Teaching teachers to teach

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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.

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