McNergney: Small teaching

My colleague, Robert McNergney has a post on Education News entitled “Small Ball: Small Teaching” that captures an important idea: Pay attention to the details. He based his brief essay on an enquiry from a student about whether he had read a well-known book about baseball, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael M. Lewis, about the Oakland Athletics. Mr. Lewis documented the success of an approach to assembling a team that was predicated on systematic analysis of less-glamorous achievements rather than the flashy, headline-grabbing statistics; in place of subjective judgements about players’ talents, the Oakland general manager, Bill Beane, employed modern statistical methods to find players whose achievements were correlated with higher numbers of wins and fewer losses.

Professor McNergney argued that, indeed, the analogy applies to teaching as well.

What matters most in baseball—that is, the ability to perform under real-life conditions—is what matters most in teaching. Who cares if a shortstop went to the University of Virginia and majored in molecular biology? …. [W]hat matters most in terms of student learning is what teachers do when they plan instruction and interact with students in class—behaviors that can be observed, quantified, and shown to influence academic achievement. Our own classroom observation research using the Teaching Performance Record (TPR) suggests that the most effective teachers exhibit a repertoire of teaching behaviors and strategies adapted on the fly to meet changing classroom situations.

Educators need to understand the importance of this analysis. I remember reading essentially this same point in a chapter by Wesley Becker and Douglas Carnine about 30 years ago. In describing the Direct Instruction Model, they wrote that one of the rules that governed the creation of the DI model was “control the details of what happens” (1981, p. 170; emphasis in original). They explain that by “details” they meant the wording of scripts, praise used in lessons, training for teachers, monitoring of progress for both students and teachers, supervisory behaviors, and more. They also candidly note that they did not start in the late 1960s with controlling all those details, but gradually learned during the 1970s that it was important to do so.

The TPR observation system to which Professor McNergney refers provides a means of examining the molecular teaching behaviors, many of which one would see in a DI lesson, that go into fostering student success. Instead of the grand illusions that we pass off as teaching so often&mash;”sage on the stage” who presents the brilliant lecture that inspires a lifetime of scholarship or the “guide on the side” who posses just the right question to light the spark of unquenchable enquiry; the home runs and no-hitters—we should be talking about the far more frequent little bites: questions asked, answers monitored, feedback provided, etc. Lest we forget, teachers who do these things routinely have been shown to have students who have higher outcomes.

So, thanks to Professor McNergney for the reminder about keeping an eye on the small.

Read Small Ball: Small Teaching. Learn about the TPR.

Becker, W. C., & Carnine, D. W. (1981). Direct Instruction: A behavior theory model for comprehensive educational intervention with the disadvantaged. In S. W. Bijou & R. Ruiz (Eds.), Behavior modification: Contributions to education (pp.145-210). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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