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Experience Counts

April 20, 2012

Among the more bizarre trends in education reform debate has been the emergence of an argument that experience doesn’t really matter.  The problem appears to be that some researchers have not found ways to measure the importance of experience very effectively, and so, cheered on by cost-cutting and union-bashing allies, they tell us that after the first few years, teacher experience doesn’t matter.  They have the test scores to prove it, they say.

I’m not here to argue the opposite.  I’ve seen new teachers who have a skill set that rivals some of their veteran colleagues.  However, I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t believe they could still improve.  After all, we’re in the learning business.  With experience comes not only time to learn more content and more pedagogy, but also to learn more about children, psychology and brain neurology, about working effectively with peers, administrators, and the community.

Think of other professions, and let me know if you know of any where experience isn’t valued.  If education research isn’t showing the value of experience, then I think we should be asking questions like, “What’s wrong with their research methods?  What’s wrong with the measures they’ve chosen?  What’s wrong with schools and education systems that they can’t put experience to better use?”

This morning, I heard an interesting story about the oil industry, and the experience gap that is emerging among its engineers and other workers.  To my untrained eye, this seems like an industry where experience wouldn’t matter.  You’re dealing with physics, chemistry, machinery, manual labor – does the oil rig know or care how old or how experienced the workers are?  Is there any chance that the properties of oil are unpredictable?  If you can build, repair, or operate machinery in another industry, is the oil industry machinery so different?

Apparently, yes.  Experience matters in industry.  If that’s the case, think how much more experience might matter when you’re dealing with people, shaping the minds and characters of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of children over a career.

Here’s the portion of the story that really caught my attention:

Investigations into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster point to a series of mistakes, including a failed blow-out preventer and results of a key test that managers ignored.

But investigations by the U.S. Department of the Interior and a presidential commission also point to an issue that has received much less attention: there was a reorganization of personnel on the rig just before the accident. While the new crew leaders had years of experience, they were new to their positions.

“When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, no one in the BP engineering team had been on the job for more than six months,” says John Konrad, a former drill ship captain and co-author of Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster.

That’s interesting to note: the workers were not inexperienced overall, but new to the setting where they were working.  Education reformers who imagine they can “turnaround” a school by churning the staff and replacing half of the teachers, or more, should stop and ponder this situation.

How would experience matter in this situation?  The report does not go on to answer that question, but let me venture a few guesses.  There are idiosyncrasies of place, unique characteristics that might take time to recognize or appreciate.  On an oil rig, or out in the field, there may be variations based on changes in atmospheric or environmental conditions.  There may be quirks in the facility or equipment.  In a school, those idiosyncrasies might be physical, but more likely involve students, families, community members and leaders.  Experience should help a teacher navigate that landscape, identify potential resources, anticipate and solve problems.

Experience also matters because sometimes the reasons for what we do are no longer apparent.  There may be safety procedures, hierarchies, work-flows that might seem outdated or illogical, but have a strong rationale.  If a teacher is new to a school, it may be unclear why certain organizational or pedagogical choices have been made.  Understanding the reason you’re doing something is quite helpful for student motivation and learning, and similarly helpful for teachers in the workplace.  Institutional memory is valuable; however, real institutional wisdom would also make a point of allowing for critical self-examination, so that experience doesn’t lead to complacency.

With so much in life, we learn by doing.  I know that my success in parenting depends on lessons I learn through experience.  Prior to parenting, I had actually done a significant amount of child care, including infant care.  I had years of experience working with children of many different age groups, in a variety of settings not limited to schools.  And even that experience, as valuable as it was, combined with books and articles on parenting and psychology, didn’t really prepare me for what I had to learn by doing.

There are many interactions I have with students and parents where the wealth of experience plays a significant role.  I talk to students differently now than I did ten years ago.  I know more about when and how to listen rather than talk, when and how to allow students to work out their own problems, when and how to step in to provide essential support.  I relate to students differently, with a clearer sense of what is essential, what is non-negotiable, and what situations call for more flexibility or creative approaches.  I relate to parents, administrators, and community members in different ways now than I did ten years ago, with a greater understanding of what we can do for each other, and how to work together effectively.  I have a greater ability to set parents’ minds at ease, and a clearer sense of how to ask them to relinquish control in certain situations and let the students take over.

My ability to connect with students, to read them and help them in school and in life, may not be measurable by any standardized measure.  There may not be many researchers with the time, resources, or inclination to shadow me every day, to record and analyze every interaction, and to do the same for many other teachers to generate some useful comparisons.  What of that?  It’s time for the producers and consumers of educational research to admit some limitations, and concede that, in education as in other professions, we know experience matters, that people improve at something the more they practice it, and gain wisdom and insight over time.  It’s time for them to ask how we can make sure that, unlike the oil industry, our experience gap does not contribute to a disaster in the making.  It’s time to focus on preserving our experience and knowledge base, to find better ways to observe and tout the benefits of experience, and put that experience to better use to promote stronger schools and better learning.

One idea whose time has come is to promote the idea of teacher leaders in hybrid positions.  By expanding our notions of the roles and responsibilities of teachers, we can keep more expertise in the classroom and put that same expertise to better use beyond the single classroom.  Such are the recommendations in a report by the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative.  Read more about their work, and watch a short video clip from their presentation at an event we put on together to promote greater quality teaching for California’s future.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2012 7:23 pm

    Sadly, in Taiwan as much as the USA, experience is undervalued. It is most clearly so due to having annual contracts rather than the possibility of continuity, and in having no senior or leader teachers. English language teachers here operate at the whim of school and government administrators whose principal motives are not always educational ones.

    I fear that the situation in the US is that it is easier to quantify exam results using “scientific” methods, than trying to measure more qualitative aspects of the very complex teacher-student-parent-school-community relationship, or even than by attempting to conduct longitudinal (more expensive) studies of teachers’ work over several years. It is also easier to keep budgets within limits by hiring lower paid recent graduates than continuing those working higher up the pay scale.

    Administrators, accountants and governments like easy, quick answers. What they do not care about is whether or not the measures used reflect the work being performed.

    One aspect of all of this that is working against the vast majority of teachers is the small number of those who are stuck in a time warp, teaching the same way year by year, not reflecting on what they are doing, not listening to students, parents and colleagues, not preparing students for the future they will face, refusing to consider the place of interactive and computer-based technologies in a range of teaching tools, and incapable of being moved on due to inflexible tenure arrangements or lack of non-contact positions. While hey are certainly not doing the rest of us any favours by staying, at the same time, “the system” should have ways of ensuring this does not happen as well.

    David, I congratulate you on an interesting article, and I will share it as widely as possible with other educators.


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 20, 2012 9:42 pm

      Greg, thanks for reading, and sharing your perspectives. I always like to know more about how things work in other places. Your observation is spot on regarding experienced teachers who aren’t pushing themselves, aren’t reflecting and improving. I do believe that in the right conditions, most of them would still be willing and able to contribute, but a number of things interfere with that. The current overall climate in public schools doesn’t help.

  2. April 20, 2012 7:38 pm

    My 21 years of teaching and I love this article; experience in the classroom matters

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 20, 2012 9:43 pm

      Thanks for stopping by InterACT, Renee! I appreciate your interest and feedback.

  3. Brent Snavely permalink
    April 21, 2012 3:59 am

    It makes one wonder if those who push for the exclusion of experienced teachers would choose a surgeon or attorney who, although incredibly “book-smart”, never handled a scalple or entered a courtroom…

  4. Caoilhe permalink
    April 21, 2012 5:45 am

    Sadly, the American public (at least in most states) has decided that experience doesn’t count in politics–thus term limits (to which I’ve always been opposed). What we are seeing in education reform (and among some administrators, go figure) is the idea of teachers as widgets on an assembly line. According to these reformers, there is no difference amongst teachers, they are completely interchangeable no matter their background or experience, but we’re going to use value-added to find out which one’s are best. This is part of the reason teachers are so demoralized–the messages we’re hearing/demands we’re getting are mutually exclusive–the whole reform issue has become so illogical that we don’t know where to turn or what to do.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 21, 2012 9:54 am

      You make a good point. I used to be more ambivalent about term limits, but have grown less supportive of the idea as I’ve heard/read about the result: experienced lobbyists end up gaining more influence over the content of legislation.

  5. pbogush permalink
    April 21, 2012 12:34 pm

    I know it was not until I had taught for about 15 years that I thought I finally had a handle on what I was doing…it was probably 20 years until I felt like I was maybe, just maybe, an expert. That was 20 years of teaching the same grade and the same subject. Experience does not seem to be important in education. Young teachers believe they know it all and maybe only once or twice have I ever had younger teacher come and ask for advice. The other problem is that most experienced teachers teach the same way after 20 years than they did after five.

    Experience does matter and when teachers turn that experience into wisdom then we get magical classrooms and unforgettable learning experiences. Looking at my own kids experiences, too often they are just forgettable.

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