professional development

Review of The New Art and Science of Teaching

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When I read educational literature, I prefer it that the authors take it easy on me: give me something sweeping, general, and inspiring – more The Courage to Teach, less IKEA instruction manual. But lately I’ve been pushing myself to read more technical approaches to education (more on that below), and The New Art and Science of Teaching certainly fits the bill.

This book, an update to The Art and Science of Teaching (2007), is organized around these eleven sections:

  1. Providing and Communicating Clear Goals
  2. Using Assessments
  3. Conducting Direct Lessons
  4. Conducting Practicing and Deepening Lessons
  5. Conducting Knowledge Application Lessons
  6. Using Strategies That Appear in All Types of Lessons
  7. Using Engagement Strategies
  8. Implementing Rules and Procedures
  9. Building Relationships
  10. Communicating High Expectations
  11. Making System Changes

I’m sorry to say that reading this new edition, which is actually a workbook for teachers, is not an especially pleasurable experience. If you have ever longed for research-based approaches to, say, “demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm” in the classroom, look no further. The book’s tone is dry, and it is rife with descriptions of strategies like this one for “using humor” in the service of “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that indicate affection for students”:

“The teacher uses humor strategically. The teacher can use playful banter, jokes, or self-directed humor. The teacher might also use historical and popular sayings to make a point or incorporate cartoons, jokes, puns, and wordplay into instruction” (90).

Playful banter is totally on fleek! (I mean that affectionately.)

Nothing sucks the art out of teaching as quickly as subjecting it to the science part. It’s like having to explain a joke. And nothing turns me colder than the repeated instructions you will find here about how to handle issues at “the district level.” No two ways about it – this book is intended for public school teachers and administrators.

Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in something intended to provide a framework for much of what independent school teachers do instinctively. Still, there is plenty of wisdom here if you’re willing to push past the crusty formality. For instance, amidst some technical verbiage about how to design effective assessments is this challenge:

At its core, assessment is a feedback mechanism for students and teachers. Assessments should provide students with information about how to advance their understanding of content and teachers with information about how to help students do so” (21).

 For many of us, I suspect, assessments are used primarily as a sorting tool and as a discrete measurement of performance on a specific topic. The idea that assessments are intended to be primarily feedback tools for continual improvement seems simple on its surface, but designing them with that intention takes deep thought and careful practice. This book can help with that, and lots more.

Reading this book is an intimidating experience for the uninitiated. It’s literally full of things I don’t do…and don’t know how to do. When confronted by charts like “sample scales for generating claims, evidence, and reasoning,” which then direct me to “clearly articulate learning goals” by, among other specific strategies, embedding them in “a proficiency scale” (12-13), my reaction is a mixture of despair and paranoia. I can’t do this! Who in my school knows how to do this? Should I know how to do it, too?

No doubt Robert Marzano and his colleagues would have little patience for my gnashing of teeth here; their work is aimed toward people who are willing and ready to establish research-based teaching practices. Regardless of however pitiful or small it might seem, as I read the book, I fought to lean into it and to not reject it just because this work seems foreign or confusing…or just hard to do.

In fact, it is past time for independent schools to stop being willfully oblivious to specific teaching practices like those outlined in this book – or to stop turning up our noses at anything that seems too “public school-y,” which is perhaps the more pernicious of the two sins. For too long, most independent schools have traded on close, communal connections in our communities and derisively waived away questions about the (largely invisible) infrastructure that undergirds our teaching. Curriculum development, end-of-grade testing, grading rubrics, evidence-based teaching practices – they all get tarred with the same brush.

But hopefully we can also agree that high-quality teaching is the greatest differentiator for independent schools – perhaps even more than the close communities that, with increasing frequency, are replicated by magnet schools, charter schools, and other innovative public school models. With enrollments dropping in independent schools across the country, the time is right for us to utilize targeted approaches to improving teaching, even if it’s already excellent.

So…read this book, but in little sips. It would be ideal for a hard-charging Critical Friends Group or a PLC that is focused on improving teaching and student outcomes and is willing to have its practice challenged. Administrators can use it to help teachers find ways to improve their habits in ways they never knew existed.

See the original review here: http://www.sais.org/news/381024/Book-Review-of-The-New-Art-and-Science-of-Teaching-by-Robert-J.-Marzano.htm

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Review of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan et al.

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I am embarrassed to admit that for months An Everyone Culture battled for my attention on my nightstand with another book (John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), but finally I turned to it, in part because I kept receiving karmic suggestions to get going. On a recent visit to the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, for instance, I saw it perched on the bookshelf of Bob Ryshke, director of Westminster’s Center for Teaching. Bob is someone I like and respect a great deal, and when I mentioned I was reading it, too, he recommended the book enthusiastically.

As it turns out, An Everyone Culture is a provocative and thought-provoking book about creating cultures of aggressively intentional personal and organizational development that I suspect would give most seasoned teachers and administrators pause. But I realized in the early stages of reading this book that we should now be creating work environments not just for ourselves, but for a new generation of teachers, young people who are pursuing workplaces that promise more than stability and security and the chance to be left alone to teach – what the authors call the new incomes: “personal satisfaction, meaningfulness, and happiness” (7). In a marketplace where new entrants into the field expect individualized strategic plans for their personal development, this book is a welcome blueprint for how to transform a school’s culture to meet their needs – and to improve as an institution in the process.

Although the book has broad appeal for organizations of all types and definite applications for schools, it is designed for business leaders, and it focuses on three corporate examples:

  • The Decurion Corporation, the L.A.-based parent company of a variety of subsidiaries, including a west coast theatre chain.
  • Next Jump, an e-commerce company in New York that (I think) designs and manages corporate loyalty programs for companies like Dell and Hilton. Their motto: Better Me + Better You = Better Us.
  • Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund management firm based in Westport, CT.

These companies have unique cultures and have developed what the authors call “deliberately developmental organizations” (DDOs). DDOs bake in the expectation that everyone’s development will be accelerated, from the CEO on down. They have a financial interest in doing so, to be sure, but these companies also evince an extreme level of commitment to their employees. Here is the statement on Decurion’s homepage, entitled “Flourish:”

Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be. We believe that every human being has something unique to express (perhaps several unique things over the course of a lifetime). While building each of our businesses to world-class standards, we seek to create the conditions in which that expression will emerge. Flourishing is the process of living into one’s unique contribution. We expect to do this through our work.

 Here’s a snippet from Bridgewater’s Principles & Culture page:

We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

It’s a fascinating proposition – central to the organization’s mission is the development of its human resources, which can only happen through “radical truth and radical transparency.” Our authors breathlessly describe this yeasty alternative to the pallid professional development programs that most of us have experienced: “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day” (4). The result? A company full of intensely enthusiastic and loyal employees who see their own growth and development as essential to the success of the organization.

Sadly, in this system, gone is that annual junket to the National Council of Reflexology Practitioners that you enjoy so much. This professional development is all about exposing one’s weaknesses and mistakes, being vulnerable, and taking risks. As the authors note, “Development requires a willingness to surrender a familiar equilibrium for what will eventually be a new, more adaptive one” (113). “Constructive destabilization” is the coin of the realm in DDOs, and “members expect to be regularly, but manageably, in over their heads” (99). These companies believe that intentionally putting people in destabilizing positions forces growth. “The conditions for a strong developmental pull [a challenge that motivates growth] are created,” the authors write, “when someone is placed in a role or responsibility she hasn’t mastered or for which the complexity of the task is slightly above her current capability” (147). And once you get comfortable – once you finally feel competent – it’s time to move to a new job. It’s not for everyone, though [Next Jump even buys out employees who can’t get on board with their ideology.]

Reading about these radical corporate practices – the “issues logs,” the “talking partners,” the “situational workshops” – was exhausting, a result of my projecting myself into a DDO and imagining what must be, at least at first, a very unsettling work environment (though in the book’s examples, that lack of stability is seen by community members as an organizational strength and an attractive part of the culture). Frankly, it sounds brutal – like Tribal Council on Survivor, but one where giving and receiving honest feedback about one’s weaknesses is a daily expectation rather than the run-up to getting voted off the island. And it also seems to be transformative. And also clearly not for every organization – the authors are painstaking in their efforts to make it clear that cultures that support this kind of personal development have to be carefully built over time.

This book is essentially about feedback – continuous, authentic, and candid feedback – and about creating an organizational culture where exposing weaknesses is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than something to be hidden or circumvented. Success requires self-confidence, bravery, and openness from everyone. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but what could our schools accomplish if everyone in them was committed to mutual growth and development? This book supplies some solid answers. I highly recommend it.

a version of this review appears online here.