What the Education Sector Can Learn from Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The literature on teacher development is depressing. In study after study, researchers have found that teachers tend to make large improvements in their first few years on the job, but then their growth slows. There’s some interesting work looking at how far the growth period extends, on what measures it manifests, and whether it applies to all teachers equally, but the basic finding holds.

The question is: Why do we see this pattern, and how can we help veteran teachers continue to improve their practice?

I thought of this question recently while reading the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Here is them describing this same phenomenon in tennis players, doctors, and nurses:

After their internships and residencies, some doctors get a fellowship to continue on with even more specialized training, but that is the end of their official supervised training. Once new doctors have reached this stage, they go to work as full-fledged physicians with the assumption that they’ve developed all the skills they need to treat patients effectively.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should, for it is very similar to the pattern I described in chapter 1 when explaining how one might learn to play tennis: take some tennis lessons, develop enough skill to play the game competently, and then set aside the intense training that characterized the original learning period. As I noted, most people assume that as you continue to play tennis and accumulate all those hours of “practice,” you will inevitably get better, but the reality is different: as we’ve seen, people generally don’t get much better just by playing the game itself, and, sometimes, the’ll actually be worse.

This similarity between doctors and recreational tennis players was shown in 2005 when a group of researchers at Harvard Medical School published an extensive review of research looking at how the quality of care that doctors provide changes over time. If years of practice make physicians better, then the quality of care they give should increase as they amass more experience. But just the opposite was true. In almost every one of the five dozen studies included in the review, doctors’ performance grew worse over time or, at best, stayed about the same. The older doctors knew less and did worse in terms of providing appropriate care than doctors with far fewer years of experience, and researchers concluded that it was likely the older doctors’ patients fared worse because of it. Only two of the sixty-two studies had found doctors to have gotten better with experience. Another study of decision-making accuracy in more than ten thousand clinicians found that additional professional experience had only a very small benefit.

Not surprisingly, the same thing is true for nurses as well. Careful studies have shown that very experienced nurses do not, on average, provide any better care than nurses who are only a few years out of nursing school.

Most forms of professional development are passive, but instead we should be thinking more about ways to boost active, deliberate practice. Here’s Ericsoon and Pool again:

Some of the most compelling research on the effectiveness of continuing professional education for physicians has been done by Dave Davis, a doctor and educational scientist at the University of Toronto. In a very influential study, Davis and a group of colleagues examined a wide-ranging group of educational “interventions,” by which they meant courses, conferences, and other meetings, lectures, and symposia, taking part in medical rounds, and pretty much anything else whose goal was to increase doctors’ knowledge and improve their performance. The most effective interventions, Davis found, were those that had some interactive component — role-play, discussion groups, case solving, hands-on-training, and the like. Such activities actually did improve both the doctors’ performance and their patients’ outcomes, although the overall improvement was small. By contrast, the least effective activities were “didactic” interventions–that is, those educational activities that essentially consisted of doctors listening to a lecture–which, sadly enough, are by far the most common types of activities in continuing medical education. Davis concluded that this sort of passive listening to lectures had no significant effect at all on either doctors’ performance or on how well their patients fared.

We see similar results on the effects of current teacher professional development programs. Additional courses or lectures seem to have no effect on student learning.

So what should we do instead? This is really the essence of Peak:

From the perspective of deliberate practice, the problem is obvious: attending lectures, minicourses, and the like offers little or no feedback and little or no chance to try something new, make mistakes, correct the mistakes, and gradually develop a new skill. It’s as if amateur tennis players tried to improve by reading articles in tennis magazines and watching the occasional YouTube video; they may believe they are learning something, but it’s not going to help their tennis game much. Furthermore, in the online interactive approaches to continuing medical education, it is very difficult to mimic the sorts of complex situations that doctors and nurses encounter in their everyday practice.

Maybe this sounds like an obvious conclusion, but if we want to help teachers improve we need to create environments that mimic the complex situations they face in their classrooms everyday, and we have to continue challenging teachers to improve after their first few years on the job. We’ve seen this in promising studies on teacher teams, coaching, and leadership roles. What all of these interventions have in common is that they carve out time for one-to-one feedback on the actual situations teachers face day-to-day in their classrooms. The feedback is timely, unique to each teacher, and part of a regular day. Too much teacher professional development today is the opposite of these things, and we shouldn’t expect better results until we are more deliberate about the learning opportunities we provide our teachers.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman