MACRO FROM THE MICRO

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Oftentimes in education, for both student learning and professional development, our primary concern is to comprehensively learn (i.e. memorize) all steps or pieces within a domain. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, learning everything possible about a subject is extremely time consuming and difficult.

In Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, he explains a principle used by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin called “learning the macro from the micro.” This approach avoids the common way of learning by focusing on a single component (the micro) in order to learn and understand the whole (macro). Ferriss explains how Waitzkin once taught him chess:

“For instance, when Josh gave me a beginner’s tutorial on chess, he didn’t start with opening moves. Memorizing openings is natural, and nearly everyone does it, but Josh likens it to stealing the test answers from a teacher. You’re not learning principles or strategies, — you’re merely learning a few tricks that will help you beat your novice friends. Instead, Josh took me in reverse… The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Through the micro, position of reduced complexity, he was able to focus me on the macro: principles like the power of empty space, opposition, and setting an opponent up for zugzwang (a situation where any move he makes will destroy his position.”

This is a much more elegant way of learning a new domain. If, as a lead learner, you can break a new teaching strategy into its most basic components, determine the portion that’s the fulcrum, and then learn and practice that specific skill, you’re on your way to learning the whole. Let’s look at some examples:

  • There are different types of direct instruction. One is called Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), which my district adheres to. There are various components to creating a lesson plan, one of which is structured practice. If the teacher can just focus on this portion of the lesson and become a master at providing structured practice, then she’ll eventually learn how to provide better input (instruction) and guided practice, which both respectively precede and follow structured practice.
  • Learning how to formatively assess while teaching helps an educator in many other domains. For example, if a teacher begins using in-the-moment data to guide instruction, then the teacher is learning a new way to lesson plan. (Detailed planning can’t be done ahead of time anymore because planning is simply guessing.) The teacher is forced to learn how to teach the same topic multiple ways during the same lesson–which means differentiation is learned and incorporated on the fly as well.
  • Focusing on one app within Google Suite will teach the user how to use all the G Suite apps. If a teacher tells herself, “I’m going to just focus on learning Google Docs this month–nothing more,” then that person will become not just proficient at using Docs in the classroom, but she’ll also learn transferable skills such as sharing a file within the Google ecosystem, saving files within Google Drive, effective collaboration via cloud-based products with students and adults, and a better understanding of how technology–in general–can be blended with instruction. In order to use technology successfully, one must begin with the micro; this is what has the power to accelerate pedagogy.
  • Breaking up one’s own learning helps break up learning for students. The practice of getting really good at the micro in our own personal and professional learning will help us as we not only chunk lessons for students, but also choose what we’ll teach students. Developing a comprehensive lesson on the American Revolution is great. Do you know what might be better? Focusing on a founding father or mother’s life as that person experiences 1776. Becoming an expert on Alexander Hamilton or Abigail Adams gives students something they can master while at the same time providing handles to better understand the macro in which that historical figure lived.

What’s the “fulcrum” in each of the above examples? Learning structured practice (fulcrum) makes one better at direct instruction. Formatively assessing students “on the fly” (fulcrum) revolutionizes lesson planning because you may never be able to create a detailed lesson plan far in advance ever again. Mastering Google Docs (fulcrum) will help you understand how 1:1 devices can be effectively blended within instruction. Breaking up your own learning by focusing on the micro (fulcrum) will help you identify opportunities to introduce the micro to students.

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