Teaching Opinion

The Buddy System

By Tony Wagner — December 27, 2004 6 min read
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Imagine, for a moment, that you want to learn how to play a sport or a musical instrument, but you’ve never seen the sport or heard the instrument played well, and there are no coaches available. You can only practice in a room all by yourself, day in and day out. How good will you be?

—Image by Jim Nuttle

Teachers at progressive schools are collaborating to improve their students learning—and their own.

Of course, athletes and musicians, even amateurs, have ample access to coaches and to examples of best practices, and they are constantly subjecting their performances to the judgments of others. But most of us who are educators have none of the benefits enjoyed by even serious amateurs in other fields. Good coaches for teaching and leadership, or even videotapes of excellent teaching, are virtually nonexistent, and our “performances” are rarely critiqued by others.

In many ways, teaching and leadership in schools and districts are still more like 19th-century “handicrafts”—which usually required skills that you learned on your own and practiced alone for most of your career. And as with handicrafts like weaving or pottery, how skillful you become may be more a matter of having an innate “gift” than learning how to improve. Some craftsmen are, indeed, artists, but many are not. Most of us in education are mediocre at what we do, despite our talents and good intentions, because we have too few opportunities to observe and be observed, to discuss “problems of practice” with colleagues—in a word, to be a part of what educational researcher Etienne Wenger calls “communities of practice.”

I speak from personal experience. During my master of arts in teaching program at a name-brand school of education, most of my time was spent studying subject content, education theory, and curriculum. There was almost no discussion of the craft of teaching. There were no videos of teachers to analyze. I was required to spend a certain number of hours observing “master teachers,” who in retrospect were not especially effective. Finally, I was observed and “coached” a few times by a university “supervisor,” but he had no training for this role and so could offer little helpful advice.

When I finished the program and was officially certified, I went to work in a high school English classroom where I was observed once in my first year of teaching by the principal, who stayed for perhaps 10 minutes. Later, we talked for a couple of minutes, and he gave me a checklist to sign. I was proficient at everything, it seemed. The same thing happened during my second and third years of teaching. And then I became tenured. For the next nine years, teaching in both public and independent schools, I was never observed. If I improved at all, it was mainly through an often lonely and painful process of trial and error. Later, when I became a school principal, the experience was essentially the same. I ran into trouble because I was too young and inexperienced for the job, and there was no one to whom I could turn for coaching.

A unique experience? Hardly. Many veteran teachers chose the profession because they wanted security and autonomy, and most schools and districts are organized to maintain this status quo. We are the last bastion of the would-be self- employed, having really only moved our 19th century one-room schoolhouses into larger buildings. Many of us try to improve, as best we can, without taking real risks or giving up a shred of our independence. And for those who do seek help from others, it is often not available.

Most of us in education are mediocre at what we do, despite our talents and good intentions, because we have too few opportunities to observe and be observed.

I recently talked to a former businessman who has “retired” to teach middle school math in the inner city. Accustomed to giving and receiving feedback, he has begged his principal and department chair to come into his classroom, but no one has. Many principals with whom I’ve worked complain that the yearly classroom visits required by the central office feel like a bureaucratic formality because they have neither the time, nor the training, nor the “permission” to do real supervision. It has become a numbers game for them—whether they have observed their quota of teachers and turned in the requisite number of evaluation forms for the month. And meetings with colleagues are primarily a time for announcements rather than substantive discussion of their real work as building leaders.

Remember Perry Mason and Marcus Welby from 1960s and ’70s television? They were Lone Rangers, like Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver fame; but unlike Escalante’s contemporaries, they’re long gone. Today, people in law, medicine, and business rarely work alone— either on television or in real life. Today, people work in teams at all levels of organizations because teams can take on challenges and find new solutions far more effectively than can individuals working alone. Even solo practitioners like psychologists have ongoing clinical supervision and seminars for peer review of cases. Nearly every profession has reinvented itself to create forms of collaborative problem-solving—except education.

How might groups of educators be organized to go beyond mere “professional learning communities”—a current catch phrase—to deal with ongoing problems in schools and districts? What might communities of practice look like in education?

There are already some examples of teachers working together, with varying degrees of effectiveness. “Critical friends groups” have been used by schools for the past decade as a means of voluntarily organizing teachers to discuss their work. These groups, however, often do not go beyond looking at student work to analyze the “teacher work” that may yield better or worse results. For critical friends groups to be more effective, they need to be data-driven.

I was recently in a middle school where two earth science teachers taught similar groups of students, but one managed a 92 percent pass rate on the state test among her students while just 49 percent of the other’s students passed. Only the principal knew this, and he couldn’t tell me why the two instructors had gotten such different results. We need to break down data by teacher, not to expose those with poor results but to identify and learn from those who are getting results far above average with comparable groups of students.

Perhaps the most well- developed model of teacher collaboration is the “lesson study” process, described by James Stigler and James Hiebert in The Teaching Gap. Used in Japan as a primary means of professional development, lesson-study groups are organized by grade level or subject area. These teams meet regularly to discuss the learning challenges of their students and to collaboratively develop lessons that more effectively meet the kids’ needs. Teachers take turns conducting these model lessons and critiquing one another’s work until they feel it’s polished enough to share with colleagues. Stigler and Hiebert believe this process goes a long way toward explaining why the level of instruction in most Japanese classrooms appears to be consistently higher than that of other countries.

Unlike critical friends groups, however, ultimately this new organization of work cannot be left only to those who volunteer; it must become the way we all do our work in schools and districts. Superintendent John Deasy’s work in California’s Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District suggests a strategy for such a transition. He recently gave teachers in his small high schools additional planning time, but only if they formed triads to visit each other’s classes to give and receive feedback. School and district administrators need to think creatively about a variety of incentives for participation in communities of practice that can, over time, become part of the culture of accountability and how work gets done.

Transforming education from a craft to a profession is the greatest challenge school and district leaders face. Above all, “professionalizing” education means creating ongoing opportunities for discussion of problems of practice at every level—communities of practice cannot be just for the teachers. School and district leaders have at least as much to learn from one another and from teachers by participating in their own communities of practice. A first step is for leaders to model this approach to learning and problem-solving in all their meetings. It is only through such ongoing dialogue that we can create new knowledge about how to continuously improve learning, teaching, and leadership.


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