Saturday, December 27, 2008

Teaching Pt. 6

Yet another factor in teaching is textbooks. Different authors explain the concepts in different ways that different students may or may not understand. One way to develop a good textbook is to continually test the book with focus groups. To help aid the initial construction of the book it may be worthwhile to research books that a large representative group of student consider to be easy to learn from, yet satisfy the teacher's requirements.

It is a good idea to test every aspect of the book with a representational cross section of the target student base. Everything from wording, to phrases, figures, to notation should be finely tuned for maximum student understanding, while at the same time satisfying the goals of the teacher.

John G.

Teaching Pt. 5

I have been talking in broad terms with regard to the framework of the model of teaching. The core is built around the coaching model, so in order to best help use develop the framework, we need a specific coaching model to work from. One of the best if not the best coaching books available is Successful Coaching by Rainer Martens. The more I read the book the more methods I see that could applied to teaching. The great advantage of the book is that it is self contained and covers nearly all aspects of coaching in a logical format.

This book can help educators develop a set of teaching principles, based on experiment, that can be exported to any school. Though, I believe that we might have to customize the approach to 3 categories, rural, suburban, and urban schools.

An advantage of the book is that it does not give a list of rules to follow, rather a set of guidelines for the coach to develop his own program based on the most effective approaches. This allows the flexibility necessary to adapt teaching to different environments.

Failure Analysis

Any educational program designed according to coaching model should be tested to the breaking point. This is not intended to discredit the approach, rather to analyze where the program failed and how it can be repaired. In this respect it may be good to take the engineering approach, you perform a stress test, when the system fails you perform a failure analysis to determine which part or parts failed and why. One of the best failure analysis methods is Failure mode and effects analysis.

Another idea that might be helpful in educational systems planning is futures techniques. Though I think it may be quite on the fringe, it nevertheless may prove helpful.

The coaching model is the "workhorse" of the educational system, with the other ideas on the periphery meant to help increase the effectiveness of the coaching model. The educational systems analysis is meant to approach education on a broader scale, possibly on the scale of school or several schools.

More ideas later.

John Gonzalez

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teaching Pt. 4

There is yet, one more factor to discuss; instructor bias in explanations. It often happens that an explanation of a concept that an instructor thinks is clear and easy to understand is difficult for students. Also, it often happens that other instructors think the explanation is clear, so the instructor, even if he/she asks other instructors what they think about the explanation often get highly biased feedback.

The problem is that concepts are easy to those who already understand them and know how to use them. So, when instructors look at a textbook or another instructors explanation of a concept, they tend to use their own mastery of concepts and techniques to "fill in" or "understand" parts that students may find difficult. Hence, what the instructor thinks is easy is actually difficult for the student.

Now this does not mean we have simplify ideas to the point of compromising the main concept, rather it is a balancing act. You have to balance ease of understanding with integrity of the main concept.

For example in regards to textbooks, it is best to let the students decide which textbooks they think are easiest to learn from. Then from that list of textbooks (usually there is more than one) let the instructors decide which textbook(s) satisfies their objectives for the class. This way you satisfy both the student AND the teacher.

In regards to explanations, one way to develop a sense for what constitutes an explanation that is understandable for the student is to practice explaining concepts by tutoring students. After tutoring many students you develop a sense of how to explain concepts in a way that the student understands and leads to mastery of the main concept.

John G.

P.S. It may often happen that tutors have a standard answer for common questions. While this may be efficient, it runs the risk of falling into the trap of explanation bias. So, once a tutor identifies a common question, it may help to have an answer ready, but always try to improve the answer based on experience.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Coaching and Teaching Pt. 3

There is a problem, educators and administrators tend to gravitate to theories of education that are theoretical and untested. This may affect nearly all of my suggestions, my approach is more experimental - Use the techniques and methods that have proven themselves to get results, not the techniques you think should get results.

This doesn't imply that we can't experiment with new techniques, rather it is saying that the techniques that are to be standardized should be those that have been tested experimentally in similar circumstances and have proven to give good results.

Another issue is National standardization of pedagogy. Like I have said before, much of teaching as it is currently practiced is trial and error. Simply because different school districts or different states approach education differently doesn't mean they are all equal, or give equal results. Some techniques, strategies, tactics, work better than others. It would be irresponsible to use the concept of academic freedom as an excuse not to use techniques, strategies, and tactics that have proven to get results.

I routinely sit in on other teachers classrooms, not because they are perfect, but because I may learn a technique, strategy, concept, or tactic that is effective and that I can use in my own classroom. I sign myself up for SAT and study skills classes, so I can learn different strategies and incorporate them into my system.

Another method that can be used in education is that of focus groups. Instead of testing different advertisements on the students, test different teaching styles and methodologies, and find out which ones the students like the most AND gets good results.

There should be some flexibility built into the standardization to take into account differences in school districts. For example different approaches may be needed for urban, suburban, and rural schools. Maybe a different system of categorization is needed, but as long as the best practices are standardized I think it will greatly benefit education.

More later

John G.

Coaching and Teaching Pt. 2

There are more differences between coaching and teaching:

1. In coaching you can easily see if the athlete is performing the movements correctly, in education you cannot see if the student is reasoning correctly. This is why I emphasize that the student explain the problem to the teacher and then the teacher analyze and correct the student's reasoning. This method is equivalent to a coach analyzing and correcting the athletes movement.

2. Given that you can't see the student's reasoning, it is sometimes difficult to communicate how a "good" student reasons and organizes his/her work for maximum effect. So it may be beneficial to create videos of "good" students taking a test or doing homework, with the audio dubbed to describe what the student was thinking as he/she was doing the test/homework. The videos should be "shot" from above the student, this way you can see how the student organizes their work on the paper. One advantage of this method is that it is easier to communicate the practices, habits, strategies and tactics of a good student in test taking situations.

In addition, this method can be used with students who need improvement. If you create a video of the student taking a test or doing homework, then you can review the video with the student to gain an understanding of the thought process. During the analysis process, you can correct any thought processes, writing habits, strategies, tactics, etc. Also, you can identify parts of the testing process where the student could be more efficient, do the same work with less time, and where certain strategies could have been used and how they could have been used. The psychological dimension should also be explored to determine how the student can manage anxiety, panic, and overwhelm during the test.

This method can also be applied to studying.

3. Given that some parts of education is mandatory (elementary and high schools), students may have to attend the school involuntarily. Even if student attendance is not completely involuntary, the student's belief that he/she is capable of learning and succeeding may not be there. So you may have to use motivational techniques to instill the belief that they can succeed, both emotionally and rationally.

Even this is not enough, sometimes you will be called on to "sell" education, to convince the student to "buy" what you are "selling", mastery of knowledge. The more challenging the school, the more difficult the sell. As such it may be beneficial to employ techniques used in sales, marketing, public relations, and politics. Our goal is to find out which words, which phrases have maximum effect on the students and incorporate them into the lectures. We want to understand the mind of the students, their desires, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams. We want to know what drives them. In other words we want to know how they think. This way we can determine how to best "sell" education to a sometimes challenging audience. Our goal here is not to manipulate for selfish ends, rather it is to guide the student to a positive goal, without telling inaccruate, distorted, or self serving statements.

It may be helpful for schools to study public relations, sales techinques, and marketing techniques.

4. Another idea, is for the teacher to record each lecture. Afterwards the teacher can then analyze the lecture, and look for improvements. Each explanation, each example, word, phrase, concept, movement, and pose will be analyzed and directed to maximum effect - the communication of concepts in such a manner that most of the students will understand, the motivation of students, and the "selling" of education.

5. Teaching few students is not the same as teaching 30 or even 40 students. The difference is that when you teach a few students you can work on each on individually, you can wear down the exterior and motivate them more effectively. Students act differently in crowds, so we should also study student behavior in crowds, and learn how to control crowds and direct them to postive ends. In this regard it is best to study the work of Edward Bernays and crowd psychology.

More Later

John Gonzalez

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coaching & Teaching

Update - Many may wonder how the students in the high school exit exam prep class did, well I had 6 students and 5 of the 6 passed the high school exit exam.

The more I think about teaching and teaching methodology the more connections I find with coaching in sports. Coaching is to the physical domain what teaching is to the intellectual domain. We can learn much from the methods of coaching since sports programs are more developed in the US than educational programs. Some of the advantages of focusing on coaching programs is that coaching has been finely tuned over decades to get results, not just winning games, but producing good athletes and good students. Another advantage of studying coaching programs is that they are "holistic", in order for an athlete to perform at their peak, mind, body, and emotions must all be aligned to produce the desired result. So athletic programs developed entire systems of thought and philosophy to address nearly every aspect of the athlete. - If we can adapt these systems, these programs, to education I think we can great improve student outcomes.

Due to competitive pressures, coaching in sports has identified and analyzed every factor that could possibly have an affect on the athlete and the outcome of a game. Then these factors are finely tuned to produce good athletes and to win games. Unfortunately finely tuned factors are not enough, the way the factors are harmonized also has effect on the athlete and the outcome of a game. In other words harmonizing the finely tuned factors is also a factor. This harmonizing is what is known as a philosophy, a program if you will that guides not only what factors are used, but when and how they are used. Harmonizing the factors is an art and different coaches approach it differently, but this does not mean all approaches are equal, different approaches yield different results. So it is best to focus on the coaches that get the best results, not just winning games, but producing good athletes. - This is what is missing in current educational programs.

Most educational programs focus on certain very limited factors, namely explaining concepts, without regard for other factors that affect whether or not the student gains an understanding of the material. Even if other factors are identified and to some extent tuned, they are not harmonized with the environment. More importantly, many educational programs are reluctant to admit that not all approaches are equal, and that some approaches yield better results than others. In many respects teaching as it is currently practiced is trial and error. This makes it difficult for a teacher with a good intentions and a good heart to be effective at challenging schools.

Given the current budget crisis, it may not be possible to increase teacher salaries, so instead make it easy to be a good teacher and get good results - work on the altruistic side of teaching, as opposed to strictly the self-interest side. One way to make it easy to be a good teacher is to distill the practices, the philosophy, the tactics, the strategies, the behaviors, etc of the most effective teachers into a set of principles that are easy to follow. Not as a set of rules that must be followed rather as a set of guidelines to help the teacher. This way teachers don't have to rely on the painful process or trial and error, thereby leading to a more positive environment and increasing teacher retention.

Programs can be specialized to the area that the school is in, for example different programs may be needed for urban, suburban, and rural high schools. The most effective teachers from each category should be interviewed to determine every aspect of their "program" that yields good students and good results.

As any coach will tell you, the preparation, motivation, prior experience, and parental involvement make a difference in the way you approach a group of athletes. Athletes who have never played the game, are not motivated, and have no parental environment will need different approach from athletes who have played the game, are highly motivated, and have much parental involvement. Some people may interpret this as putting the athletes down, but no, rather it is being honest about factors that play a big role in the way you approach the program. The same thing holds true for student, admitting that the student may not be as well prepared, or motivated, or as disciplined as other students is not a put down, rather it is being honest about factors that will shape your approach to teaching them.

Preparation, motivation, and consistency, are aspects that every student can improve, it is not genetic, as such it is not a put down. A true put down, is claiming that students are incapable of learning, or that genes control their achievement, or that they are inherently incapable of abstract problem solving - these are the cruelest put downs. These are the put-downs that some people gravitate to when they don't see improvement in results.


Now there are differences between sports programs and educational programs. Participation in sports programs is usually voluntary, while going to school is sometimes involuntary. So we might need a different approach in motivating students to participate in the sometimes intellectually rigorous educational process. The solution may lie in marketing - if it is possible for businesses and corporation to "make" people want things they don't need, then it should be possible for educational institutions to "make" students want something they DO need - education. In other words, we should "sell" education - not as a ploy to get a student or the student's parents to spend money, rather as a technique to get the student and the student's parents to undergo the rigorous process of education. The teacher may have to use sales techniques to convince the student that education is important and to undergo the rigors therein. Salesmen and teachers have this much in common, sometimes both are placed in situations where the "sales" are difficult, hence you may have a high turnover rate in difficult "markets".

The Big Picture

I suppose the grand overarching philosophy is this: Every problem in education should first be identified and then analyzed. Then we should realize that these problems have already been solved and finely tuned by some other group or institution. Our goal is to adapt and harmonize them to education.

John Gonzalez