Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terrific Teachers

We’ve all had at least one — the life-altering guide who helped make us who we became. I’ll bet you can see a face or recall a pivotal conversation even decades later. A really great teacher is as much a life-saver as a firefighter, a police officer, a trauma surgeon, or a helicopter rescue pilot.

But what makes for a great teacher? And, more importantly, how can we make more? For, although I believe the research over-simplifies things, economists and statisticians, wading through the mass of testing data now available on student achievement, have fixed on teachers as a major variable in student outcomes.

My quibble is that the outcome measures in such analyses are solely these test scores, and that such differences in outcome often do not hold up as years go by. Doing well on a test may well not be a valid measurement of understanding and skill. That said, however, we all know that terrific teachers have made a difference in our own lives and those of our children. How can we help more teachers to become exceptional?

I admit to succumbing, at one time, to the notion that great teachers are born and not made — ignoring the fact that it took years of experience to make them as good as they eventually became. But we had better figure out — fast — how to accelerate that process of on-the-job training, because we need more of them now.

The ingredients of greatness

Expert teachers require at least three separate kinds of expertise: in subject matter, in how a novice misunderstands the subject, and in the mechanics of teaching.

The first should be self-evident: you can’t teach what you don’t know. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. If it were enough, there would not be so many college professors who can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. Understanding is not enough, if you can’t impart it to others.

Part of the ability to actually teach something is really an understanding of how students get it wrong. You have to get inside their heads to appreciate and correct their mistakes. The successful teaching of reading, for example, rests on knowledge of how students learn, what is difficult for them, and the mistakes they commonly make.

The famous video “A Private Universe” revealed that even Harvard graduates commonly have misconceptions about scientific basics such as the cause of seasons (relating them to Earth’s distance from the sun, rather than to the tilt of its axis). One interesting aspect of the video was its revelation that such misunderstandings could be traced back to such simple antecedents as a drawing in an elementary science textbook — one they had misinterpreted as children but which formed the (subconscious) foundation of their (mis)understanding of orbital mechanics. Such learning mistakes can be invisible to both teacher and learner.

Figuring out exactly what students are thinking is an art form. One of the experts in analyzing it is Deborah Ball, now Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work has demonstrated that specialized knowledge of how to teach specific mathematical concepts translates into increased and lasting student comprehension. Her Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching work emphasizes the importance of teachers understanding mathematical reasoning, and of asking the right questions to understand what students are thinking and why, in order to ensure they can not only get the right answers but do so for the right reasons.

Equally important, if less often taught in Schools of Education, is skill in the mechanics of teaching, sometimes dismissed as “classroom management.” A great teacher commands the classroom, gets and holds the attention of students. Some do this through sheer charisma or force of personality, but there are simple techniques that anyone can master. Doug Lemov has spent years finding, categorizing, and videotaping these techniques. His recently published book, Teach Like a Champion, summarizes all that research. [Ugh, hate the title! It evokes a bleeding, sweaty boxer, gloved hand raised after the knockout punch. But maybe that’s just me....]

Here’s an example of Lemov’s thinking (not the specific techniques): “Much of student behavior is opportunistic ... ‘I can get away with it, so I will.’ A far smaller number of students will persist in a behavior once you’ve made it unambiguous what you expect. Fewer still will do so when you’ve shown you’re persistent.” He repeatedly reminds us that children may not know exactly what we want them to do or may not know how to do it. Explicit directions can make all the difference.

Implicit in the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top reform efforts is the assumption that carrots (merit pay) and sticks (firing teachers and principals in “failing” schools) applied to teachers will improve student learning. Not only have those techniques never been proven to work (remember how Edison Schools were going to show the profit motive could improve education?), but they can never reach and help all students. Helping all teachers to refine their craftsmanship can.

Note: These ideas were explored in much greater detail in “Building a Better Teacher” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on March 2, 2010.

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