Like a lot of other bloggers, I was impressed by Elizabeth Green’s article on teacher training in the most recent NY Times magazine.
Green describes some movement towards improving the process of training teachers both before and after they’re on the job. I’m somewhat convinced by the case she builds, but not entirely.
I’m still inclined to think that there’s something about highly effective teaching that can’t be taught prior to the act of teaching, that you can only discover how to teach through experience, and so prior training in teaching itself has its limits. Also, I’m still inclined to think that there’s an art to teaching that you have to discover in yourself that draws on your own distinctive store of knowledge as well as your emotional resources.
Where I think training beforehand has the most impact is with the most specific and technical kinds of pedagogical challenges in a particular subject or classroom setting. After someone starts teaching, someone who can dispassionately coach or observe you teaching is a big help (though if you’re able to listen and read between the lines, your students are sometimes coaches in this sense). A bad coach is worse than no coach at all, and as the article observes, that’s the situation more than a few student teachers find themselves in.
I like the approach of Doug Lemov’s “taxonomy” as described in Greene’s article. Lemov set out to collect as many cases of highly successful teachers and their techniques as possible and sorted through them looking for patterns or commonalities. That’s how I think about good teaching, through examples I’ve witnessed.
The problem with the taxonomy is that many of the tricks and techniques Lemov mentions only work because they don’t appear to be techniques. I could do a taxonomy of persuasion in conversation, but when you’re in a conversation and someone appears to be using a set of techniques, when their management of the conversation is transparent, those techniques stop being persuasive. Just like a magic trick stops being magic when you see how it is done. I found out the other day that something I’ve done for years in classes actually has a name as a formal technique: “jigsaw reading”. The basic gist is that you hand out different reading assignments to groups within a class and have them report back to the class as a whole. It’s a good way to ensure everyone has some more focused responsibility for the content as well as a good way to get multiple perspectives on a single issue into the discussion. I didn’t adopt that because I learned a technique: I discovered it independently as a commonsense way to handle some common pedagogical challenges. Taxonomy may help teachers hone and perfect things they’re already inclined to do, to be sure.
I’m not wild about making success on standardized tests the main benchmark of good teaching, either. I got a 5 on the Biology AP when I was in high school, but almost nothing of what my high school biology teacher taught me has stuck with me in any degree of specificity. (Some of my general knowledge of biology is so cumulative over repeated exposures from multiple sources that I may have a hard time attributing what I learned from any one source, I concede.) On the other hand, I can tell you with intense specificity where I learned some things that I continue to use daily. My senior AP English teacher led us in a reading of Invisible Man which was very directly memorable and useful. My undergraduate professor who taught Middle Eastern history was such a gifted lecturer that I can remember the specifics of many of his lectures. But I can also think of teachers who made me want to learn, or taught me how to think and communicate, where I’m not as clear about the specific granular knowledge they transferred to me. Not all good teaching has the same goals or the same character.
That’s why I liked the example of Deborah Loewenberg Ball’s 3rd grade math classroom, in which she has enough confidence to get off the lesson plan. When a student’s enthusiastic if wrong ideas about what makes a number even or odd comes up, she lets the class work up a definition of even and odd for themselves rather than efficiently squashing the diversion and hammering home the right answer by rote. Again, though, this only works if the teacher is already a confident thinker, knowledgeable about knowledge. The classic “coach who is reluctantly forced to also teach high school US history” is pretty well screwed if students want to get off the textbook’s narrow roadway, not just because he may know little beyond the textbook but also because he may not be confident about thinking about history, about why we think we know what we think we know, and how we came to know it.
I know it’s not helpful to say that the good teachers are already doing what Lemov identified and the bad teachers not only are not, but possibly cannot. The I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach to what makes for “good teaching” doesn’t help much when it comes to making public education better. I’m not sure that yet another doctrinal one-size-fits-all approach is the right alternative. Educational policy, like economic development, is a massive graveyard of orthodoxies pushed for a decade with religious fervor and abandoned unceremoniously when the next shiny distraction comes along. At some point in both cases, you’d think the sight of the bleaching bones of past doctrines and dogmas would lead to lowering the perceived stakes, a humility about limits and goals, and a healthy taste for heterodoxy. At some point.