the process Gary describes here was huge– the difference between investment and disinvestment was the kids actually having learned something and knowing that they had learned something.

    You can’t just tell people to be invested and to start learning stuff that (for them) is nearly impossible– you have to gradually ramp them up, something I was terrible at my first year. And you also need to recognize that (certainly for elementary and middle school teachers) these are children, and the things that they can approach in a spirit of play and joy are the things they will learn.

    Finding that balance between joy and (real, earned, tangible) accomplishment is the simple, impossible task of the teacher.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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