[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.
Technology has increased the rigor of professional development sessions tremendously, mainly because new tools exist that actually engage students and help them produce. Another reason is the field of education has experienced an influx of smart people who view learning in a much different way than teachers and administrators. Oftentimes it takes individuals with an outside perspective to improve a system.
Enter Tim Ferriss. Like Seth Godin, Dave Ramsey, and a handful of other writers today, Ferriss’s work has had a powerful impact on my life. His books introduced me to an effective diet, strength training, principles of investing, Stoic thought, journaling, morning routine, the downside of specialization, and many other ideas that’ve positively affected my life. I’ve adopted many of his methods in my work life, and since I’m a Curriculum and Tech Specialist in a school district, I apply these strategies within the public school system.
I’d like to share with teachers and principals six ways Tim Ferriss can improve the way you work, which will ultimately increase student learning.
- Ferriss’s blog. This is the perfect place to start for finding out more about Ferriss’s teachings. From posts such as ‘How to Think Like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ and ‘What My Morning Journal Looks Like’, the blog is the best place to get introduced to Ferriss and gain a sense of how he can help your day-to-day practice and life.
Ferriss’s books. There’s The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef. You won’t literally learn how to work, train, and cook for only four hours a week by reading these books, but you’ll discover how making small, smart changes can produce dramatic improvements. In education, there’s a lot of wasted time–from what the students are made to do in class to how teachers use their prep time. Learning how to optimize every second of your day so you experience maximum results can produce students who think and create at high levels.
Ferriss’s podcasts. I was speaking to a well-known educational trainer recently who told me teachers don’t listen to podcasts because no one has the time. I’m not sure if she was right or not, but I do know Ferriss’s podcast is a true gift. He interviews high profile people and asks them the perfect questions. When driving to work and listening to his interviews, I can learn Maria Popova‘s thoughts on workflow, how to master money from Tony Robbins, lessons Ed Catmull has learned working at Pixar and Disney, Stoic wisdom from Ryan Holiday, and how Matt Mullenweg built WordPress. For the average person (i.e. me), getting the chance to talk to all of these people and glean their valuable expertise is impossible. Ferriss’s free podcast is a gift for those who are always in the pursuit of improving and learning from the best in their fields.
DonorsChoose.org. Ferriss is on the advisory board of DonorsChoose.org, and he’s written about his belief that poor education is the root cause of most of society’s problems–an idea with which I wholeheartedly agree. This post by Melinda Gates does a wonderful job explaining DonorsChoose, and the fact that Ferriss is a part of this organization means he’s very aware of what the field of education is lacking and what it desperately needs.
Adopt Ferriss’s constant pursuit of deconstructing excellence. Education is concerned with learning about the world and pursuing excellence in one’s life. Ferriss has made a career out of mastering many different subjects in the smallest amount of time possible, and he constantly shares this information with the world. I think students would benefit greatly if teachers emulated Ferriss’s lead through experimentation, sharing findings via various outlets (books, podcasts, blogs), and understanding that if you’re not continually learning, you’re continually forgetting.
Avoid additives–just make the way you work more effective. In education, schools and district are always implementing new programs. Oftentimes, these programs are added to already existing programs that haven’t yet been mastered by teachers. Implementations should not be additives; we shouldn’t keep adding curriculum and interventions just because we can. Instead, school administrators should examine what has already been implemented and either help make teachers better at those things or cut the programs altogether. If you’re saying ‘Amen’ to this, then Ferriss is your man.
Being a good teacher is difficult work. It takes constant vigilance and redefinition. The days of teaching the same thing over a 35-year-career are over. Like Ferriss, teachers must continually learn how to improve their craft, and the resources and inspiration Ferriss provides would benefit every educator who takes the time to read his books or listen to his podcasts.
If you’re interested, here are some items I’ve been turned on to by Ferriss that have improved my life:
Listening to a recent Tim Ferriss podcast got me thinking about an interesting reality: Every generation has a major profession toward which smart young people gravitate. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was space rockets. In the late ’70s and ’80s, it was Wall Street. In the ’90s and ’00s, it was tech startups. Today, they build apps.
Is building an app a noble venture for a young person? There’s no doubt that some apps are changing the world. Navigation, communication, purchasing, and learning have all advanced by a large margin–I’d argue for the better–because of ingenuity on the mobile platform. But it’s important to put the present in perspective and question whether we’re inspiring our young people to solve today’s most pressing problems. I mean, someone who goes to Wall Street instead of NASA isn’t doing anything wrong, but choosing to further our knowledge of the world is so important and heroic.
As educators, we must show students the good and bad in this world. They must know the good so that they can marvel and fall in love with learning. They must know the bad so that they cultivate the desire to fix what they can. The 21st century is presenting some perplexing problems that children today must fix when they’re adults. Teaching them to dream big is imperative.