Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Experience Counts

April 20, 2012
Among the more bizarre trends in education reform debate has been the emergence of an argument that experience doesn’t really matter.  The problem appears to be that some researchers have not found ways to measure the importance of experience very effectively, and so, cheered on by cost-cutting and union-bashing allies, they tell us that after the first few years, teacher experience doesn’t matter.  They have the test scores to prove it, they say.
I’m not here to argue the opposite.  I’ve seen new teachers who have a skill set that rivals some of their veteran colleagues.  However, I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t believe they could still improve.  After all, we’re in the learning business.  With experience comes not only time to learn more content and more pedagogy, but also to learn more about children, psychology and brain neurology, about working effectively with peers, administrators, and the community.
Think of other professions, and let me know if you know of any where experience isn’t valued.  If education research isn’t showing the value of experience, then I think we should be asking questions like, “What’s wrong with their research methods?  What’s wrong with the measures they’ve chosen?  What’s wrong with schools and education systems that they can’t put experience to better use?”
This morning, I heard an interesting story about the oil industry, and the experience gap that is emerging among its engineers and other workers.  To my untrained eye, this seems like an industry where experience wouldn’t matter.  You’re dealing with physics, chemistry, machinery, manual labor – does the oil rig know or care how old or how experienced the workers are?  Is there any chance that the properties of oil are unpredictable?  If you can build, repair, or operate machinery in another industry, is the oil industry machinery so different?
Apparently, yes.  Experience matters in industry.  If that’s the case, think how much more experience might matter when you’re dealing with people, shaping the minds and characters of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of children over a career.
Here’s the portion of the story that really caught my attention:
Investigations into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster point to a series of mistakes, including a failed blow-out preventer and results of a key test that managers ignored.
But investigations by the U.S. Department of the Interior and a presidential commission also point to an issue that has received much less attention: there was a reorganization of personnel on the rig just before the accident. While the new crew leaders had years of experience, they were new to their positions.
“When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, no one in the BP engineering team had been on the job for more than six months,” says John Konrad, a former drill ship captain and co-author of Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster.
That’s interesting to note: the workers were not inexperienced overall, but new to the setting where they were working.  Education reformers who imagine they can “turnaround” a school by churning the staff and replacing half of the teachers, or more, should stop and ponder this situation.
How would experience matter in this situation?  The report does not go on to answer that question, but let me venture a few guesses.  There are idiosyncrasies of place, unique characteristics that might take time to recognize or appreciate.  On an oil rig, or out in the field, there may be variations based on changes in atmospheric or environmental conditions.  There may be quirks in the facility or equipment.  In a school, those idiosyncrasies might be physical, but more likely involve students, families, community members and leaders.  Experience should help a teacher navigate that landscape, identify potential resources, anticipate and solve problems.
Experience also matters because sometimes the reasons for what we do are no longer apparent.  There may be safety procedures, hierarchies, work-flows that might seem outdated or illogical, but have a strong rationale.  If a teacher is new to a school, it may be unclear why certain organizational or pedagogical choices have been made.  Understanding the reason you’re doing something is quite helpful for student motivation and learning, and similarly helpful for teachers in the workplace.  Institutional memory is valuable; however, real institutional wisdom would also make a point of allowing for critical self-examination, so that experience doesn’t lead to complacency.
With so much in life, we learn by doing.  I know that my success in parenting depends on lessons I learn through experience.  Prior to parenting, I had actually done a significant amount of child care, including infant care.  I had years of experience working with children of many different age groups, in a variety of settings not limited to schools.  And even that experience, as valuable as it was, combined with books and articles on parenting and psychology, didn’t really prepare me for what I had to learn by doing.
There are many interactions I have with students and parents where the wealth of experience plays a significant role.  I talk to students differently now than I did ten years ago.  I know more about when and how to listen rather than talk, when and how to allow students to work out their own problems, when and how to step in to provide essential support.  I relate to students differently, with a clearer sense of what is essential, what is non-negotiable, and what situations call for more flexibility or creative approaches.  I relate to parents, administrators, and community members in different ways now than I did ten years ago, with a greater understanding of what we can do for each other, and how to work together effectively.  I have a greater ability to set parents’ minds at ease, and a clearer sense of how to ask them to relinquish control in certain situations and let the students take over.
My ability to connect with students, to read them and help them in school and in life, may not be measurable by any standardized measure.  There may not be many researchers with the time, resources, or inclination to shadow me every day, to record and analyze every interaction, and to do the same for many other teachers to generate some useful comparisons.  What of that?  It’s time for the producers and consumers of educational research to admit some limitations, and concede that, in education as in other professions, we know experience matters, that people improve at something the more they practice it, and gain wisdom and insight over time.  It’s time for them to ask how we can make sure that, unlike the oil industry, our experience gap does not contribute to a disaster in the making.  It’s time to focus on preserving our experience and knowledge base, to find better ways to observe and tout the benefits of experience, and put that experience to better use to promote stronger schools and better learning.
One idea whose time has come is to promote the idea of teacher leaders in hybrid positions.  By expanding our notions of the roles and responsibilities of teachers, we can keep more expertise in the classroom and put that same expertise to better use beyond the single classroom.  Such are the recommendations in a report by the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative.  Read more about their work, and watch a short video clip from their presentation at an event we put on together to promote greater quality teaching for California’s future.

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