Here's the Trick to Becoming a Better Teacher on Your Own

Sep 22, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Michael J. Petrilli

As a high school English teacher, I was faced with a fundamental problem: Many of my kids weren’t actually reading the class material. Reading the assigned texts, of course, was key to much of the work in our class. Continuing to fall short simply would not cut it. I had to get better at motivating students toward completing assigned readings, period. And though I’d been using the directions given to me by my training, as well as my colleagues and my professional development, I still wasn’t getting my students to the intended destination.

The Motivation to Open a Book

I had to start looking for different solutions, and I realized I was going to have to find these different solutions on my own. So I delved into the world of educational research. Soon [pullquote position="left"]I had many different options to effectively motivate my students.[/pullquote] One of the first stops in my research convinced me I should be very wary of motivating my students in any way that compromised the academic intensity of the assignment. In other words, making up for students’ preferences by assigning high-engagement/low-resistance titles or skipping reading altogether to watch film adaptations were both out if I was to do this right.
  • When I turned my research attention to ways I could make rigorous texts and tasks more engaging to my students, I recognized (primarily through the work of E.D. Hirsch) that the disengagement I was observing might originate from background knowledge students simply don’t have. Accordingly, I designed background knowledge “scaffolds” and placed them strategically through every work we studied.
  • Research of cognitive science introduced me to framing effects and their impacts on human motivation and decision-making. I accordingly put more thought into how to frame content and lesson tasks—classroom policies, even—toward increasing students’ motivation. (For more on those efforts, see a post I did for the Learning Scientists blog earlier this year.)
  • Moved and justified by Cunningham and Stanovich’s work, I created a flexible “choice” space for students’ independent reading...
…And on and on. You get the idea. Really, my point here is that [pullquote]educational research, found independently, introduced me to more good ideas about what to use in my classroom[/pullquote] than pretty much everything before it combined. And the kinds of things I learned in this initial foray rippled way beyond my classroom, too. Within my building, for instance, pieces of my independent reading approach were adapted for full-school implementation. Further, my continued research ultimately led me to write a book on ed practice and reform that has allowed me to work with teachers and administrators across the U.S. and beyond. In light of how positively ed research has impacted my own practices and career, then, it’s always disappointing to learn of findings like those from the U.K.’s Education Endowment Fund, about lack of teacher engagement to research. Fairly, I haven’t seen a similar study in the U.S., but my experience—as well as pieces like a recent one from Fordham’s Mike Petrilli that contemplates the perpetual block to evidence-based practice—leads me to believe we’re no different here. So, teachers, the research that can change your practice for the better (and override the useless junk educators so often get fed) is out there. Go find it. After all, if we keep waiting for others to figure it out for us or give us the proper time and space to do it, we might well be waiting forever.
If you’re interested in engaging in your own study of ed research but aren’t quite sure where to start (it is fairly daunting, after all), you may want to check out the upcoming researchED conference in Washington, DC. I’ve spoken at a few of them so can say firsthand: For the interested ed practitioner-researcher, there’s no other place to get such a concentrated and/or high-quality dose of learning and networking. Seriously, do check it out.
An original version of this post appeared on TES as Education Research Transformed my Teaching. Now It Can Do the Same for Yours.

Michael J. Petrilli

Michael J. Petrilli served at the U.S. Department of Education in the George W. Bush Administration. He is also president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the executive editor of Education Next. An award-winning writer, Petrilli is also the author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma and editor of Education for Upward Mobility. He has published opinion pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg View and Slate, and appears frequently on television and radio. Petrilli helped to create the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Policy Innovators in Education Network, and, long, long ago, Young Education Professionals. He serves on the advisory boards of the Association of American Educators, MDRC, and the Texas Institute for Education Reform. Petrilli lives with his family in Bethesda, Maryland.

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