December 5, 2023

The Art of Teaching

I talk and think a lot about our art. As a scientist I also think and write a lot about data and research. I know some people think these are mutually exclusive but, in my opinion, anyone that says that doesn’t really have a good grasp of either.

Last Formative Friday, the Team Test I created for the week turned out to be a really good one. It allowed even my most mathematically challenged teams to find success while at the same time challenged my most successful. This low floor – high ceiling balance is always a bit tricky to get right but that, my friends, is the Art of Teaching for my program.

My program is entirely based on progress over time, not mastery, and Formative Friday is a big part of that. Creating assessments that move knowledge forward, build student confidence to engage and challenge them just enough is truly an art. While I have a decent sized bank of 3-read tests that I have created over the years, I can’t just roll them out on schedule because every year students have different needs at different times so they need to be carefully analyzed and modified as necessary to meet student needs. 

I know software companies, textbook companies and other entities that want to profit financially off of us and our students try to convince us that if only we used their algorithm our students would learn more. While all data is useful, too many people put too much faith in too little data. The human condition is insanely complicated and our math can’t even scratch the surface of the billions of variables that affect our students’ success in our classrooms. This is where the art of teaching comes in.  I am lucky enough to teach somewhere that allows me to be the teacher my students need me to be and constantly modify my program to meet their needs. No, I don’t give them huge multiple choice diagnostic tests (though I have tried in the past). Nor do I base my daily decisions on some outside entity. I allow the millions of daily observations of my students doing math to tell me what I need to do. The “Real Math” that goes on in our brains, taking all of those observations, recognizing patterns and molding them into a plan all comes together on Formative Fridays and Wild Card Wednesdays for me. We can not allow someone else’s, profit driven product, to determine what is best for our students. Our “Math” is far more powerful than theirs and we must allow that majesty to drive our classrooms. That is our Art.

As with all Art the more we develop ours the better it gets. As I mentor young teachers I am always excited when they start to develop their art. The way a room “feels” or how certain sounds alert us or how to accept that what worked last period/year failed miserably in this class and that’s okay. As time goes by and their tool kit develops so does their internal “maths” as our British friends would say. As they start to recognize patterns and adapt their programs to fit them they are developing their art. When districts/administrators try to cram a one size fits all approach (pacing guides, common assessments etc) instead of helping teachers develop their art I think we all lose, our students most of all and the data proves it.