Complexity and the Problems of Teaching

A recent project of mine has been to work on developing tools to evaluate my teaching and help focus my energy as I try to get better. There are plenty of resources to build off of. Deborah Ball’s Teaching Works project names nineteen high-leverage practices that span instruction, relationship building and planning, and could be used with multiple content ares.The Danielson Framework provides another lens, this time breaking teaching into four different parts and attempting to describe what goes into each part. But the best resource for me has been Principles to Actions, and its eight teaching practices.

I spent a bunch of time over the last few months developing these into a rubric that adds more detail than the teaching practices alone, but is more compact than the book. My current draft of the rubric is linked here — it consists of the eight practices with 3-5 bullets for each practice, sourced from Principles to Actions and other resources.

I hoped to use this as both a reflection tool for myself, and a tool for soliciting feedback from others, in particular when my Professional Learning Community at my school observed me. While I’ve found it useful for big-picture reflection, I’ve tweaked the wording and structure of each practice more times than I can count. I’ve found the ideas here difficult to communicate to teachers who aren’t already familiar with the Principles to Actions practices, and not particularly useful for non-math teachers — it’s just too hard to communicate a vision of great teaching in so few words.

This last week I’ve been digging into Magdalene Lampert’s great book, Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching
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Lampert uses the word “complex” to describe teaching. While her book precedes much of the recent writing on the difference between “complicated” and “complex”, her reasoning fits into neatly into that narrative.

One reason teaching is a complex practice is that many of the problems a teacher must address to get students to learn occur simultaneously, not one after another. Because of this simultaneity, several different problems must be addressed by a single action. And a teacher’s actions are not taken independently; they are inter-actions with students, individually and as a group. A teacher acts in different social arrangements in the same time frame. A teacher also acts in different time frames and at different levels of ideas with individuals, groups, and the class to make each lesson coherent, to link one lesson to another, and to cover a curriculum over the course of a year (2).

I had been treating the evaluation of teaching as a complicated problem. If I could just break it down into the right parts, of the right size, I could build a perfect tool to analyze my teaching. But it’s not complicated. It is a complex problem with innumerable parts, small and large, that interact with each other continuously during the teaching day.

Lampert frames her approach differently.

Different teachers, in different kinds of communities, with students of different ages, teaching different subjects, work on the same kinds of problems, although the problems themselves, and certainly their solutions, will be different (6).

Instead of trying to establish the outputs of teaching, she considers the inputs. Teachers have a set of similar challenges in deciding what actions to take each day, and examining these inputs from a critical perspective, and developing greater skill and wisdom in meeting these challenges, presents a very different approach to improvement in teaching.

Lampert’s book examines ten problems of teaching, and does so through an in-depth look at a year in her teaching practice. The book uses extensive transcripts of her lessons and a detailed look into her thought processes to examine how she worked to solve these problems, what went well, and what could be improved. The problems she identifies, though she acknowledges this is not a complete list, are:

Teaching to Establish a Classroom Culture
Teaching While Preparing for a Lesson
Teaching While Students Work Independently
Teaching While Leading a Whole-Class Discussion
Teaching to Deliberately Connect Content Across Lessons
Teaching to Cover the Curriculum
Teaching Students to Be People Who Study in School
Teaching the Nature of Accomplishment
Teaching the Whole Class
Teaching Closure

Lampert offers no quick-and-dirty solutions, no simple tips or tricks, and no bulleted lists. Instead, with constant humility, she examines the challenges she faces, and her best attempts to meet those challenges.

This sounds like a fun project. Take one teacher’s examination of the challenges of her teaching experience, and see what I can learn from it.

3 thoughts on “Complexity and the Problems of Teaching

  1. Robert Kaplinsky

    I love this post. I have also been heavily into complicated versus complex. Clearly people prefer to view the world from a complicated lens because it is much easier to address. It appears that the biggest and most challenging issues in the world ranging from healthy eating to climate change to terrorism to math education are all complex.

    I appreciate your reflection on the challenges of using a tool better suited for complicated situation in a complex world. I am planning a post on how people approach depth of knowledge like it’s complicated when it’s really complex.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Robert. I was reminded of your talk at CMC-South on the complexity of depth of knowledge — and have been thinking about that since the conference, I’m looking forward to hearing some more of your thoughts on it.

  2. Pingback: Teaching Problems, Other Classrooms, and a Blogging Initiative | Global Math Department

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