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Follow-Up: In PD, Showing Better Than Telling


Jessica Shyu

I've been out of the classroom and managing adults for the past five years. And yet, everything I know about adult management and coaching I learned from my middle schoolers.

It was my students who shared with me life-long gems such as, "You can't make me learn if I don't want to." They taught me that positive reinforcement and direct feedback works, whether you're 13 or 31. And most of all, they taught me that showing is always far better than telling.

This last one particularly resonated for me as a new special education teacher. I remember in my first semester struggling to wrap my mind around all the silly, overly fun differentiation techniques we were reading about in our graduate school textbooks.

Then, on my own, I tried kinesthetic differentiation strategies like the pacing strip and flour balloons. I tried playing the math board games that my grad school Professor Zaiga Cress created from folders. I learned to read a graduate-level chemistry textbook at my instructional level using guided reading.

And after that, I was sold. I could imagine how my students could focus better as a result of moving in a structured way. I saw how their engagement would soar with the independent-practice games. I experienced how powerful guided reading is—and how painful it can be when the text is beyond your instructional level.

When approaching adult professional development, "showing" and not "telling" is one of the hardest things for me to do. When you have only 60 minutes to hit your objectives to 50 adults, it's far more efficient to flip on the PowerPoint slides and hand out a couple packets. But just as when we teach students through handouts and lecture, it's ultimately aiming for something low level, and therefore less likely to stick over the long term.

Far more effective (and fun) is to have teachers experience what they would want their students to experience themselves, whether it's a math strategy or management technique. And then have them synthesize and discuss how they felt, what made them feel that way, and how they'd adjust it for their own students. After that, have them practice executing the technique themselves on others, preferably on other teachers so that they can provide further experience and feedback.

Doing this takes far more time and planning, and I'm the guiltiest for not doing this enough in my trainings. But if you need any more proof on why experiential learning matters for adults, consider the fact that seven years later, this blog entry is about Prof. Cress's math board games and not about some PowerPoint slideshow.

Jessica Shyu is Vice President of Regional Affairs and Training & Support with Teach For China, a part of the Teach For All global network. Prior to joining Teach For China, Jessica was a special education teacher and staff member with Teach For America.


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