Month: November 2014

Teaching teachers to teach


Elizabeth Green

We’ve all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In most schools there are a few teachers that stand out from the pack, the ones who go beyond showing students how to get “the right answer” to inspire them to understand why they got that answer and what it means.

“The common view of great teachers is that they are born that way. Teaching is their calling—not a matter of craft and training, but alchemical inspiration,” says Elizabeth Green, editor-in-chief of the education news service Chalkbeat.

But, as she discovered in the course of her research—and in her own abbreviated teaching experience—that isn’t necessarily the case. Great teachers are those who have tapped into how we learn at a deeper level, and that, Green says, is a skill that can be passed on.

In her book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works And How To Teach It To Everyone (W.W. Norton & Company 2014), Green shows what happens in the classrooms of great teachers and how that can be scaled to an entire school or district.

Why, after some 250 years of education history in this country, is there still so much debate about what makes good teachers?

There has definitely been progress but I agree it has been a lot slower than makes any sense. It is only relatively recently that there has been a real effort to figure out what makes good teachers and how we can create better ones.

You wrote that those early 20th century researchers, tasked with identifying the traits of good teachers, approached the job with undisguised reluctance.

Right. They were supposed to be studying teaching but ended up studying everything but.

They studied the history of education, the psychology of education, the economics of education and the sociology of education—but not teaching itself as a craft. It created an impediment to studying teaching in the way it needs to be studied, and that continues today.

Before universities took over teacher education, we had Normal Schools that were focused on training teachers in their craft. But when universities got involved, the people who led the education schools came from other disciplines. And they applied those disciplines to the study of education—which they defined very broadly—instead of creating a new discipline of their own.

Tell me about some of the teachers you profiled, such as Deborah Ball.

I learned from her that good teaching requires a specialized knowledge that is totally different from either knowing the subject or knowing pedagogy in general. It’s a mix of the two.

Teachers need to be able to identify the ideas that students lack. It’s something we can teach people, but too often, we don’t. Some teachers eventually figure it out on their own, but if they are unable to do that there are big consequences.

There is a kind of knowledge that good teachers have that professionals in other disciplines don’t: How do mistakes happen? How does learning happen? What can you do to reverse misunderstanding?

Deborah has studied that carefully and mapped it out. She’s also shown that it’s possible to help prepare teachers to have that knowledge so they don’t have to create it from scratch on their own.

How did she come to that realization?

It began when her students weren’t retaining what she had taught them one week to the next. She would work with them on long division one week and then two weeks later they’d forget everything they had supposedly learned.

The reason was that they hadn’t learned the fundamentals of math in a way they could retain. It looked like they were learning, but they actually weren’t.

She focused on how students were making mistakes—what researchers call “diagnostic teaching.” Instead of simply having them practice the same drills over and over, she studied what they were thinking and let them make sense of the math along with her.

She did teach the procedures, but by supporting it with this extra layer that focused on their ideas. By connecting their ideas to what’s accurate, they retained the knowledge longer.

What about Magdalene Lampert?

She and Deborah had been working separately, but when they met, they realized they had a similar approach to teaching. Together, they worked on the problem of how to help more teachers develop a similar approach.

Magdalene’s revelation came when she was about to give up. She took sabbatical in Italy to avoid thinking about education for a time, but instead she found the answer when she signed up for an Italian language class.

She discovered they had systems in place to support all teachers in doing the kind of diagnostic teaching that she did. It was really focusing on what the students knew, what they brought to the table, and connecting their ideas to what they needed to learn in a way that allowed them to really retain it.

She brought that model back to the U.S. and is now trying to replicate it, training teachers in Boston Public Schools.

Other fields, such as medicine and law, have long-established, successful pathways to creating doctors and attorneys. Why don’t we have that with teachers?

One reason is that when doctors and lawyers enter the professional world, they have structures that help them continue their professional learning over time. It’s not so in education. There are actually a great many obstacles to teachers working together to learn how to teach and improve over time.

For one thing, there’s simply a lack of time for teachers to do anything but be with their students. They don’t have any time to watch one another teach or to talk about what they’ve been working on.

There’s also no common definition of what students should be learning. So each teacher has been historically left to answer that question on her own. It’s harder to solve the problem of how to teach if you can’t agree on what you should be teaching students to do in the first place.

Groups like Teach for America recruit recent graduates and put them through highly condensed teaching courses. Does that muddy the waters?

I was surprised that the people I met who are most focused on teaching as a craft, and who are trying to help others learn that craft, actually admire what Teach for America has done over the years as it has evolved.

It’s not necessarily the case that the institutions that spend the longest amount of time pre-service are the ones that are most attuned to helping teachers learn to teach. They might have more time to do it, but they might not do it at a high quality.

Teach for America has, within its very limited structure, made a lot of changes and progress, both in the pre-service and in-service support to teachers. It’s not as simple a story as I thought it might be.

Did you expect something different?

Well, it doesn’t make sense that Teach for America—which has popularized alternative certification methods that shorten the amount of time before teachers go into the classroom—would be contributing to the advancement of the idea that teachers need better preparation. But it’s true.

You experienced teaching firsthand as part of your research. How did that come about?

Andy Snyder, one of the teachers in whose classroom I spent time, said, “You’re going to be a fraud if you write this book without trying to teach yourself.”

I said, “I don’t know. Does a political reporter have to be president in order to cover the White House? Does a TMZ reporter have to marry Kim Kardashian to write about celebrities? I don’t think so.”

Nonetheless, he persuaded me to try anyway. It was an amazing experience that really affirmed much of what I had learned in reporting this book.

Well, you had some great advice from top educators to help you.

Yes. It was hard to avoid those bits and pieces that I had picked up.

I had to think not only about what I wanted the students to learn, but what activity they could go through to help them learn it. What knowledge were they starting with? How could I open them up to pieces of the task they needed to do or the skill they needed to learn—the parts that were invisible to them?

I also thought I’d try to do some things that people had convinced me were really hard, but I still thought were worth trying. And I totally failed. That only underscored that it’s not enough to just watch someone else. You have to really practice.

That is the central theme of your book—that good teaching can be taught.

It has to be. We don’t have any other alternatives. It doesn’t make sense for people to have to invent this knowledge and skills on their own. We’ve seen that doesn’t work.

Any plans to quit your job and go into teaching?

I never dreamed that would be even a remote possibility, but now I see why it’s so tempting.

One of my goals in writing the book was to help people who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives to consider this job in its real light. I don’t think people necessarily understand how stimulating and exciting it can be.

Helping women in higher education help themselves

Helen Drinan 2014 photo

Helen Drinan

Helen Drinan is nothing if not outspoken. The eighth president of Simmons College (Mass.) is a strong advocate of women’s rights, diversity and equal opportunity.

Coming from a corporate background where she often had to stand up for herself in a male-dominated environment, Drinan pulls no punches when pointing out higher education’s shortcomings in these areas. “There was so much in common with what’s going on in higher education today that I feel grateful that I’ve seen these problems before,” she says.

Drinan’s candor was on full display in the days following this interview when she announced to the college and to the world in a Boston Globe editorial that she was battling breast cancer.

“As the president of a women’s college, I have determined to use this evil challenge as an opportunity for good by sharing my experience broadly,” she wrote. “I hope that I can alert others to the risk of breast cancer and the hopeful power of early detection.”

Fifty years ago there were more than 200 women’s colleges in the country, now there are fewer than 50. Simmons is thriving. What’s the secret?

There is more than enough room in the United States for a group of distinctive, high-performing women’s colleges. My experience in business teaches me that as long as you are in a niche that has a market and you are distinctive in that niche, you can do very well.

And that’s the key—we have to be distinctive and we have to be high-performing. It’s not right for everyone, but for the right women it is an incredibly positive experience. So I’m very much in favor of preserving this alternative.

With that perspective, could the number of women’s colleges increase?

I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to hundreds, and that’s OK. I also don’t necessarily think that we need 4,000 colleges as we have today in this country. The lesson I learned in banking is when there are too many banks, few are very productive or efficient.

So you can look at American education and say we’ve not been particularly productive or efficient. There are way too many of us. And now we’re being called to account for that.

You come from a business background, having worked in both banking and healthcare. How does that inform how you approach your job today?

There are definitely things that I brought to this job. For example, I came from a corporation that was committed to diversity in the workplace, not just from a moral perspective, but because it made business sense.

Our customers were as diverse as you could possibly imagine, so for us to have a workforce that our customers didn’t recognize when they walked in didn’t help our business. We learned that lesson some 30 years ago.

In higher education I don’t think that lesson has been as well learned. Higher ed has been relatively late to the party in terms of talking about diversity and inclusion as a workforce issue. That means the faculty at all levels as well as the staff.

There’s a lot of work to do to ensure that when our students arrive on campus, they see people like themselves in sufficiently large numbers that they feel comfortable.

Speaking of diversity, Simmons recently admitted a couple of transgender students, after another women’s college denied them. Was there pushback from your board or from students?

No pushback at all. If anything, it fostered more pride in the institution. Honestly, I think sometimes the fear of consequences appears to be so great that we really hold on to concerns far longer than we need to.

The admission of transgender students in women’s colleges is less of an issue than it has been made out to be. We’re simply admitting people who see their life through a woman’s point of view.

You often tell women that they must speak out and stand up for themselves.

I try to talk to them about it in a way that is encouraging and supporting, though. Nobody needs to hear horror tales about these workforce realities.

It is very much the case that today’s workforce is one that is built on the experience of men far more than built on the experience of women. So women still face a lot of challenges that many of them think have been solved when, in reality, they haven’t been solved. They’ve just become expressed in a more sophisticated fashion.

Let me get your thoughts on a phrase we hear often, especially in election years—is there a ‘war on women’?

Well, I do think that there’s no national collaboration on behalf of women. Maybe that’s a different way of saying it.

I know on both sides of the aisle people say, “If you aren’t supporting all the rights of women from a healthcare perspective, that’s part of the war on women,” or “If you aren’t supporting equal pay for equal work, that’s part of the war on women.” There are so many expressions of anti-feminism in our world.

But I like to think of it from the opposite perspective, and that is we have made tremendous progress. When I graduated from college, I had a teaching job. I did not know when I took the job that I would become pregnant, but I did.

I also didn’t know that I would be asked to leave my job if I were visibly pregnant in the classroom. And there was no law against my employer doing that. That was in 1969. Now, those days are long gone. But that’s not so terribly long ago in the life of a society.

But, speaking on behalf of men, we’ve made some progress, haven’t we?

But the kind of progress we need to make now is really in collaboration with men who are just as invested in equality for the genders as women are. If we had all of the high school principals, all of the college presidents, all of the CEOs of major American corporations, all of them understanding that the gross national product of the United States could be enormously increased if we had full participation of all capable women in our workforce, you think they’d want that?

Going back to what I said before about my experience in the corporate world, we were certainly trying to do the right thing from a moral point of view. But the business case was the compelling argument for having a diverse workforce.

I have to tell you, when we started actively engaging our gay, lesbian and transgender employees and it became known that we were a hospitable place for them to work, all of business benefited from a segment of the population that is one of the most active users of financial services in the country. Why would you not do that?

I know you encourage young women to pursue the STEM fields. Historically, girls start out with a strong interest in that, but by the time they reach high school it starts declining. And when they get into college it declines even further.

Everything you just said is true, although it’s interesting to note that the women’s colleges in the United States produce some of the highest rates of Ph.D.s in the hard sciences of all undergraduate institutions in the country, even the finest undergraduate institutions.

But clearly there are things going on for a young girl becoming a young woman that are in the social sphere of her life that are sending a message that science is not for girls. Some of that we know is the feeling of, “Well, I don’t see any girls doing science so I don’t think science is for me.”

What can be done to change that?

It’s not that girls aren’t smart enough to do science. It’s that not enough of them are motivated to try it.

We need to give them more lower-risk opportunities to find out what science is about and to think about whether they’d like it. There are a number of efforts under way.

For example, we have something in Boston called Science Club for Girls. It’s literally a club that girls can join to learn more about science. No grades, no tests, but really involved in going to places where science is done—corporations that do science, colleges that do science—and understanding about experimentation and new learning. I think those kinds of interventions are imperative, where girls are encouraged to see that this is what science is about.

I also think, frankly, that one of the big advantages of women’s colleges is that students are not competing with men. If you note, women who have moved into academic science have some of the most difficult times getting tenure and getting research visibility, because they are competing elbow to elbow with people who have no motivation whatsoever to help them succeed in these fields.

So having those four years as an undergraduate where people are really focused on your growth and development as a young scientist makes a huge difference.