Small teaching is an engaging and practical condensation of learning research into an accessible read. The book is oriented toward teachers, but is meaningful for anyone who wants to learn more effectively or understand how to share ideas.
Small teaching is built around the same idea as small-ball in baseball. The idea that small, but consistent, plays can add up into a championship-winning strategy.
Teachers often work long hours outside of their official positions. They’re too mired in the day-to-day to make big flashy changes, especially ones that aren’t guaranteed to payoff.
This is a problem. Any large-scale change in education requires accessibility to the typical working teacher.
This is where Small Teaching shines. The book has sifted down learning research into a small set of techniques that are easy to adopt and show research-proven results. Each skill has potential for significant gains, but the set of techniques also reinforce each other to create a system greater than it’s parts.
All concepts in the book must satisfy
- some foundation in research
- proven impact in real-world educational environments
- the author personally experienced results from the technique
In general, the concrete techniques are
- 5-10 minute activities
- one-time interventions
- small modification in course design or communication w/ students
The book is built for repeated reference and application. Each chapter cleanly organizes personal examples, underlying theory, techniques, and a summary of key points.
Here I’ll summarize the key concepts and some of their techniques. The summaries may be enough to pique interest, but are mostly a reference tool and way for me to condense my learning. The book is very much worth the read if you find any of these concepts intriguing.
Repeated input does not lead to better memory. To remember information, we have to practice remembering it. “The more times that you practice remembering something, the more capable you become of remembering that thing in the future.” Small and frequent assessments of knowledge help students to retain information long-term. The more active thinking on the information, the stronger the effect.
- quizzes (multiple choice or short answer)
- closing questions
- discussion prompts + written response
“Making predictions about material that you wish to learn increases your ability to understand that material and retrieve it later”. Prediction causes our brains to call on information we already have and prepares us to connect what we learn to what we already know. It can also break “fluency illusion” where students mistake familiarity with subject mastery. Additionally, curiosity is shown to boost memory for a time, even if the following content is not related. Pre-testing has a similar effect to predicting.
- Pre-tests (can be small quizzes)
Instead of block modules (e.g. all topic A, all topic B, all topic C), intermix the topics (e.g. A+B+C intro, topic A, topic B, A+B quiz, topic C, review all + exam). The spacing and mixing promotes retrieval practice, and requires students to recognize what skill applies to what problems. This dramatically improves student ability to recognize and apply each skill in real contexts.
- split topics between class sessions with an exercise in the middle of class
- cumulative assessments (quiz or tests)
- open with students highlighting previous notes
The difference between novice and expert knowledge is density and quality of connections between facts. More connections promotes retrieval of facts in relevant contexts and enables creative problem solving. Interleaving forms the base connections for application that can be expanded into more diverse and powerful connections. Forging creative connections requires our working memory and is better achieved with longer dedicated activities.
- concept maps
- minute thesis (pick concept from each column and connect them)
- advanced organizers (partial diagrams, hierarchies, notes, etc)
Students often don’t know how to practice effectively, or understand its value. Common strategies include repeatedly read notes (which doesn’t strengthen retrieval), cramming all at once, or repetition of incorrect habits. Setting the pace for them to repeat content often and over time builds effective learning habits across subject. Recognize that the students may not have all component skills for your content. Break the skill down and make sure critical components are practiced. Like sports or music coaching, some practice should be done with an instructor for quick feedback on developing habits.
- Frequent low-pressure application (e.g. quizzes)
- Small-scope practice in-class
- Growth mindset: reminders practice produces skill
“Learners benefit from explaining out loud (to themselves or to others) what they are doing during the completion of a learning task”. Good self-explaining includes why, not just what. Self-explaining helps students monitor their own understanding and fill gaps. It also connects general principles to the specific worked examples, and to their own knowledge.
I use a written variation of this that I call duck docs.
- “Why are you doing that?”
- peer instruction
- clickers (answer, discuss, re-answer)
- duck docs
Motivation is key for engaging and sustaining learners. Motivation often stems from emotions. Purpose, especially purpose beyond self, is the most powerful emotion for extended motivation. Our brains are especially good at remembering stories. Use stories to fill motivating context and personalize the topic.
- consistently remind of the purpose behind the knowledge
- tell stories, lead facts with their motivating questions
- share related ideas that get you excited
- pre-class content
- try to talk with each student in the semester (shows care)
- discussion content on board
Praising learners for ability causes a fixed-ability mindset. Belief that ability (e.g. intelligence) is fixed harms the ability to learn, even if the learner believes their ability is naturally high. Conversely, praising effort enhances learning across all skill levels and improves recovery from setbacks.
- effort praise
- low-risk repeated practice
- Weigh later assignments higher
- 72-hour policy (allow submission for feedback before grading)
I think software needs this kind of book. There is a trove of proven best practices with research-demonstrated gains. However, they’re not broadly known or accessible to the typical working developer. A typical working developer is behind the power curve. Just trying to cope with a legacy system and an expectation for new features is enough to keep a dev busy.
If we want to grow up as an industry, we need a strategy that can meet developers where they are. A safe consistent lifeline out of the tar pit, and an approachable hook into best practices.
I highly recommend this book. Teacher or not, Small Teaching equips readers of any background to learn effectively.