A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.
The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.
However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.
Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.
As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.
‘Best practice’ is a very common phrase in education and also one that doesn’t really make sense. Here are just a few of the problems with this concept:
- ‘Best practice’? Says who?
- ‘Best practice’? Do you mean there is no alternative that might sometimes, occasionally be better?
- Does ‘best practice’ mean that every teacher should be doing it? If so, does it just become normal practice? (ie. Is it ‘best practice’ to stop at a red traffic light?)
- ‘Best practice’ can encourage complacency. In an evolving field like education, if we rest on our ‘best practice’ laurels, how will we know when the practice has become obsolete?
- If we just keep doing the same ‘best practice’ we risk devaluing innovation. Why would I try something new or different in my classroom if there is a known ‘best’ way to do things. ‘Best-practice’ is an enemy of creativity.
- Just because a practice works for one teacher or one school, doesn’t mean it will work for others. The only feature shared by every single school is: uniqueness.
Whilst we should stop using the term ‘best practice’ (try ‘effective practice’ instead), it certainly does not mean we should be ignoring excellence demonstrated by our peers or examples of successful methodologies. Of course, we need to be constantly seeking to learn from others and to refine our practice. But we need to do so through a critical lens and with a view to innovation and adaptation rather than laziness or compliance.
You’ve probably heard of neuroplastity, right? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself throughout our life. Our brain literally changes itself to enable you and me to become better and more efficient at skills we practice. Brain circuits that we use regularly not only ‘wire together’ but, due to a process called myelination, can transmit information up to 100 times faster than standard brain circuits. If you’re not very good at knitting or sudoku or maths or telling jokes, it’s because you haven’t given your brain enough opportunity to adapt. Neuroplasticity is also the process that allows people like Jodie Miller to have half of her brain surgically removed and to recover to live a relatively normal life.
But, do you know about neurogenesis? It was only a few years ago that psychology and biology textbooks were stating that the adult human brain has approximately 100 billion brain cells and you can’t grow any more. Wrong. It turns out that mammals – like us – are constantly growing new brain cells; particularly in the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.
Ultimately, it is the mechanics of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that allow us to learn.
It’s also why the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________” doesn’t really make sense scientifically. Instead, we should encourage the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________ yet“. Those three simple letters, y-e-t, encapsulate an understanding of the incredible ability of the human brain to help us become better at whatever we choose to practice.
Imagine if you played a computer game for 1,000 hours or practised playing the piano for 62 days straight and only took breaks to sleep. You’d improve quite a bit wouldn’t you! Your development would certainly be noticeable and measurable.
This year, if you’re a classroom educator, you will complete approximately 1,000 hours of teaching practice. How much better will you be at the end of the year? Will your development be noticeable and measurable? Are you a significantly better teacher than you were this time last year?
Here are four of the most critical variables that research has identified will determine your development:
- Your motivation and attention. How much do you want to improve? How much are you focussing on becoming even better as an educator?
- Focus on specific ‘micro-skills’. What precise, targeted skill are you specifically working on? Teaching consists of hundreds of different skills. Pick one. Start there.
- Your willingness to seek and respond to feedback from a mentor or coach. Do you have someone you admire, someone more skilled than you who can critically analyse your skill and guide your growth.
- Repetition. How many forehands do you think Roger Federer hits each day? Work out how you can practise and practise the skill you are developing until you master it. Then move on.
Those factors don’t just predict teacher development, by the way. If you’re a lawyer or a chef or a police officer, the same fundamentals apply.
Wouldn’t it be cool to look back in January, 2020 and think, “Wow, I really am 1,000 hours better!”