Debbie Millman (author, educator, brand strategist) defines branding using the phrase “deliberate differentiation”. Branding is a critical component of consumer culture. Our consumption of goods, services, ideologies, and other symbolic products, in many ways, defines us. Each of these "products" has an associated brand and our affinity for that brand helps us to identify with and distinguish ourselves from different groups. It is through our consumption (both real and symbolic), we mark ourselves as members of “tribes”1.
In education, my colleagues and I are part of the #teacherprep community (or tribe), but we also belong to specific and (often) unique tribes as well. My institution identifies as a Research Intensive, Land Grant, Public University with a “think and do” mission. We mark ourselves as members of each of these tribes, but differentiate ourselves through our brand. Our brand is ever present and pushes us toward this “deliberate differentiation” which drives us as we make decisions....
Innovative, of course, is a loaded term, however I believe in the teacher preparation community, we have proven ourselves to be on the cutting edge. Our mission-informed decision making process allows us both the structure and flexibility needed to not only continuously improve, but to forecast trends and changes and respond in proactive rather than reactive ways.
One step on the pathway to success is the drive for deliberate differentiation while remaining a member of your tribe(s). Without clearly knowing “who” you are it is exceedingly difficult to define and describe how you are different.
This is why your unique brand is so important. We all have a role to play in the preparation of teachers. What is it that you do that is unique? Identify your brand, use it to drive your decisions and you’ll be on your way to deliberate differentiation.
"Generate new ideas every day, even though 99% will be garbage!"
Some of what you develop will be actionable, others will not. It's about the process mostly...the process helps develop a culture of change (either within your organization or yourself). Change encourages reflection, introspection, and a valuing of evidence. Most people are afraid of big changes. If this is you, start small, test the water and build your case. Incremental change matters too.
Education, as with most things in life, can be difficult to navigate. Recently, while listening to a podcast by James Altucher, a guest remarked "Find the opportunity in your challenge (weakness) and lean into it". A simple but meaningful phrase. Every day, I work with colleagues to try and improve the work we do in teacher preparation. If you have followed our work, you'll already know the great deal of success we've had over the past 7+ years. What you never see, is the effort behind that success. I believe that simple phrase is what encapsulates our success, we have worked hard to find our weaknesses and attack them head-on.
Teacher preparation is complex work (because teaching and learning are complex). Our limited amount of time (and large quantity of content) necessitates a systematic approach to our work. Over time, I hope to highlight some of that work and the thoughts and decisions behind them. Today, I'll focus on our process of continuous improvement.
1. Attack one (or two) issues at a time. Too many challenges quickly becomes unmanageable.
2. Use a preponderance of evidence from multiple sources.
3. Be wary of any "quick fixes" or single data points.
4. Include multiple stakeholders.
5. Don't reinvent the wheel, incorporate effective, existing models more completely.
So, how do we engage in this process of continuous improvement?
In our annual review of data, we noticed that on our alumni survey (first year teachers), our employer survey, and our capstone assessment there was a recurring theme....three separate data points all suggesting our graduates felt less well prepared to work with English Language Learners (ELLs) than in other areas (use of technology, content preparation, etc). If you know anything about the changing demographics of American public schools, you'll see this is a real issue.
We saw this issue as both important and actionable, something we could systematically work to improve. Our next step was to involve other stakeholders, in this instance program coordinators, and conduct a curriculum audit. Do we adequately cover the content, where, how often, in what contexts? This further Increases our sources of data. At this point we need to be mindful to stay away from the "quick fix". Our inclination (and many in teacher preparation) would be to add more to the curriculum (or increase its coverage), but with the limited amount of time we have in programs, that is often easier said than done. So instead of just piling more work into a course or courses, we engage more individuals and thus take a broader approach. Bolster the curriculum...yes...add more content outside of traditional courses (in our PD program for undergraduates)...yes...add offerings to our Beginning Teacher Institute...yes...
This is not a more is better approach...these are targeted responses to a challenge. Our candidates and graduates now have access and opportunity in the traditional curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and while engaged as professionals in their first year of teaching.
Our approach is always to be both systematic and systemic, find the big issue based on relevant data, survey the landscape, invite participation from others, attack the problem on multiple fronts, and reevaluate...Continuous Improvement.
*I am also happy to note, that in years 2 and 3 we found steady improvement in our graduates and their ability to meet the needs of ELLs....not perfect by any means...but better.
Without intentionally doing so, Daniel Willingham gives us another reason why teacher education is important. His most recent post The subtle work of designing instructional materials reports on a paper that discusses the challenges of designing instructional materials. The post points out that an instructional designer must take into consideration how children "consume" information to design learning materials that are not only effective, but visually appealing as well. While I think this is important, I think the concluding paragraph is the most important part in the post.
"On the one hand you could see this as small potatoes--kids will get over it, they will learn how to read graphs. But on the other hand, why knowingly put a stumbling block in front of kids trying to learn math? And more important, how many other small stumbling blocks are there that we don't know about?"
What if you're unaware of the stumbling blocks? This is one function of a teacher preparation program and one that I believe my institution does very well. Our elementary and middle/secondary programs prepare future teachers to anticipate "student thinking" and design lessons accordingly. This is certainly not something individuals intuitively know...it has to be taught.
Still think anyone can teach? Ask them if they know common misconceptions children have about fractions or better yet see how many of these questions they can get right.