School Climate & Safety Opinion

Waking the Sleeping Giant of Faculty Capacity

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 11, 2016 5 min read
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Teacher performance affects student achievement. Yes, there are many other factors that contribute to or take away from students’ ability to succeed, but teachers are one factor leaders have the capacity to affect. Leaders and the public they serve expect ongoing development and improvement of learning opportunities for students. Improvement in learning environments is most often found where effective feedback is given and sought. According to John Hattie,

Visible teaching and learning occurs when learning is the explicit and transparent goal, when it is appropriately challenging, and when the teacher and the student both (in various ways) seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attained. Visible teaching and learning occurs when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning (pp. 17-18).

But, what if an environment has yet to have focused “deliberate practice aimed at attaining master of the goal”, and as a result, has yet to develop active and passionate participants who are welcoming of valuable feedback?

What is Deliberate Practice?
We all are familiar with the phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” What is perfect practice for teachers and leaders? When leaders work intentionally with their teachers to improve student achievement, often an overarching professional development may be chosen. So, for example, if integrating technology into the thinking and learning process is a goal for the school, training on various software applications may be offered. But little attention may be paid to why each teacher is more or less skilled or willing. There is important rationale for identifying what part of teacher practice needs to be developed and improved.

According to Ericsson and Pool in their book, Peak,

Once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve (p. 13).

Isn’t that what happens? Once a teacher has “learned the ropes” and had a few solid years, their work can become automated even when children change every year. Accordingly, those “automated abilities” gradually deteriorate or don’t transfer when assignments or children or technologies change. Quality feedback and targeted practice are an ongoing necessity.

Choosing more than one thing to improve in practice is not recommended. This is not only recommended for adults, it is important for students as well. Modeling it for the adults will also have a turn-around effect on the students.

Identify the Area for Growth
Returning to the example of implementing technology into the teaching and learning process, and assuming all can do it better. Where so we begin? First, know where you want to go and identify what is holding progress back. It is not uncommon to discover that there is some hardware or accessibility problem that frustrates users when technology is introduced. Is there enough band-with, Wifi accessibility, updated software, and applicability. Eliminate what frustrates. Then assess again what is holding progress back. Some have replaced snail mail with email but that is about the extent of their familiarity with technology. They are simply technology averse. They are different from those who lack specific skills, who may be frustrated by a lack of knowledge of how to apply technology in their course, or those who see the value of technology as a source for practice of basic skills, rather than a vehicle for empowering learning. Some may be like Ericsson’s and Pool’s example, may have met “an ‘acceptable’ level of performance and automaticity” and have become unfamiliar with the need for building capacity. Reflection, feedback, and development can resolve all these.

Faculty Growth as a Sleeping Giant
Leadership always matters. If a highly productive faculty becomes lulled into a sleeping giant, growth of students will slow also. And if a highly frustrated faculty has checked out, students’ growth will deteriorate also. So schools must be places where no sleeping giants are allowed. This is neither blame nor shame. Rather it is a call to action. Leaders nudge the sleeping giant and it awakens. This can begin by introducing the power of targeted practice, good feedback, and evidence of the results. It is an individual choice of where to begin, but always it is good to begin where a quick, positive response may occur.

Targeted practice relies on targeting the right thing. If the right thing is found, then targeted practice will result in improvement. If the wrong thing is found, then targeted practice may result in frustration and diminished efforts. Another example is how this works in sports. If an equestrian and her horse are missing the jumps and the feedback is to keep practicing jumps, there is a chance nothing will improve and a resulting assumption that they have met their performance ceiling. Yet, if the observer noted that the problem was that the rider was preparing the horse to jump too early and the rider and the horse focused on waiting until they were closer to the jump to prepare, they should see an improvement, and rather quickly. The same is true in the art of teaching. Leaders need to know the work of teaching and learning well enough to identify the precise problem. Only then can they find the spot where practicing a new behavior will make a measurable difference. Then they offer feedback and encouragement. The cycle of improvement begins when practice, perfect practice, reveals a result. Results generate increased motivation as the goal is met. Students are the direct beneficiaries. Find the spots where practice will be most effective and wake the sleeping giant.

Ericsson, A. and Pool, R. (2016). Peak. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. New York: Routledge

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.