Friday, September 18, 2009

Deep Practice for Teachers or. . . what we can learn from "Big Brown"

I've been thinking a great deal about how to train people to do things as of late.  And, as a teaching drop-out (I left public education after only a year of teaching), my thoughts have turned to my own teacher preparation experiences and how well they equipped me to be in a real classroom. 

 In the middle of all of this musing I came across a November 2007 Fortune magazine article  ("The Making of a UPS Driver"), that describes how UPS has adapted its training programs to address the problems of declining performance and high turnover among new drivers (which, by the way, is a job that is much more physically demanding and technical than I ever realized).  These two problems seemed very similar to those facing education and I wondered what we might be able to learn from UPS.  

The most interesting part of the article was the description of the UPS training center in Landover, Maryland.  Everything about the center seems to have been designed with learning and deep practice in mind.  I wonder how different our campus buildings would look if this were the case, particularly those classrooms where teacher education courses are taught.  The UPS training center is equipped with full-size "truck classrooms," mini-neighborhoods, and a driving course.  This all makes sense because aspiring drivers can practice being UPS drivers in the very same conditions that they'll be working in when they leave the training center and are delivering my Christmas presents and your office supplies.  Additionally, UPS gathers as much data about driver performance in these simulations as possible and then uses that data (e.g. videotape footage of truck exits, force sensor readings to measure impact on joints, etc.) to show learners how well they are doing and where they can improve.  They also put new drivers through simulations where they are forced to adapt to challenges and problems that they are almost certain to encounter (my favorite part of the article might been the description of the "fall simulator").

So, what can we learn from UPS that could be applied to training teachers?  First, where we train them is important.  A random building assigned by the campus scheduling office won't do.  We need rooms that have been designed as "teaching labs" that look like the classrooms where our teachers will teach, and that facilitate data gathering on teacher performance (in house video equipment comes to mind immediately, but someone more creative than me could think of what else this might mean).  Additionally, we need to think through the "trouble spots" that teachers are going to encounter (an angry parent, belligerent students, a faculty meeting gone awry, etc.), build these sorts of simulations or role-plays into the instruction, and then provide lots of opportunities for practice and feedback.

What I'm describing here is more than a semester of student teaching.  Although a nice capstone (potentially), more often than not it looks a little like throwing a child in the deep end without a life jacket and then checking on them every three weeks or so and providing a one page written evaluation of how well they kept their head above water.  What I'm suggesting are deep practice experiences that closely simulate real teaching and that provide near-instant feedback about how the teacher has performed, so that they can improve on the spot.  Data or feedback that help learners see how they are performing and make comparisons to expert performances and also see their own progression would be incredibly valuable (see Andy Gibbon's discussion of "contrast" and "trace" in this very interesting paper).   

Given the growing pressure to improve the educational system and ever loudening cries for better teachers, some kind of change is going to be necessary.  Something like a teaching lab would be an interesting thing to explore.  Additionally, as a concluding aside, universities might structure their faculty support centers (on my campus, the Faculty Center and Center for Teaching and Learning) in a way that these opportunities for deep practice are provided to faculty members.  

If you want something else to read along the lines of deep practice and training, check out this article from Play magazine on a backwoods Russian tennis academy that has produced more top players than nearly anywhere else in the world.

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