Practice Files: A culture of practice

Practice Files: A culture of practice

If we accept that practice is a critical part of teacher training, how do we ensure everyone benefits?  Unfamiliar, challenging and potentially uncomfortable, practice may prove a tough sell.  A culture of practice is crucial – an atmosphere in which participants feel safe experimenting with new techniques, welcome feedback and enjoy what they do.  In focusing on objectives and activities while preparing sessions however, we can overlook creating a culture of practice.

I learned a lot about this from Teach Like a Champion’s Practice Perfect workshop, which is designed to help teachers change by making practice feel safe, normal and desirable.  Those signing up for these workshops know what to expect however, and preparing sessions for Teach for Sweden presented different challenges: practice-based training is little-known and participants have not explicitly signed up for it.  This post explores the Teach Like a Champion approach to creating a culture of practice and how I’ve tried to adapt it to Swedish and British contexts; aspects may apply to any professional development workshop.

1) Introducing the idea

Teach Like a Champion leaders emphasised the ubiquity of practice throughout the workshop.  They described teaching as a ‘performance profession’: like acting, there is no ‘pause button’ so we must rehearse; like football, the best players practise obsessively.  Invited to describe a time we had practised something to mastery – my partner mentioned a dance routine – we realised how great practice can feel and how powerful it is.  This was reinforced (fairly) subtly over the next couple of days: one icebreaker asked us to ‘Find something in your bag which shows you practice a lot’; a ‘Name that film’ game showed movie clips of practice.  So the workshop drew on our previous experience to help us feel like ‘practisers’ and highlighted the importance of practice in other fields.

With Teach for Sweden, I discussed a broader range of professions, to show that practice is key to preparing for any role in which challenges are numerous, rapid and sometimes hard to predict.

TFS Sessions 2015

I underscored this using part of this talk, on why surgeons practise their suturing.  I also emphasised social norms by highlighting the use of practice among teacher training organisations:

TFS Sessions 2015

I also brought up common objections, acknowledging that practising teaching can be artificial, discomforting and challenging; I argued this made it all the more important we practise now, among friends, than wait and hope the classroom provides a more natural, comfortable and easy environment.

2) Designing sessions

Teach Like a Champion workshops are structured to ease participants into practice.  The first activity, teaching while using gestures – a hand up asking students to pause, a smile to acknowledge – was simple, unthreatening and quickly involved all participants.  More challenging tasks came later, and feedback was discouraged until we were comfortable with practice and one another.  Throughout, leaders praised successes they had seen publicly, while couching criticisms as suggestions to the whole group.  No one was asked to deal with their worst nightmare situation, or to practise in front of the whole group: everything possible was done to make practice feel safe and comfortable.

I copied this approach, introducing practice with simple tasks: my first activity was simply to ask participants to stand and read their vision for their students aloud to a partner.

TFS Sessions 2015 real

This had some intrinsic merit – I wanted trainees to think about how they conveyed their inspiration – but it also provided an easy beginning.  I held off on practising classroom management until our second day, by which time trainees were accustomed to acting as ‘teachers’.  I tried to pitch activities to ensure participants’ success, and introduced feedback carefully, later in sessions.

3) Keeping the main thing, the main thing

There was one absence at the Teach Like a Champion workshop: no time was spent asking ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’  Having spent years refining their approach, leaders were pretty sure it was; general discussion would have been a poor use of time.  There was time to personalise techniques and challenges were welcomed – but they were answered briefly in public, followed by longer conversations individually.

I was inspired to move away from debating pros and cons and focus on practice.  People smart and caring enough to become teachers can discuss the ethics of education all day; as I argued previously, my role is helping them turn these ideas into realities by using our limited time to practise.  A powerful, shared experience of practice can leave me analysing for days; profound analysis rarely leads teachers to practise later.  Practice also helps us refine ideas: I turned a ninety minute discussion-based workshop on vision from 2014 into a practice-based session in which participants drafted, articulated, rewrote as a story and delivered it; paradoxically, with less time debating, but more realism and more iterations, trainees were left clearer than they had been the previous year.

4) Addressing reluctance

‘Know the end goal’, Katie Yezzi told us, ‘your people will practice.  The practice itself will get them to believe – once you start, the process itself builds buy in.  As the leader, operate with faith that they will feel a sense of triumph after practice’.  At the workshop, we talked about ways to approach this – you can prepare for and practise a conversation about the merits of practice in the same way you can prepare for one on the merits of studying algebra.  While it’s tempting to allow adults to choose their level of engagement in professional development, another analogy to teaching in schools applies: just as a teenager may not be best-placed to judge what is worthy of their effort – and be reluctant to begin a piece of work that may appear difficult, so novice teachers – and colleagues who have never learned through practice – surely cannot judge whether practice will work for them without taking part.  Teachers are responsible for creating worthwhile tasks, nudging students to engage in them and ensuring their effort is met with success; professional development leaders have the same responsibility towards trainees or colleagues.

A friend asked me to attend to a pair of trainees who were reluctant to practise in a workshop she was running for Teach First this summer.  I first asked ‘Whose turn is it?’, a non-judgemental Practice Perfect gem.  One told me practice ‘didn’t really work’ for her.  Applying Point 3, I told her I heard that a lot, respected it and was happy to discuss it at length, but right now, I wanted her to have a go.  She did: well, shyly.  We paused after about fifteen seconds and told her it was good – it was – that I could picture her in front of her class, and that I wanted her to have another go and to add a smile to her pupils at the end.  Another round, and I asked her to change her stance slightly.  Within sixty seconds I could see her smiling at her own achievement and getting better as a teacher.  Her equally reluctant partner did the same a moment later.  For some reason, she didn’t stay to discuss the merits of practice when we finished – instead I found myself continuing to practise with one of her peers who stayed and asked for more.  I encountered more reluctance in Sweden – for reasons I’ll explore elsewhere – but applied fairly similar techniques, with similar results.

The importance of culture

In the last year I’ve come to appreciate how practice and feedback help us learn; I’ve particularly appreciated working with a handful of peers who’ve reached similar conclusions – who embrace practice reflexively and thrive on feedback.  I’ve seen people get hooked, and what it does to their teaching – I want to share that with trainees.

The measures I’ve described above ensured everyone practised and presumably increased their comfort.  It certainly represented progress on my initial attempts.  But I feedback was less successful than I’d have liked – nor did I manage to weave reinforcement into activities as much as I’d have hoped.  There’s no point in designing for a culture of practice without strong activities, but culture is also critical and can get drowned out by the content.  Planning for a culture of practice is a key aspect of successful teacher training.

My first post in this series explained why I think practice is key to teacher training; Docendo Discimus has written a thoughtful critique of it here.

Post 3) Planning Practice, Practising Vision – set out how to plan a practice session.
Post 4) Making Verbal Feedback Work – explained how to design feedback in teacher training.

The next Teach Like a Champion Practice Perfect workshop is in November (in Albany), there’s another in June.