Reaching Your Teaching Prime

Last week, I started reading the Sports Gene by David Epstein and jotted a few notes down about the development of teachers in relation to the chess masters Epstein was discussing. Last Monday, Matthew Kay tweeted this thread:

My twitter presence is pretty scarce lately, but Matthew R. Kay is single handedly starting to pull me back in. More importantly, his tweet aligned with my thinking and motivated me even more to write this post. Like Kay, I love sports and teaching, so analogies like his are always welcome, and most things I read get connected back to sports, teaching, or both. Epstein’s book naturally led me in that direction.

Epstein explores a great deal of research in regard to the development of athletes and takes the nature vs nurture battle with as much information as he can find. He points out the obvious – tall people are more likely to be better basketball players – and the much less obvious – our muscle types (fast- and slow-twitch) can define the likelihood of success in shorter or longer distance track and field events. He also delves into the 10,000 hour rule about developing experience in any given field. I do wonder what ‘natural’ traits might lead to a successful teaching career, but, as Kay focused on in his tweet, I want to focus on what helps a teacher reach their prime.

You may know the 10,000 hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The truth is that Gladwell’s take is overly simplistic, as pointed out by Anders Ericsson, the author of the study from which Gladwell based much of his book. It is frequently used because it supports people who believe hard work and effort (Nurture) are the key to success, and it sounds good. It makes it feel like anyone can accomplish a goal if they just put in the time. The number however, is an average, not actually a rule. Epstein explains that some studies have shown individuals to reached a mastery level in as little as 3,000 hours, while it took 23,000 hours for others in the same field.

Epstein reiterates Ericsson’s broader point, which I think most of us know naturally: lots of practice only gets you so far and never guarantees success. Purposeful practice is the real key to success, but even that has its limits (i.e. the 5’6″ basketball hopeful may just never overcome their height disadvantage, despite Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues proving it is possible.) This is not to bash Outliers, which I really enjoyed reading, although I wish it had included some of the nuance that has been highlighted since. The book does emphasize the many coincidences that need to align for someone to get so much purposeful practice.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how many hours it might take a given educator to reach mastery, and I don’t know which traits will make it more likely to reach that success earlier in a career. But I can speak from my own experience and hope to consider a few ways that we can help those who choose to be educators reach their prime as soon as possible.

Reading the Room

In The Sports Gene, Epstein describes how researchers have tested players to determine the difference between their abilities to understand and then react quickly and effectively to a game scenario. Using memory and vision tests, scientists have been able to determine how elite athletes and players can read the many pieces of information to make a great decision faster than their opponents.

Epstein told the story of Albert Pujols, one of the all-time great baseball hitters facing Jennie Finch, one of the all-time great softball pitchers. Long story short, Pujols could only foul off a few attempts, but didn’t really come close to hitting her pitches. Pujols, compared to most other athletes, has an average reaction time. What made him an amazing hitter is the skill he developed over years of practice. He mastered reading the cues from pitchers and the flight of the baseball to predict where the ball was going in order to hit it. When facing a softball pitcher, all of the cues that Pujols typically used were gone.

the only way to hit a ball traveling at high speed is to be able to see into the future, and when a baseball player faces a softball pitcher, he is stripped of his crystal ball.”

To a typical human like you and me, a major league pitch is essentially un-hittable. It is literally too fast for us to see; the human eye cannot track a ball from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. To Albert Pujols, who reads all the cues that we don’t, the flight of ball is predictable and thus, hittable.

When teacher Matthew Kay says that “Things have slowed down. A lot.” he is reading all of the cues that used to be un-seeable. To a first year teacher, in a room of 20 students (if they are lucky it is that few), the number of things to take in is immense. From the volume of the room, to the movement, to the actual words being said, let alone a lesson plan, these all factor into the direction (positive or negative) of a class. So how does Kay slow it all down? Just like Pujols doesn’t watch everything a pitcher does, he focuses on the important parts. He doesn’t really watch the trajectory of the ball, but he does recognize the pattern created by the red laces on the ball to determine what type of pitch it is and how it is going to move.

Chess masters give us another glimpse into this skill. International chess masters have developed the skill of reading a board faster and more effectively than others. Just like Pujols reaction time, great chess players often have equal memory skills to lower, club level players (club players are serious about chess, but nowhere near internationally successful). What the master chess player, and great athletes in general do most effectively is: “rather than grappling with a large number of individual pieces, experts unconsciously group information into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based on patterns that they have seen before.” They have trained their brain to see the important information, and to see the relationships between it all.

Where the novice is overwhelmed by new information and randomness, the master sees familiar order and structure that allows him to home in on information that is critical for the decision at hand.

“As experts gain experience, they are quicker to separate wheat from the chaff. Experts swiftly move their attention away from irrelevant info and cut to the data that is most important in determining their next move. While novices dwell on individual pieces or a player, experts focus more attention on the spaces between pieces and players that are relative. Most importantly in sports, perceiving order allows elite athletes to extract critical information from the arrangement of players or from the subtle changes in an opponent’s body movements in order to make unconscious decisions about what will happen next.”

It is clear from watching an experienced teacher that they know how to focus on the spaces between the pieces and students in the room. A common refrain in baseball is to keep your eye on the ball. Epstein explains that human eyes are actually incapable of that exact feat. Albert Pujols doesn’t keep his eye on the ball; he knows where the ball is going before it gets there. Kay describes “‘seeing’ the books I teach well.” In some ways, he is seeing what can be successful before he teaches it. In another way, he is seeing what will be successful because he has seen it so many times.

Great teachers have a successful anticipatory skill set that allows them to see where to steer a discussion, or when to shift the lesson because the kids need something different that day. In his own book, Not Light, but Fire, Kay offers examples of his own successful and unsuccessful lessons, as he attempts to guide students through difficult conversations. Kay describes, in my opinion, the art and science of teaching. He provides specific strategies and approaches that any teacher could use, but to be really effective, you have to work through those lessons, strategies, and approaches, to know when and where to step in, or what specific questions or responses will steer the work in a more productive direction.

Baseball players study a pitcher’s tendencies. Chess masters study the many potential moves on a board. Teachers get to know their students and create a great lesson plans. Great players and teachers use information as slight as the students’ body language when they enter the room or an unexpected change (a fire drill, crowd noise) to adjust. Often, those adjustments are due to years of experience and, unfortunately, failed attempts or lucky successes.

It is obvious to say that more experienced teachers are typically more effective. Teaching programs attempt to give young educators the chance to develop some of these skills, but with such limited time in the classroom to really test these skills out, can teaching programs effectively prepare teachers for their first classes? Which programs are doing this effectively? Do we even have the tools available to do this research?

Are we asking teachers in their ‘prime’ what makes them feel so confident and effective right now? Can we apply that knowledge to supporting younger teachers? Can we redesign teacher preparation programs with this in mind? I know educators are working on this, but as an educator tasked with hiring young teachers, I am not hearing about this work and what is changing.

I didn’t intend to end the post with a bunch of questions or shift away from the positive feeling of reaching a teacher’s prime. Sometimes my writing leads in a direction I don’t expect. If I really want to pursue this information, I know I can do some more research around programs and what is seen as effective right now. I know there are lots of teachers who love education and want to reach their prime and not have to wait until they teach for 10,000 hours. (By the way, that would take 11 years of teaching if you taught 180 days a year for 5 hours every school day.) Getting teachers into their prime in their first few years of teaching should be the goal. If you have thoughts or resources that might guide me in the right direction, I’m ready for it.

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