Making a “quarter turn” in your teaching practice: little changes that have huge impact

The year my daughter, Jill, turned 12 she discovered cheesecake.   Jill’s first 12 attempts at baking cheesecake were dismal failures and our family ate our fair share of under-cooked soupy cheesecakes and over-cooked dry cheesecakes and there was the one where she forgot the sugar.  Yet Jill forged ahead undaunted, convinced that the next cheesecake would be the perfect one.  And eventually it was.

All of us have had experiences of trying new skills and recognize that it takes time and patience to develop them.  Except, perhaps in our teaching practice where we are often unwilling to make changes or when we do try something new it doesn’t turn out like  the recipe, we go back to the old and comfortable way of doing things.  I’m not exactly sure what the difference between baking cheesecake and changing teaching practice is but I surmise the following:

  • We are emotionally tied to our practice and it defines us.  We don’t want to fail.
  • We feel that it is not just us, but our students, who will suffer if it doesn’t go well.
  • It feels like we lost time trying something new that didn’t work.

The reality is that our students don’t have access to our day plans and are probably unaware of when a lesson didn’t go as we thought it should.  And, if it isn’t going well and the teacher just stops and does something else (read a story, do jumping jacks, run around the school, play a game, start the homework early), the students will be just fine.

One of the problems with changes in teacher practice is that we often elect to make a 5 course meal, not a cheesecake.  Teachers often try, or administrators and districts suggest, big “blow up your course” changes.  That is hard work and more likely to have a lot of bumps along the way.  Instead I suggest the “quarter turn change”.  What change can you make that is small but that you think might have a huge impact?  What can you do that is just a slight deviation from how you normally do things?  When you make that change what happens with your students?  Does that little change inspire you to make another change?

A teacher I worked with, Karen, taught grade 6.  She wanted to move towards inquiry-based learning in her flight unit but was nervous about leaving something that was tried and true.  So I suggested a “quarter turn”.  She always taught her unit and then at the end culminated with a big “fly off” in the gym with student-made paper airplanes incorporating all the principles of flight.  The “quarter turn” was to start the unit with making a paper airplane.  Throughout the unit, taught the same way as always, students continued to refine their paper airplanes, tryout  modifications and share what they were discovering.  This small change had huge impact in both student engagement and learning.  We still had the big “fly off” at the end but the planes were of a much better quality and there was a great deal more pride in the students’ creations.  Plus, students were much better able to explain why their plane could fly.

A group of junior math teachers wanted to start spiraling their math course but it seemed like an overwhelming task ( TEDx talk). The “quarter turn” was to only spiral for 5 to 15 minutes a day.  We spent a morning exploring some short, fun and engaging activities students could do to increase conceptual understanding and fluency in math.  We played with creating human number lines to explore ordering and comparing numbers, we practiced number talks, we did some work with puzzle pieces on a hundreds board, we played some estimating games, and did activities such as building two digit numbers with only 6 base ten blocks.  Then we made a list of curriculum expectations that could be addressed with these types of short activities repeated many times over the course of the year.  Teachers went back to their math classrooms with a small change but the impact was huge:  students were engaged and loved the activities; teachers were covering curriculum expectations throughout the course of the year which freed more time for their longer units of study during the rest of the math black.

A secondary math team was not ready to dive into learning through problem solving full tilt but decided to start their unit on linear relations with one problem.  They called it their “mentor problem”.  Throughout the rest of the unit, which they taught as they always had, they returned to this “mentor problem” to highlight key concepts.  Students were better able to connect to these key concepts as they returned to their thinking during this one task over and over.  A “quarter turn” changed practice.

A grade eight teacher, Monica,  was intrigued with incorporating mindfulness into her classroom practice but wasn’t willing to “give up” 10 -15 minutes of instructional time a day.  So she made a “quarter turn” in her thinking.  She devoted the 10-15 minutes for one week only  to teaching some mindfulness practices but then turned it back to the students, allowing them the permission and space to take a mindful moment when they needed.  She was thrilled when those students who needed it, took their mindful moments and found that it did not interrupt the flow of her day.  Every few weeks she incorporated a whole class refresher mindfulness session to keep the thinking alive.  She didn’t need to blow up her program; her willingness to make a small adjustment in her own thinking about how to incorporate mindfulness into her program worked.

“Quarter turns” are bigger than “baby steps”.  I dislike that terminology because it is usually in relation to a top down change.  I often hear that a staff or a group of teachers or an individual teacher is making “baby steps” towards a new initiative.  It usually means that nothing of any significance is happening.  A “quarter turn” is teacher driven.

Like learning to make cheesecake, changing our practice and adopting new pedagogical ideas takes courage and time.  We need to give ourselves and the teachers we work with permission to make a “quarter turn”. Think of one small move you could make within your existing program that you think might make a big difference.  Give it a try and see what happens; no one will die and you might be surprised.

2 Comments

Filed under pedagogy, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Making a “quarter turn” in your teaching practice: little changes that have huge impact

  1. Bryan Rankine

    Do quarter turns have to be +, or can they be -? When we shift practice, can be toning it down or ramping it up? “Nobody will die”

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