Thursday, December 20, 2012

11 Things I Think I Know About Teaching Without a Textbook

My daughter enjoying my mom's spaghetti
Several years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I began, as many do, by following recipes. I would find a recipe that I wanted to try, buy the ingredients listed at the top, and faithfully try to reenact the process of the original cook who took the time to write the recipe down. I had varying degrees of success depending on whether I fully understood the techniques, whether I knew how to find the best ingredients, and whether I appreciated the importance of how the timing of the steps played out in actual preparation. Often, I was disappointed with my inability to cook spaghetti from my mom's recipe and end up with the spaghetti experience I have always had at her house. Why wasn't it working? I did everything that was called for on the card with the right ingredients and in the right order. What the what?

Then, a friend bought me an amazing book for my birthday. Ironically, this "cook book" was titled How to Cook Without a Book. The premise of the book is simple. You won't learn to make biscuits like your grandma makes by following her recipe. You learn to make those biscuits by understanding cooking, by experimenting in the kitchen until you know(can feel) what the proper ratio is between wet and dry ingredients. My mom makes amazing spaghetti every time, not because of her fidelity to a set of instructions, but because of her deep knowledge of what making good spaghetti looks, feels, smells and tastes like. No notecard, no cook book, no Food Network.

I say all of this as a way to introduce the topic of teaching beyond the textbook. Since our district went 1:1, we've had as our goal the move from a reliance on print-based textbooks to more digital resources. The reasons are many, including cost, student engagement, and portability. One of our reasons, though, is to help free teachers from the proscriptive nature of textbooks. I've written before about how textbooks can easily become the curriculum, instead of merely supporting the curriculum. This happens because, like recipes in cooking take the place of really understanding cooking for some cooks, textbooks and standardized curricula can take the place of really understanding teaching and lesson design for some teachers. On the one hand, textbooks and curriculum maps help to guarantee a minimum level of success at content delivery, but on the other hand, they can remove the incentive to move beyond the mechanics of teaching to the mastery of teaching.

As with cooks, teachers fall on a long continuum of skill level that is affected by resources, training, experience, and tools. Few teachers begin at the level of master teacher, just as few cooks begin at the level of master chef. To help them grow, we provide teachers with classroom "recipes" that they can implement, but young teachers soon find that even though they are using the lesson plan that they remember their favorite teacher used so effectively, they aren't getting the same results. It takes them a little while, but most realize that if they want to have the same results as their favorite teacher, they need to learn to teach, not by following a recipe day after day, but by experimenting with teaching to learn the fundamentals that allow master teachers to teach without the recipe. Once that happens, the textbook ceases to be an instruction manual, and instead becomes a source for inspiration among many sources of inspiration.

So that is my hope for teaching: that we will move beyond the textbook and curriculum map and begin to fill our classrooms with teachers who can enter a marketplace of resources and intuitively know how to bring them together to design amazing learning as good as my mom's spaghetti. All it takes is a shift in perspective from teacher as delivery system (think fast food) to teacher as experience builder (think fine dining).  To that end, these are some of the lessons I've learned beyond the recipe. I share them for those teachers who are ready to get to the good spaghetti:
  1. Expect and accept failure as part of learning- We all burn the cookies. The key is to have a healthy attitude toward mess-ups. What can you learn from the failure that helps you to find success in the future? Nothing is gained without risk, and risk means a higher incidence of failure. 
  2. Learn to trust your instincts- A big part of moving away from the formula is trusting yourself when you sense that things aren't going well, or when you sense that you're on the verge of something awesome. In the kitchen, if you look at the recipe and think, "that can't be right," your taste and experience is urging you to improvise and try something else instead. Why not go with that? Also, when you have a moment of inspiration, you may decide that this recipe would be awesome if you just added coriander. You're probably right, so add that coriander. If you're wrong, see #1. Your instincts will get even better with time.
  3. Put the book in its place- A textbook is like a book of recipes in that it can be followed to the letter. Experienced educators put it together just like experienced cooks put cook books together. But those educators aren't in your room working with your content ingredients to create delicious learning for your kids. You are. Let the textbook serve as inspiration for your own skills. Use the ingredients it provides, but realize that they are only a small portion of the pantry of ingredients that you can bring to bear in the learning you design.
  4. Don't limit yourself to the same resources you've always had- The content resources that are available to teachers today are so much more diverse and interesting than the ones you grew up with. Learn to seek out the perfect ingredients by continuously adding new ones to your pantry. If you've never used online videos or particular web tools in your classes, learn about them so that when the day comes that you feel your lesson "needs something," you'll know just what to reach for.
  5. Keep your resources organized- Develop a system for storing and sorting your digital resources, so that you will always have them at hand when you need them. Learn to curate your resources in digital spaces that you create so that you will not have to waste time searching for the resource that you haven't used since last year. A well-stocked and well-organized pantry is a master chef's best friend.
  6. Use only the freshest resources- Digital resources, like print resources, can become stale and uninspiring. There are always newer, more engaging, more interactive resources to be found. That's really the advantage of moving away from a system in which resources are only renewed every 5-7 years. Don't believe me? Compare the smell of cinnamon that you just bought to the smell of cinnamon that's been in the cabinet for 5 years. Just sayin'.
  7. Find and frequent the best marketplaces for resources- The textbook is the superstore. Yes, everything is there, but what are you compromising? Meanwhile, there are all kinds of great online resource providers who offer niche products that are perfect for your work, but you have to look in so many places to get what you need. The key is balance. Find the high-quality providers who offer a wide enough selection that they will continuously be of use while not offering so much variety that you have to wander for hours to find what you need. Once you know the best markets for you, your shopping trips will get easier each time you go looking for new resources.
  8. Replicating success comes from understanding the goal, not repeating the process- All kinds of elements affect how a lesson will go on any given day in any given class. What works like a charm in 3rd period, may just as easily tank in 4th period. The key is to understand where you want to end up, and use your resources and creativity to get there no matter what the circumstances are. Repeating the same process in all locations and circumstances for all audiences will get you the educational equivalent of a fast food burger. 
  9. Borrow and share with other teachers as much as possible- One way that cooks grow is by learning from other cooks. The way that we all become better is by sharing our recipes and resources. That's where we get best practices. From finding successful strategies that work in multiple learning spaces. The more people who experiment with a recipe, the more examples we have for how it can be varied and improved on.
  10. Ask for feedback and be reflective- One way that a cook knows how successful he has been is by reading the reviews and learning from them. Collect the formal and informal data that your students provide regarding a lesson, and use that information to help you understand your clientele. Then, apply that knowledge while also understanding that today's clientele won't be tomorrow's. In any case, never blame the customer for not liking the food. Work to make the food better.
  11. Teach your kids to cook for themselves- Really successful master teachers eventually come to the realization that learning is a matter of personal taste. Every child learns differently, and any lesson you concoct will fall short with at least a few of your kids. Better to let them design their own learning by mixing up the ingredients to their own taste. It will mean more to them if they at least get to help by choosing the recipe, working the mixer, and taste-testing at the end. Yes, they will start with ice cream, peanut butter and pretzel soup, but over time their tastes and skills will lead them to create their own amazing spaghetti recipe that isn't exactly like Mom's, but that is just as good.
If you have other advice for teachers who are moving beyond the textbook, I hope you will share it with them in the comments below. We're all better when we share our experience. Cheers!

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