The Classroom Experiment: pt 1

Maya Bialik
5 min readAug 25, 2021

I’ve been an education researcher for about a decade, studying how students learn, how to best teach them, as well as what and why we should be teaching in the first place. I have always been drawn to research, with its focus on isolating variables and getting to the bottom of how things work. And I’ve always been drawn to theory in general, creating conceptual frameworks of how big ideas fit together.

But one thing I’ve consistently heard from teachers is, “you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been in the classroom.”

In graduate school, there was a noticeable divide between researchers who were learning about teaching and teachers who were learning about research. And there was a recurring pattern in the ways in which we talked past each other. (I actually did one of my final projects on this).

Here’s a picture of me teaching a model lesson as part of an interview (I did not get the job).

The miscommunication seemed to go something like this:

Teachers are constantly swimming in every day challenges, including classroom management, learning differences, study skills, assessment, and on and on. Researchers have the luxury of holding constant and ignoring all the variables other than the one they are studying. They can then draw careful conclusions, just about what they’ve chosen to study and nothing else.

When researchers explain their findings, the isolation from context sounds unrealistic and unhelpful to teachers. When teachers explain their experience, the nearly infinite compounding variables sound unscientific to researchers. And so, they keep talking past each other.

In my work as part of a non-profit and applying to various school leadership jobs, I heard the same thing. Yes, you have great ideas and we’d love to implement them, but we can’t, and if you were a teacher, you’d understand why. Sure you have good advice but the teachers will not take what you say seriously because you don’t have classroom experience.

How much am I really missing by watching the classroom from afar? Would it really change any of my fundamental beliefs, or just help me translate my beliefs into language that makes sense to a teacher? What will I learn in practice that was inaccessible to me in theory?

This year, and this blog, is an experiment.

Well, I took the plunge. This year I will be teaching 7th grade science full-time. And I will be writing this blog series documenting the process: expected challenges, unexpected challenges, my attempts to implement things and where they go awry, and my general impressions of my first year teaching, after ten years in research.

Potentially wrong advice from the researcher in me to the teacher in me

Many teachers have a lot of advice that they wish they could give their first-year-teacher selves.

As a researcher, I have a strong theoretical backing on what it takes to be a good teacher. So I’ve decided to try to give myself advice, and then come back and see how short I’ve fallen of it, and why. So here are my top 10 pieces of advice I hope I will follow:

  1. Establish boundaries

It’s easier to become more lenient throughout the year than it is to become more strict. Students will push on you to see where your boundaries are, so you should be gentle but firm. They do not need more friends, they need responsible adults.

2. Rely on routines

The more that you can set up routines that are the same every day, the more automated the process of learning can become. The more automated the process of learning is, the more brainpower students have left over to spend on learning.

3. Connect emotionally

“They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Ultimately, teaching is a human connection, and the more authentically you can show up, the more authentically they will engage.

4. Teaching is an art and a science

While there is a lot to be learned from research, teaching is as much an art as it is a science. That means, as a teacher, you should draw from your personality and strengths, and do what feels right and works for you, even if you can’t describe exactly why it works. As a corollary, do not do what doesn’t feel right, even if it is supposedly evidence-based.

But do remember, some things “feel right” that aren’t actually right, namely when you feel like you are getting a lot of information across but you aren’t checking to make sure they’re learning, when the students are busy doing activities but you’re not checking to make sure they’re learning, and when the students are expressing themselves but you’re not checking to make sure they’re learning.

5. Check to make sure they’re learning.

It’s important to know how to tell the difference between “I taught it” and “they learned it”. As much as possible, check for understanding throughout a lesson, and certainly at the end. Plan to adjust your teaching to address what you see kids are grasping and not grasping.

6. Maximize active learning when possible

Daniel Willingham says “memory is the residue of thought”. Therefore, the more they do the thinking, the more they are learning. Mini-whiteboards or finger voting are great ways to make sure that everyone is engaged in thinking, and to check for understanding at the same time.

7. Be mindful of working memory / cognitive load

When information is new to students, it is going to take up more of their mental brainspace, and they will have less left over to spend on other things. When they are comfortable with material, it is a good time to ask them to push themselves further by bringing in project based learning, student choice, social challenges, or a chance to stretch themselves in terms of “non-cognitive” competencies.

8. Show “the why” behind what they’re learning

This is a personal goal more than it is a piece of advice. The reason I went into education is that I felt that so much of my school experience was missing a meaning. As a teacher, I always want students to know why they should bother putting in the effort (it’s not like they’re getting paid, and it’s not like they’re doing something they’re already good at).

9. Establish an intentional classroom culture

There is going to be a classroom culture regardless of how intentional you are about it. Make sure you know what culture you are creating, because it is the backdrop to all the learning that will and will not take place in the class. Does the culture value mistakes and embracing uncertainty? Or right answers? Does it value helping each other out, or competition? These values will be communicated whether you mean to or not, so be intentional about it.

10. Have fun.

As we say in improv, if you’re having fun, they’re having fun. Teaching is ultimately an improv performance and many of the same rules apply.

Think I’m wrong about any of this? Got predictions about which of my words I am going to eat? I’d love to hear from you!

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Maya Bialik

Creator of questionwell.ai. Teacher, author, and speaker making learning meaningful and making teaching more enjoyable.