Imagine two teachers. Both teach English, both are similar in age, experience, and the students they are working with. The only difference is that one teaches 5 periods of the same class (one prep). The other teaches 2 periods of one class and 3 periods of a different class (two preps). I’m wondering: which teacher do you think is going to be more effective?
I’m honestly torn between the two. This year was my first with multiple preps after enjoying 2 years with only one prep, and this year also felt like my hardest so far. Though I’m not averse to hard work, I felt like my teaching (and, consequently, my students’ learning) was negatively impacted because I had to split my attention on different curricula.
I certainly see both sides of the argument. On the “multiple prep” side, I can see how those who teach multiple preps (or even, as one of my wonderful colleagues did, multiple preps in multiple subjects) are more likely to identify pedagogy that is most effective because they have to try many different approaches. They develop a better understanding of those elements that make good teaching, which carry across different classes and content areas. In addition, they work with a broad base of students and a wide range of abilities.
However, I cannot help but wonder how much much time I spent worrying about the content of my two preps this year, rather than reflecting on what strategies and ideas improved my teaching. Contrast this with having only one prep – I feel like I had more time to spend improving how I am teaching rather than what I am teaching.
The other factor I cannot help but think about is the development of expertise. I wrote my Master’s thesis largely on how we develop expertise, and the absolutely critical element in doing so is logging many hours (10,000 was the magic number) of practice. However, it’s not just any practice. I can’t just go swing a baseball bat 10,000 times and suddenly hit like Albert Pujols or Babe Ruth. Instead, the focus is on deliberate practice – practice that is focused on improving specific small skills at a time. This is why great musicians always practice their scales – because it is a deliberate focus on improving the little things.
The question I am left with is this: do teachers get more opportunities for deliberate practice when they have multiple preps, or when they have only one prep? My guess is that one prep lends itself better towards developing expertise because of the focus on one curriculum and added time for reflecting on instructional practice, however, I have absolutely nothing to support this other than my own personal opinions/biases.
So I leave this open to you: which is most likely to produce “expert” teachers? I’d love to hear (and respond to) your thoughts on this one.
Note: For more information on research into expertise and expert performance, I highly recommend the works of Anders K. Ericsson. In particular, his paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, is quite good. A good primer on the subject is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Expertise and Expert Performance. Finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a great introduction to the topic of expertise, as well.