Teacher Teach Me

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.

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8 Responses to Teacher Teach Me

  1. paul.musgrave says:

    Your comments on the NYT article about teaching are very well taken.

    In some ways, the Lemov approach is more broadly useful simply because it is a taxonomy of different facets of a universal skill. All teachers (or executives, or politicians, or coaches) have to learn how to motivate an audience, capture their attention, and sustain that attention and that motivation through an hourlong or so session. But this is a relatively low-level set of skills, and if they can be reduced to a bag of tricks (or at least a pretty good workshop), then there’s not much more theoretical interest to be had there (except for behavioral scientists, but they probably know it already).

    What’s much more interesting is whether the math teacher’s approach can be generalized. I find in my political science sections that because there’s no equivalent (or widely-used equivalent) to the problem set/homework approach for exposing people’s reasoning processes that it would be essentially impossible to do the same sort of interventions that the article described. In fact, the closest that you can come to checking someone’s work would be the essay exam or the take-home paper, and even there it’s normally much more difficult to diagnose the precise nature of the flaws in the students’ reasoning than it would be to say “You added when you should have divided.”

    Now, this may just be the fact that as a doctoral student (not even ABD) I’m just not yet practiced in diagnosing students’ weaknesses, and that this is a skill that arrives, magically, with time. If so, splendid. But it seems to me that the high school basketball coach isn’t the only person who would have to struggle with these questions. (Ironically, in my high school, the coaches taught math. Not tremendously well.)

  2. sjt says:

    I’m a bit puzzled about the “technique” paragraph. First you observe that if a technique is perceived by its objects as being a manipulation, it may lose its efficacy. Then you explain a technique which you use, and emphasize that you invented it independently instead of “adopting it as a technique”.

    First, what is the difference between adopting something “as a technique” and what you did? You invented a technique to solve a problem, and now you use it.

    Second, what does this have to do whether your students perceive it as a manipulation?

  3. north says:

    You know, I just don’t agree with you that teaching can’t be taught. There are people who can’t or won’t learn to do it, and people whose natural aptitudes and fears make them better suited to do something else (because they hate public speaking, for example), and people who are naturals. But most people can get better – sometimes dramatically better – by practicing the right things.

    In this respect, I think your analogy to a magic trick is actually very revealing. Magicians aren’t born knowing how to do their tricks: they practice until it looks smooth. If they’re practicing the wrong things, or don’t have some of the inborn talents that make the show appealing, practice won’t help; but the practice is key to hiding the mechanics, and with enough practice most people can do it. The same thing is true for teaching. The first time you use a technique, it’ll almost certainly feel stilted. The 17th, you’re on your way. By the 2000th, you’re either bored with it (and your students will know!) or it’s so much a part of your style that you forget it was ever a technique. As with a magician, you have to know your own style and what you can pull off at a particular moment: start with the easy tricks, the ones that come nearly naturally, and move up. Some of this, as you say, can’t be practiced until you have a live audience; but some of it can, and knowing the principles will help you do better in front of the live audience, and know what to practice.

    Deborah Loewenberg Ball’s classroom example, while awesome, is exceptional. Will remain exceptional. Very few people can pull that off with a class of elementary school students, and it makes no sense to make it the standard. But even someone like the coach you describe can, with effort, improve. You can’t get better if you’re not interested in getting better, but if you’re stuck teaching history and want to get better at thinking and working on it, you can. Read more history, take a class, etc etc etc.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    SJT, I’m thinking that if I were told “jigsaw reading” was a technique that was supposed to yield particular results and that I should do it, I’d try to force its application in circumstances where it isn’t necessarily called for, and in so doing, make it look to some extent as if what I’m doing in the classroom is driven by some external instruction. Since we’re using performance analogies, it can look as if you’ve forgotten your lines and there’s someone constantly hissing at you in a stage whisper, which doesn’t inspire confidence or attention. If I come by it naturally when it seems right to me, then it’s a natural part of how I manage the ebb and flow of learning in a classroom.

    I think North makes good points. Yes, the magic trick analogy suggests you can teach people the tricks. What I’m not sure you can teach them nearly as well is the stage presence and performative charisma that the tricks require to really work–if you’ve ever watched a neophyte magician who has the mechanics but not the performative style down pat, you see that the mechanics are the least of what’s required to be an effective magician. Now, with a magician who is willing to submit themselves to a lot of humiliation and who has the financial support that lets them learn that part of their trade through practice, well, maybe almost anyone can become a competent if not talented performer. Maybe that’s true for teachers, too, though obviously it’s a bit hard for parents of students who get stuck with the equivalent of the Great Lombardi fumbling his patter while he tries to get a rabbit out of his hat.

  5. paul.musgrave says:

    “You can?? get better if you??e not interested in getting better, but if you??e stuck teaching history and want to get better at thinking and working on it, you can. Read more history, take a class, etc etc etc.”

    But I think the whole point of the Ball lesson is that it isn’t just enough to “take a class”–many people have taken classes in mathematics, and some few of them have even become elementary school teachers, but (on the article’s evidence) only Ball made the leap that’s required. The question is whether you can really train people to think in the ways that Ball does–to become clinicians instead of chalk-and-talk masters–and, further, whether it’s as easy to do that with subjects in which the student’s work is not as transparent as it is in math. (For instance, once you get beyond asking people to simply summarize an article or a book, it’s rather more difficult to see if they “get” the material, or even if that word means the same thing vis a vis history as it does vis a vis mathematics, if history is more than a recapitulation of chronologically-sorted data.)

  6. north says:

    Sure, most classes aren’t set up to teach MKT or the history equivalent, and I think the article’s suggesting it would be better if they did. I agree – the hypothetical coach/teacher would have an easier time learning fast if the available classes talked about how new students perceive and analyze content as well as the content itself.

    On the other hand, I found that I could learn what my students found confusing by paying attention to the mistakes they made on homework and in tests, asking them to do new things and seeing how they set up the problems. When I taught writing I assigned a lot of rough drafts and conferences and taught mini lessons on problems I saw consistently. When I taught outdoor stuff, I got better and better at setting up the lessons and anticipating problems by seeing what didn’t quite take when I taught it the last time. Could I have done it faster if someone had taught me MKT and writing technique? You bet. But I *did* learn a lot of it on my own, as do many teachers, by just plain paying attention. That’s not to say that the kind of classes the article advocates aren’t a good idea – I think paying real attention to the intellectual quality of teaching is incredibly useful and important – but it is to say that this isn’t some alchemical process that mysteriously transforms some people into genius teachers and some into bumbling fools.

    The same goes for showmanship. My performance skills are much better than they were when I started teaching, and will I’m sure be better yet when I practice more. Of course some people find it easier than others, but again, I really do think that most people can improve, and often do – given time, given a school with enough support, and given good feedback, none of which are routinely available to K-12 teachers now. It’s unsurprising to me, given how little help most teachers get in refining their act, that many of them are bad at it.

    Lemov’s research is very helpful for this, because it collects many different elements of good teaching style; much of the advice I got as a teacher had to do with the teaching style of the person giving the advice, and not all of it suited me (or where I was at that moment). Lemov’s taxonomy is something you can work on in pieces, much of which works without committing to a specific set of words or classroom systems, which remain customizable to what that teacher can pull off – the magic tricks that are simplest for them.

    Tim, I think that because you’re an attentive teacher, if someone had told you about jigsaw reading, you would have asked how it works, maybe asked for an example of a time someone used it, asked about it’s weaknesses, and tried it. If you didn’t like it, and it didn’t feel natural, you would have thought about it again, maybe tried it again with some revisions, thought about where it would be natural. Maybe you would have just kept it in the back of your brain until you found a situation where it seemed appropriate. You must try things even when you’re not exactly sure how they’ll turn out, right? Getting told about techniques doesn’t obligate you to use them without thinking about how they’ll actually turn out in the classroom, and, like I said before, even if it’s awkward the first time, you get smoother at the trick every time you do it.

    There will, of course, always be naturals, and always be unteachable teachers. I’m taking a class with one right now. It’s important not to make Ball the standard, because she really does appear to be a natural; but the existence of naturals doesn’t mean that teaching skill is inborn and unteachable.

  7. paul.musgrave says:


    I have nothing more to say than–what a great comment.

  8. I’m an English language teacher in Italy. I can say with confidence that some techniques can be effectively taught in teacher training, but the trainer/trainee relationship must be interactive well beyond the objective presentation of a new approach. In my experience, what’s important is the mentor relationship between the teacher trainer and the trainee, how quickly a new technique is applied and challenged in the classroom, and how expeditiously it is met with proper feedback and criticism.

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