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The Novice Advantage: The Joy of Uncertainty

Please join our Virtual Learning Community for a Virtual Book Club exploration of what it means to be an expert novice. In his book The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher, author Jonathan Eckert explores the concept of teachers thinking of themselves as novices who are constantly growing and learning instead of experts complacent with their practice.

During the months of July and August, the CTQ community will host a virtual book club to discuss topics from The Novice Advantage, which include defining the novice mindset, learning from mistakes, sharing expertise, and going public with practice.

Each week will focus on a different set of chapters:

July 18 - 21: Preface through chapter 3

July 25 - 29: Chapters 4 through 7

First week of August-LIVE CHAT with Jon Eckert: Chapter 8

The virtual book club will include week-long slow chats on Twitter—using the hashtag #CTQBKClub—and will end with a live Twitter chat with Jonathan Eckert. The Novice Advantage can be purchased from the publisher, Corwin Press.


I didn’t think that at this point in my career I would be entering my classroom as a novice. Next year I will begin my 20th year teaching but my first year as an art teacher. I am ready to take on this challenge, but I have found myself much more comfortable with my uncertainty after reading The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher. Some of my comfort comes from realizing that uncertainty is one of the strengths of the novice mindset.

One thing I have learned about Jon Eckert from our work together and our friendship is that he is a master of the counterintuitive argument in education. Whenever I think I have my teaching niche completely figured out, he is able to bring forth a study, a reflection, or a colleague who can prove my assumptions, if not wrong, at least uncertain. This talent is the core of his book, and he delivers it with smiles and “cringeworthy” moments from his and his colleagues’ classrooms in an incredibly readable manner.

I think one of the most important takeaways I have from The Novice Advantage is an observation Jon brings forward in chapter two. On page 54, in referencing author Parker Palmer, another great teacher writer, Jon states, “Teaching is complex and personal.” I believe this statement wholeheartedly. I have never encountered this assertion in any other book on teaching, and yet it is at the core of how I view teaching. He goes on to explain how an increased focus on technical reproduction instead of the “identity and integrity” of the teacher can, “rob teaching of joy, creativity, and reflective risk taking” (p.54).

Those three concepts are at the center of the novice mindset.

  • Joy in approaching teaching with a “new” or “open” mind.
  • Creativity in innovating in and out of the classroom.
  • Reflection and risk taking enables us to approach our practice in a deliberate way so that we can become perpetual learners.

Each time I put down Jon’s book, the first thing I wanted to do was start planning, researching, and organizing for my classroom for next year. I am taking a step into a new field that I am sure will make me feel uneasy in my practice for the first time in many years. I am very excited about it.  

One of the things I am most concerned about next year is how to foster a climate of innovation in myself and my colleagues in a school that has lived in a culture of compliance for the past year. I know my principal, new to the school, will be the deciding factor in this context, but I am looking for encouragement and advice on how to negotiate a culture that is beyond what Jon describes as the “grey twilight” of nothing ventured, nothing gained created by constant fear of misstep.

How can we work to create a culture of innovation in your school or your school system? How can you use your identity and integrity to create learning?

Image: John M. Holland, The Joy of Not Knowing 22" x 22" mixed media on paper

11 Comments

Ann Byrd commented on July 13, 2016 at 8:17am:

First year, again

Really appreciate the takeaways you have shared here, John. When I was in the classroom I realized early on there were a number of teachers who had been teaching a long time, but they still had only ONE year of experience. Because they never embraced the growth mindset, they chose the path of repeating the same practice each year since they had (and requested) the same course assignments. Efficient, yes (perhaps). Effective, not so much. I admire that you are headed into year 1.20! 

Marcia Powell commented on July 13, 2016 at 11:40am:

Reinvention Mashup == Novice

Jon and John,

I love these three ideas (joy, creativity,  reflection and deliberate practice) for many reasons.  As someone who has reinvented herself many times, those attributes allow me to see each day as a new possibility.

But the other reason I love these qualities is that we tend to forget that our students are the novice advantage, over and over.  They walk into our classroom with a sense of anticipation.  How do we open their mindsets as well to embody thse qualities?

That seems to be a worthy question to me, because being part of a community that is seeking joy, creatively looking for solutions, and reflecting upon success or failure buillds something.  It builds a sense of anticipation, a culture that is open-minded, a safe space for real learning to happen.

Perhaps when students and teachers together do that in a classroom, the school as a whole is able to see that as a beacon.  Now, with any beacon, there are responses that vary.  In the current PokemonGO craze, people are drawn to beacons and can either play, strengthen, or attack others.  I'm hopeful that if several teachers act as Jon suggests, the novice environment  can really change the school.  That seems to be a beacon for me.

Jon Eckert commented on July 19, 2016 at 11:08am:

Great point

Such a great point about students being our novice advantage, Marcia. That is what makes teaching so much fun and never dull. I worry about policy initiatives or research that diminishes this joy. It is the hook into teaching and what keeps us coming back for more each day, week, and year.

Nancy Gardner commented on July 16, 2016 at 4:21pm:

"Nancy's" viewpoint

 I recently retired after 33 years in the classroom, with most of my time in Senior English. I hope I am like Nancy Carlson in Jon E's book, and I know that John H's three takeaways are essential to growth and happiness--for teachers and their students. Joy comes because we teach students, not content. Focusing on those "novice advantages" keeps the classroom lively and fresh. And yes, things have changed drastically since my first year of teaching in 1974. If we aren't willing to seek innovation and continue to grow and adapt (even if the literature stays the same), we tend to burn out early on. The reflection part really changed during my last 10-15 years in the classroom as I reflected on my own practice, but more importantly began to articulate the hows and whys of the difficult craft of teaching. I remember working with many student teachers, and I would break down the 4th wall during a lesson (a la Frank Underwood) and sidebar "that was an example of positive, sustaining feedback" or  "that question was to help her find more textual evidence". When we had visitors in our school who wanted to observe the 1:1 laptop initiative, I would encourage them to ask the seniors what we were doing at that time,and was always grateful when they could explain the purpose of the lesson!

I realize I was wearing two hats during those last 10 years--teaching while reflecting, even quickly writing down quotes from students to use during a later opportunity to work with teachers or explain something to a politician. I also wanted to leave before I lost these three essentials, so I slipped away quietly, without even telling my students I was retiring. I didn't want to stay until the time I was simply counting down the hours and ready to get out of there.

I guess I"m now a "Twilight Novice" but hope to live up to the Nancy name! Jon E's book makes me miss those days in the classroom.....but thanks for such an important perspective on our art.

 

Sandy Merz commented on July 18, 2016 at 10:24am:

Don't think about years, think about "times."

Some years ago, maybe 10 or 12, or more. I looked ahead and thought, "Wow, 15 more years of this, I'm barely halfway through my career." Even though I was happy and didn't want to do anything else, the thought made me feel tired and even discouraged. A few years after that, for some reason, instead of thinking of teaching 12 more years, I asked myself how I felt about teaching 12 more times. That completely changed my perspective about the trajectory of my career and, in fact, made me feel much younger in the career than I had before. It also made it much more urgent for me to complete my life's professional work well, rather than reach the finish line. Now, when I look ahead at maybe six or seven more years, oops, times, I worry that I won't be done by then - that I'm still not convinced I've done my best work.

To the end of doing my best work, I'm pretty open to reflection, and positive self-doubt. Also to thinking about how and what I teach and how to improve it - from minor tweaks to comprehensive changes. 

So Jon's book landed on fertile soil - and in his words is helping me, "Get better at getting better." 

From changes in real time teaching, like allowing for wait time after a student response - to give others a chance to process it - to dispositional outlooks like, "How can I express who I am in the Classroom to Improve Learning?" Jon has stimulated this summer's planning and inspired what is normally a pleasant task to be better than ever.

Jon Eckert commented on July 19, 2016 at 11:12am:

Sandy and Nancy

I really appreciate what veterans like you have to say, Sandy and Nancy. I love the idea of thinking about the number of times you have left, Sandy. I do this with my college classes. For example, I have 28 times (class sessions) in the fall semester to help my pre-service teachers get better. What do I want to do with those 28 times? I have enough to fill 128 times, but what do they need most? Thinking about a career this way is powerful. Nancy, you are absolutely always growing - in your teaching, your support of writers, your work with CTQ. This totally fits your adventurous personality and willingness to take risks - so powerful.

Justin Minkel commented on July 19, 2016 at 2:01pm:

The Hours

Considering how finite our time is with students also helps me check myself on the gap between my (stated) philosophy and my actions. If I look at a week or month and I haven't given the students many choices, or haven't done any projects with creativity and collaboration at their heart, it tells me there's a gap there. 

Like many aspects of teaching, this phenomenon resonates beyond the classroom walls. Yesterday I was feeling a rising sense of panic about the impending election and what I would do (beyond obsessively checking the538.com) to help ensure the candidate I believe in ends up winning in November. Looking up the actual number of days to the election (111 as of today, I believe) helped lend a sense of urgency but also a sense of concrete planning in terms of what I can and will make time to do.

I know this is a book on education, but I think the idea of the novice mindset applies to all kinds of aspects of life. My friend observed once that old age is largely a state of mind. When you stop trying new things, or questioning your beliefs, or travelings, or finding excitement and novelty in the world around you, you're old--whether you're 22 or 99 when it happens. I admire many of the teachers I've known who retire, because rather than just hunkering down on the couch to watch soap operas, they travel to Nepal for a year, or move to a new state where their grandchildren live, or write a book. That kind of risk-taking is admirable to me, in the classroom and outside it, and I aspire to it.

Justin Minkel commented on July 18, 2016 at 12:48pm:

Mountains are again mountains

Zen master D.T. Suzuki said, "After 15 years of practicing Zen meditation, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. After 30 years of Zen practice, mountains are again mountains, and rivers are again rivers."  

This notion gets at the idea of "creative struggle" for me. I find my teaching journey is not so much linear as cyclical. I keep questioning everything I have been doing, but I loop back to certain core principles.

Respect for students' whole selves. Putting real books into their hands and homes. The importance of delight.

But each time I come back to those concepts, they're a little fuller. They mean more because I took a journey away from them into less familiar concepts, like new tech tools--i.e. a presentation I just saw at an NNSTOY conference by Mike Soskil, one of two U.S. finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, on how his 5th graders partner with children around the world to devise real-world projects that benefit them both.

In many ways, I feel like I become less good a teacher each year, because while I improve incrementally, the ceiling for what is possible keeps rising. I get better, but the gap between how good I am and how good I think I could and should be, keeps getting wider.

One thing I love about Jon's book is that he uses words like "joy" and "fearless," which get at how human and emotional the work of teaching can and should be. For me, "fearless practice" means being willing to lose sight of the shore in order to gain new lands, but I often find that those new lands, once I arrive, are familiar. They're just better, because I lost sight of them for a little while on purpose.

 

Jon Eckert commented on July 19, 2016 at 11:16am:

As always ...

Justin, as always, you express pithy ideas in concise and eloquent ways. This cyclical nature of improvement is so true. I am constantly re-inventing classes, courses, and experiences, but I just continue to go deeper to the core of what I value about teaching. It is pedagogical and relational. I gain a great deal from my own experience, but am also challenged deeply the experiences of others. I still quote John Holland regularly, "Nothing compares to the spark between souls between a teacher and students." This is what keeps me coming back to my core while at the same time, acclerating my growth.

Jozette Martinez commented on July 19, 2016 at 4:23pm:

Kaizen, Danielson... wax on, wax off!

I didn't intentionally train to become a teacher, and as a "seasoned human" in her third career life, I competely love and embrace The Novice Advantage for a few reasons; most importantly, I am an advocate for keeping things fresh and young. 

As an entrepreneur, a teacher of adults, utilizing both asthetic and theoretical concepts of design and art, I can honestly say I never taught the same class twice. My years as a corporate business woman resulted in the drinking-of-the-koolaide committment to 'continuous improvement' born of the idea of Japanese "kaizen."

The Novice Advantage reminds us that the idea of never being satisified, always seeking ways to teach the next class better, with more ferver, with incorporating the necessary tweeks to streamline the learning, THAT is the stuff great teaching is made of. 

Nancy Gardner commented on August 2, 2016 at 8:44am:

"Expect More"

Chapter 6 speaks to the heart of effective teaching: the delicate balance between having high expectations while making sure all students are successful and engaged--even if their pathways to that success may take different routes. I remember when I realized I would no longer offer "extra credit" opportunities because they had become "instead of" credit (Can I watch the movie of Macbeth and write a response?) I also found the value of the "not yet" (NY) grade. My challenged students appreciated seeing a NY on their papers, because it meant I would give them another opportunity to try again, after some conferencing with me. The lazy, underachieving students were not happy with the NY because it meant they had to redo their work (Can you just give me the 70?). Eventually, they all appreciated the insistance on rigor, but it isn't always easy to maintain. Creating capacity and trust within the classroom is key, and Eckert's book provides some specific ways to make this happen. 

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