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Nutrient Imbalances in Teaching: Understanding vs. Practice

Finding that something in your teaching just isn’t working right and the students aren’t thriving? Maybe you’re giving them a nutrient imbalance.

Think about protein and fats. You can’t make one from the other; you need both. If you skimp on one, it doesn’t matter how abundant the other is, because they’re not interchangeable.

Understanding and practice are kind of the same way.

Most of the training problems people bring me involve some kind of nutrient imbalance between understanding and practice. It’s a useful lens for figuring out what to try next.

It’s pretty simple to imagine a balanced diet of understanding and practice because most of us have played music or played sports.

In music, you need to practice scales, but you also need to play lots of different pieces and work on understanding how music works. If you only played scales, you’d get bored; if you only worked on full pieces, you’d never improve your playing.

In sports, you need to practice individual skills and fitness, but you also need to work on the whole game, teamwork, and strategy. If you only practiced shooting baskets, you’d be useless to a team; if you only learned strategy, you’d be too slow to compete and too erratic to be much good at free throws.

It’s easy to see that we need balance in music and sports, but it’s a bit harder with other subjects.

The Understanding Imbalance

I love teaching toward understanding. It’s great. I particularly love teaching with discovery learning in rich authentic contexts that help learners construct their own knowledge and skills. I totally dig that!

But unless I’m giving learners a chance to practice what they’re learning, it fades. My wisdom seeps away, their authentic contexts get forgotten, and we’re back where we started.

There are two big categories of understanding imbalance: information overload and understanding-not-demonstrating.

Lecture is the archetypal example of an information-overload understanding imbalance: a grand sage pouring out vast quantities of wisdom from a lectern atop a dais. When was the last time you remembered all the good ideas you heard in a lecture? It’s information overload.

It’s easy to go overboard with discovery in math class and forget that students need to practice using the tools we’re teaching. Often this comes from focusing at length on a single problem. English classes spend hours analyzing a single paragraph or page, really working to understand how the pieces fit together. This is important stuff, but it often leaves students unable to demonstrate the same things they’ve just learned.

Sometimes an understanding imbalance comes from trying to cram a ton of content into insufficient class time. If you catch yourself saying “we’ve covered that”, suspect an understanding imbalance.

In the training world, an understanding imbalance often looks like this: I show the trainees how to use the office phone system to place outgoing calls, put them on hold, etc. I call on a trainee and ask her to demonstrate making a call, which she does. I ask another trainee to show putting someone on hold, which he does. I conclude that the class has learned successfully, and I move on to teaching something about keeping the office secure. This is an understanding-not-demonstrating imbalance.

Often we get into understanding imbalances because they seem like efficient uses of class time and resources. It’s easy to justify this kind of training to stakeholders—look how much we’re getting done! But the progress often evaporates once a bit of time has passed: people are taking in so much information that they can’t remember much of it.

Clues that you may have an understanding imbalance

  • Most of the speaking in class is done by the teacher.
  • Students are mostly sitting still and listening to the teacher.
  • Class time and homework both primarily involve learning new material.
  • Opportunities for providing formative assessment are limited or nonexistent.
  • You’re “covering” material but the students aren’t getting it.
  • You can’t remember your students’ voices or handwriting.

If you have an understanding imbalance, start looking for ways to have students practice where you can give them immediate feedback and guidance. If you can’t spare the class time, revise your homework assignments to provide focused practice, starting with small pieces (drills, simple exercises) and scaling them up into bigger practice.

Use the practice for formative assessment, and make any gaps in understanding the target for your next teaching segment. Then give them more time to practice, and keep assessing.

Remember that covering more material is pointless unless they’re also remembering it.

The Practice Imbalance

This one’s a little harder to see, but perhaps I can explain with an example:

In college, I really struggled in a linear algebra class that was heavily focused on procedures and calculations. Each week, I’d learn a host of new mathematical tools and be given problem sets that required repeating them dozens of times. A few weeks into the class, I was lost—couldn’t keep the methods straight in my head, couldn’t figure out what they were for, was frustrated and angry and upset. I ended up passing the class—barely—because the professor took pity on me, and I developed a fervent hatred of linear algebra.

Two years later, in a computer science class about developing graphics systems, suddenly linear algebra made sense to me. I realized that what I’d been missing was a sense of why this math existed. I’d known how to do it, but it wasn’t until I started seeing what to do with it that it began to gel.

It was a practice imbalance. I was getting instruction on how to do the procedures and loads of opportunities to practice the things I was learning, but no real help with understanding what they were for. Math is, unfortunately, often taught this way. Languages are, too.

If students are practicing but don’t have a sense of how the things they’re working on fit into the larger whole, suspect a practice imbalance. If they’re practicing but aren’t improving, they may be missing some crucial bit of understanding.

Clues that you may have a practice imbalance

  • Students can’t explain how their current activities relate to the whole.
  • The teacher rarely speaks or offers feedback.
  • The students aren’t progressing in ability.
  • If students seek help, the teacher explains using the same words every time.

In my experience, it’s much less common to have a practice imbalance. Most of us were taught in information-driven formats that left little time for practice, so we get stuck in understanding imbalances.

Our students need both activities that increase understanding and opportunities for practice. Dropping either from the instructional diet leaves them malnourished.

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