Here is quote from a preview of an interesting study by Steven Farr on effective teachers:
[Great teachers are] perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he'd get a similar response from all of them: "They'd say, 'You're welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it's not working as well as it could.' When you hear that over and over, and you don't hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis." Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing (Ripley, 2009)
This is very true. Many of my colleagues are excellent teachers, and I know they are tweaking their courses all the time. On the other hand, when someone has the same syllabus as ten years ago, I get really suspicious about the quality of that person's teaching. It is not a perfect indicator, but is a very good proxy. It takes years to get one particular course just right, and by the time you get it right, either students change, or the content needs updating, or you just get bored doing the same thing over and over again. The one negative side effect of it is the organizational and curricular drift. But it is a different issue, and no one should ever feel embarrassed at constant tweaking of one's classes. It is not an implicit admission that you failed before. You just learned something new and are refusing to settle on something less than your best.
It also occurred to me the same principle works in management. We have been changing a lot of things around here for a long time, in some cases again and again. At the beginning, I thought naively that there will be a point when we clean up all the inefficiencies, waste of time, and boring work. Well, it is not happening. As soon as we solve one problem, we either have to struggle with a new one we created, or suddenly someone sees an even better way of doing the same thing. Just for one example: When I came here first three and half years ago, almost the first thing I did was to cut down the number of paper forms, and put them all on-line. It makes sense: if a student needs to come and get a form, and then bring it back – that's two trips rather than one. If we have a form that has no consequences, it should not exist at all. Then we converted many of those forms into on-line surveys, so that the data can be just downloaded as a spreadsheet. No trips to us for the student, and no keying in the data for us. Now I stumbled on a way of sending these forms directly to someone's computer as an e-mail but with all required information already included (here is an example). This eliminates the downloading step. And there does not seem to be an end to it. Our wonderful staff is very patient with me, and they have to learn something new all the time – sometimes only to switch to something else again. I guess this blog is an attempt to justify myself (aren't they all?), to show that I am not a moron who cannot make up his mind about office processes. It is what we have to do. OK, we revised some programs three times in two years (you all know which), so what?
But back to teaching: How do we cultivate that urge for perpetual tweaking in our own students? It is probably only possible when you do it yourself, and are open and intentional about it. We need to invite students into our teaching labs, so they not only see how we teach, but also how we think about our teaching, and how often one needs to tweak. Let's go tweaking! But don't forget that sometimes we need radical change, too. That involves a different kind of learning, needs to be done carefully and for a good reason.