Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More effective, more satisfying, and less isolated teaching...

by Shirlee Geiger, chair faculty Learning Assessment Council 2011-12

Suppose there was a way to become a more effective teacher, to make every class you teach more satisfying and enjoyable to you -- in addition to being more effective for the students -- and to end the feeling of isolation that is commonly reported by teachers. Would you do it?

The New Yorker from Oct 3 has one of those long, fascinating articles they often publish. All these benefits to educators are listed in the 4th full page of the piece (page 49). My partner pointed the essay out to me, saying it was relevant to the work of the Learning Assessment Council at PCC. Since the assessment work has taken over my life, I sat myself on down and read the essay.

The essay is by Atul Gawande, who has gotten quite famous of late writing about common-sense ways to improve patient outcomes in medicine. (He is the son of my aunt's doctor in Ohio, so I have heard about him for a while now.) The pressures on medical practice in the U.S. provide a striking parallel to the the pressures on higher ed -- how to get better outcomes, while increasing access, and all at lower costs. One of the common responses to these pressures in both fields is to assess outcomes in order to identify practices that work best, and then roll those out in order to increase both effectiveness and efficiency.

Dr. Gawande is writing about the benefits of coaching. He enlisted a tennis coach, sort of by accident, who in just minutes was able to show him how to increase the speed of his serve by 10 mph. After that, Gawande wondered if coaching might help him improve his surgical outcomes in the same way it improved his tennis game. (As a competitive fellow, Dr. Gawande had been comparing his medical outcomes to the national statistics for a variety of procedures, and discovered that he had plateaued as a surgeon -- while still beating the national average, he was no longer increasing the rate by which he was beating them.) (Please note that assessment of outcomes is the whole back story here!)

He followed up his curiosity by engaging a surgical coach. And he got better.

It is the middle of his essay, however, that is devoted to coaching in the education world. It is almost like Gawande had heard about Critical Friends Groups -- which are starting to form at PCC right now. The parallels between medical coaching and the Critical Friends Groups are what my partner had spotted when recommending the essay to me. 14 faculty and APs from PCC were trained as coaches this past summer in the Critical Friends techniques.

If you join one of our CFG groups, what can you expect? Well, Gawande quotes a veteran teacher at length, talking about her experience. Here is some stuff from page 49:

Elite performers, researches say, must engage in "deliberate practice" -- sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you're not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you're falling short.... [this is] discomfiting information to convey, and [it must be done] directly but respectfully.

[A teacher was asked if she liked the coaching she received.] "I do," she said. "It works with my personality." [....] She told me that she had begun to burn out. "I felt really isolated, too." Coaching had changed that. "My stress level is a lot less now." That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. "The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is."

In the Critical Friends Groups, all participants take turns as both coaches and coached. This is different than the model Dr. Gawande describes in his essay. But in other ways, the idea is the same. The groups foster the kind of respect and trust needed to be willing to talk about not just your strengths as a teacher, but the areas where you can improve. The Critical Friends technique is nationally recognized, and is one of several similar initiatives that have been developed in the past decade based on this idea of professional development. It was selected by the Learning Assessment Council as the best fit with PCC and our work together.

Now the question is:

Who wouldn't want work that is more satisfying, more effective, and less lonely?

Do you want to be the best teacher you can be? Join a Critical Friends Group. For more information, contact Sally Earll at 971-722-7812or

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