Last week I attended a day of training for the Empowering Local Learners Project a project I have been involved heavily in for the last 6 years. The thought experiment above was one of the first things we did during that day and it has been an incredibly powerful thing for me to think about over the last week.
As I began to think about what pack I would choose, I immediately went with pack A as I knew exactly what I was dealing with. The odds were clearly defined and although I could not control what card came out first, I knew my odds of wining were the same as my odds of losing. Choosing pack B did not even enter my thinking for a good few minutes, there was just too much unknown, did they choose the 10 cards themselves or do it randomly, the person holding the decks of cards doesn't want to lose $1000 so they probably stacked the deck in their favour. But as I thought about it more, with with only about a minute of thinking time to go, I started to look at pack B a little differently, I knew that I probably should pick B, but I had to justify it in my own mind. When I went to share my thinking with the group I said that "I ultimately picked pack B because there are as many possibilities of a better outcome as there are of being a worse outcome". In my own head at that time I had still made it a 50/50 chance.
The next question about the packs was "Is there any difference in how pack A and pack B feel?". For me this really got to the heart of this thought experiment. I didn't feel anything towards pack A, there was nothing we didn't know about it except what the top card was. My heart may have raced as the card was picked, but picking that pack to bet on was easy. Pack B on the other hand didn't feel like that at all, I avoided thinking about it to start off with as there was too much that was unknown. When I did start thinking about that pack I got tense, I had to really force myself to think about it. In the end I made the choice of pack B, but it was not a comfortable choice, as soon as I said it I wanted to change my mind. This was really interesting given that none of my money was actually at stake.
Over the last week this has really made me think about my role. For the last 7 years I have been in the role of an instructional coach on both a school and a district level. I have been about working with teachers to implement more student-centred approaches that include a greater emphasis on students' problem solving and reasoning skills. I have spent the last 7 years looking at the idea of pedagogical shift.
When I began about the above thought experiment in relation to pedagogy, I began to think about how pack A and pack B might look different in a classroom. However as I began to go down that path and think in that way I realised that there is no such thing as pack A and pack B pedagogy. The difference between pack A and B is in relation to the perceived level of risk, the extent to which you are stepping into the unknown, it is a feeling more than an action. It is the way that the lesson feels before, during and after the lesson is delivered, something that would be mostly invisible if you looked for it in a classroom. Teachers could be teaching the same lesson but could be feeling very differently about it.
Teaching is a challenging and complex job and we learn a lot about what our students know, how well our students work, who they work best with, how they interact with others, and how long they can work for. These, amongst many others, are variables that can impact the learning on any given day. We often control for these variables in designing learning experiences to ensure these experiences have the greatest chance of success. However even if we have had great success with the task in the past on any given day we know that that lesson may work well, or it may fail. For me this is similar to picking pack A we have a pretty good idea of the odds of achieving the same outcome as we did previously.
So what about pack B? In my role as an instructional coach I have been asking people to consider picking pack B for a number of years now. I have been asking them to consider trying some approaches to teaching maths that they may not have used before without knowing for sure how comfortable they will be. I have asked them to try them without them knowing how their students may react to the tasks, without knowing if they will even attempt it or what questions they may ask. I also realise now that I have been doing this from the position of pack A, I am doing it from a position of relative comfort with the practices I am asking people to implement. People tend to see this comfort and assume that it is just the way I have always taught. However this level of comfort has not come from just being "that sort of teacher who has always taught that way" but through years of putting myself in that position of choosing pack B. These practices have transitioned from pack B to pack A over the years through taking a risk, by both failing and of succeeding and in turning the ambiguity of trying something for the first time into an experience that I now know more about.
Therefore in my role I feel it is important for me to continue to put myself in the position of pack B to keep trying things that I feel will work, but make me uncomfortable. This is important for my students in ensuring I am always working to improve the quality of their learning experiences. However it is also important for me to never lose sight of just how difficult making changes to your own teaching practice can be.
Senior Leader of Pedagogical Innovation and Mathematics Coordinator in Regional South Australia.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.