Changing Classroom Strategies – It Takes Practice and Commitment

downloadHappy New Year!  I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is ready to start 2017 with a new outlook and determination to make this the best year yet, both personally and professionally.

My New Year’s post from last year, New Year’s Resolutions for the Classroomprovided a list of 5 things I use to do to rejuvenate my classroom each year – things I really tried to emphasize and focus on deliberately to help foster student engagement.  The list is still appropriate, so I am not going to repeat it here – read last year’s post if you are interested. Instead, this year, I wanted to focus on change – which is what a ‘resolution’ is after all.  And by change, I mean long term, sustained change, that becomes habit and routine, which, when we are talking about effective classroom strategies, these are the changes we want to be making in our instructional practices.

Change is hard, as we all know. It’s much easier to keep doing what we have been doing, even if we know it isn’t working.  That unfortunately has been the problem with education for a long time – change that will have lasting, positive impact doesn’t happen overnight, and therefore when results don’t manifest immediately on a test or in a classroom, we think the ‘change’ was a failure and move on to something else. (Hence the reason why education looks remarkably the same as it has for the last 100 years or more). Take the Common Core Standards – a very positive change if done right, but deemed a ‘failure’ when results on standardized tests didn’t dramatically change or show improvement immediately. It’s not the change – it’s that there wasn’t enough time – enough practice – enough support. Real change for the better, in anything you do, takes serious time, commitment, support and practice. And unfortunately, we do NOT give teachers enough of any of those things to really make significant changes in instructional practice.

According to Malcom Gladwell in the book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Now, granted, there is some debate about that, but, the point here is it takes a lot of practice to get better at something or to make a change and become good at it. So, let’s say in a math classroom, we want teachers to change their practice and provide better questioning (i.e. critical thinking) practices. Let’s say this is your New Year’s resolution – you are going change how you ask questions of your students so that they are using problem solving and critical thinking versus just regurgitating answers or providing ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ solutions. This means that you must first learn what are some good questioning strategies and questions to ask that provoke thinking, and then you have to practice incorporating these into you current practices.  Deliberately incorporate, which is often very difficult, especially in a math class where it’s pretty easy to just ask what the answer is and move on when a student provides it. So – practice. Every day. On this one thing. If we calculate out 10,000 hours, and say you manage to do 2 hours a day of practicing good questioning strategies (that’s probably over-estimating, but we will give you the benefit of the doubt). So that’s 5,000 days.  Which….if we think about a typical school year of 180 days, it’s going to take 27 years to master the skill. Unrealistic, right? (Though…as someone who has been in education for 27 years, I would say my questioning skills are significantly better than they were when I started….but I still don’t think I have mastered it!)

27 years of practice to master a skill, or make a change that has an impact. Crazy. Let’s think about some changes teachers are asked to incorporate into their classroom, focusing just on math. There are new standards, so they have to change some of the things they have taught, the curriculum they use, the resources they have. There are recommended strategies – i.e. more collaborative learning experiences, incorporate more technology, foster more problem-solving and critical thinking, utilize questioning skills, focus on conceptual understanding not just skills, incorporate modeling….and the list goes on. Some of these are not new or changes for all teachers, but many are. And if each one of these ‘changes’ takes 10,000 hours to master, we definitely have a problem! Teachers are given usually a couple months to make these changes – if they are lucky, a couple of years, but then there are always new changes coming down the road, and there is NEVER enough time to practice any of the changes enough.

Obviously, no teacher is going to be given 27 years to practice something new. My point here – change in strategies imagesis important and necessary, and to change requires consistent practice over the long haul. You may not see the results right away, but don’t give up because it takes TIME and commitment!! Make those New Year’s resolutions to be a better teacher, to do better at questioning, to use technology more, to help your students think critically and to work collaboratively. But realize that it takes practice – lots of it – to make these changes have a real impact on student learning. Devote that time. Focus on one resolution/change at a time and just keep doing it – over and over – till you get better and until it becomes a habit. Practice truly does make perfect (or at least better) and your students will benefit. I don’t think it will take 10,000 hours to see positive results, but it won’t take a day or a week or a month either. It will take your commitment to practicing a little bit every day until it becomes routine and you continue to improve over time.

Keep practicing and Happy New Year! Let 2017 be the year of change!