How to Use “Deliberate Learning” to Improve Your Teaching


Do you give a quick glance in the mirror before you leave the house? It’s a simple task that allows us to notice the crooked tie, toothpaste on the cheek, or hair sticking up. The mirror is how we get objective feedback on our appearance. And many people would feel self-conscious, almost incomplete, if they went too long without seeing their reflection.

But we often pass through weeks or months of our teaching without looking in the proverbial mirror and reflecting on our progress. The excuses for not taking time to reflect are predictable and understandable: you don’t have enough time, you don’t know how to reflect, and you feel that you don’t need to do it.

Today I’ll share with you research suggesting that those who continue to gain experience while stopping to reflect just a little bit after their work improve more than those who simply acquire more experience without reflecting.

In an article titled, “Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning,” Di Stefano, Pisano, Gino and Staats (hereby referred to as “the researchers”) begin with an hypothetical that feels analogous to teaching:

Consider for instance a cardiac surgeon in training. She has completed ten operations under the eye of an instructor…Imagine she was given a choice in planning her agenda for the next two weeks. She could spend that time doing ten additional surgeries, or she could take the same amount of time alternating between a few additional surgeries and time spent reflecting on them to better understand what she did right or wrong…What would be the optimal use of her time?

Teachers rarely, if ever, have the choice of whether they would like to teach an additional period or spend that time reflecting on the courses we already teach. But I think I find the connection here: teachers constantly confront issues in their teaching. We have unruly classes, failed lessons, broken filing cabinets, and meetings that suck up our time.  Some things are out of our control, but some of it just needs some careful examination.

Another connection is for new and pre-service teachers. Why should they be thrown right into giving a full teaching load? What if they teach part-time and spend the rest of their time reflecting on those 2-3 classes that they teach?

If your coffee is getting cold and you’re in a rush, the researchers were kind enough to reveal their results in the first few paragraphs of the report:

Our findings show that individuals who are given time to articulate and codify their experience with a task improve their performance significantly more than those who are given the same amount of time to accumulate additional experience with the task.

So how did the researchers come to these findings?

The experiment

The researchers used workers from an India-based customer support call center for their experiment. According to the researchers, these employees needed both a college degree and over a month of job-specific training. They encountered both simple and complex problems throughout their typical day.  The researchers divided a cohort of new employees into two groups.

The only differences between their experiences? One group spent the last 15 minutes of every day reflecting on their learning for that day.

Notice that “the experiment” section of this article is laughably small, because the change is laughably simple.

And again, let’s carry this over to teaching. Even with all of our responsibilities, many teachers could find an extra fifteen minutes, or even an extra five minutes, to jot down their thoughts about the day (or the week) in a journal or digital document.

The results

The trainees in the reflection group did, on average, over 23% better on a post-training assessment than trainees in the non-reflection group.

And for those in the educational world obsessed with the magical learning word transfer…the reflection group were also 19% more likely to get “top-rated” by the clients they interacted with in actual on the job tasks.

Learning by doing vs. learning by reflecting

First, the researchers do not suggest that the only way we learn is by stopping to reflect, but they suggest that the combination of learning by doing and learning by reflecting on the doing is the more powerful combo. They refer to learning by doing as System 1 thinking and learning by reflecting as System 2 thinking:

System 1 thinking is the teacher who plows through the school year in a frenzy never looking back:

System 1 thinking does not require working memory and is typically described as fast, non-conscious, intuitive, automatic, associative, and independent of cognitive ability…think of the learning processes activated by the surgeon who spends two weeks performing the maximum number of operations.

System 2 thinking is the teacher who has a weekly conversation with a fellow teacher, writes reflections in a notebook or meditates on the week:

System 2 thinking…is defined as a reflective process that requires working memory and is typically described as slow, conscious, controlled, rule-based, and correlated with cognitive ability…as in the case of the learning process activated by the surgeon if she were to spend two weeks alternating between performing operations and analyzing them.

And for all of your educators who are teaching pre-service teachers, have you considered asking them to sit in a quiet room and visualize how their lessons will go?  Here, the researchers cite evidence to suggest that a combination of practicing a task and visualizing yourself practicing the task can be powerful for improvement:

Individuals can improve their performance on a task (i.e., motor ability) as a function of actual repetition of the task (i.e., motor training) as well as by simply projecting themselves in the act of executing the task (i.e., mental training using motor imagery).

You might think I’m making a leap here by connecting teaching to a “motor” task, but the researchers use the example of surgery earlier in their paper. Performing surgery appears to combine both physical know-how with a body (no pun intended) of knowledge. The fine motor skills of a surgeon might be more important than those of an English teacher, but I still think that we can draw some reasonable confusions from this research.

So what?

Teacher improvement and professional development is such a complex thing. There are district workshops, building workshops, department workshops, and then all of the various private enterprises and people providing professional development services. It costs lots of time and money, and often, teachers approach it with a negative attitude because they have little to no say in their professional development experience.

What if each teacher was handed a notebook at the beginning of the year and asked to write in it at the end of each day? How might student learning outcomes improve? How might teacher stress based on unsolved problems reduce? I’d like to know.

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