And By "Practice", We Mean...


and by "practice", we mean...

by brent maddin
april 2017

“Considering the multiple uses of the word practice in relation to learning, teaching is a daunting exercise.”1 Those are the words of Magdalene Lampert, expert teacher educator, who has written on our collective use of the word ‘practice’ in teacher preparation and suggests four entirely different ways in which educators use this term:

  1. Practice as that which is practice (versus theory or research)
  2. Teaching as a collection of practices (the things that teachers need to be able to do)
  3. Practice for future performance (trying things out before one is with her students)
  4. Teaching as a practice (like law or medicine)

Dr. Lampert’s insight reveals why talking about ‘practice’ can be so fraught with confusion. But I’d delve a bit deeper into that third categorization of practice and suggest that, as a profession, we have little agreement on, “practice for future performance.” What exactly does practicing for future performance look like?

In my positions at Relay Graduate School of Education, and now TeacherSquared, I’ve had the opportunity to see dozens of different teacher development programs in action, and I’ve been struck by how different “practice” looks. Based on these observations, I’ve come to believe that practicing for future performance probably arrays on some sort of continuum with respect to how closely the practicing resembles the actual work of teaching PK-12 students. Maybe the continuum looks something like this:

In a slightly longer piece, I’ve tried to tease this framework apart and define each type of practice. The larger point that I’m trying to make here is that simply saying that we have “practice” in our teacher development programs is not all that helpful. As suggested in the graphic above, practice for future performance can mean many different things unless it is clearly defined. This doesn’t demand a common lexicon (although wouldn’t that be nice?), but it does suggest that we should be more specific when we say that we run programs that are “practice-rich.”

Furthermore, we should acknowledge that some types of practice are inherently better suited for particular purposes. Knowing what we hope to achieve will help us better select a particular type of practice from the continuum of options.

I suspect that the best teacher development programs intentionally choose types of practice from along the continuum. Building muscle memory of particular pedagogical moves through well-facilitated drills is helpful. But there are also ways of teaching that are very difficult or even impossible to practice unless one is further to the right on the continuum. Take, for example, the teaching practice of “eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking,” from TeachingWorks’ list of high-leverage practices. 2 If teachers simply practiced asking great questions, that would not be enough. They would also need to practice listening closely to student responses and deciding how, in the moment, to best respond. This is incredibly complicated work — especially as we try to approximate the range of student understanding and potential responses.

Creating and facilitating high-quality practice opportunities at any single point on the continuum is a humblingly difficult task, and only magnified by the reality that there are many legitimate ways that one might practice for future performance. TeacherSquared is currently working with exceptional teacher educators to better define and differentiate each of these ways of practicing.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll publish a few pieces that go into greater detail on each of these specific ways to practice for future performance. I’ll strive to clearly define each of these ways of practicing and highlight the strengths and shortcomings of each approach. I’ll share specific examples of protocols and other concrete resources that I’ve seen effectively used in programs across the country.

And if you are interested in further exploring topics like this, please join the community of teacher educators coming together in Houston on August 8-11 for our second annual Teacher Educator Institute. In Houston, we will share what is working in our respective programs and push our collective understanding of how to best practice for future performance.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or reactions to this piece, please drop me an email. I’m especially interested to know whether you think there are, in fact, a continuum of ways to practice. If so, do you think I got the continuum right? If not, why not?

1 Lampert, Magdalene. (2010). Learning teaching, in, from, and for practice: What do we mean? Journal of Teacher Education. 61(1-2), 21-34.

2 For the complete set of the high-leverage practices from TeachingWorks, go here.


About the Author

brent photo.jpg

Brent Maddin, Ed.D.
Provost, Relay Graduate School of Education
Executive Director, TeacherSquared

As Provost at Relay, Brent sets the curricular vision for the institution and manages teams focused on curriculum design, institutional research, and programmatic innovation. In 2015, Brent founded TeacherSquared—a national center at Relay dedicated to increasing collaboration among teacher preparation institutions. Prior to helping launch TeacherSquared and Relay, Brent attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he earned his doctorate in Education Policy, Leadership, and Instructional Practice.


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