Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs


SMW, March 7, 2010 4:40 PM


The New York Times Magazine Cover Story
Plus Extensive Reader Comments To
"Can Teachers Be Taught To Teach Better?"
Our Recommended Read.

For everyone concerned about the direction of education in this country, Elizabeth Green reports her must-read key findings for increasing teacher effectiveness, which is inarguably one of the most critical factors for student success.   Through her interviews with key reformers in the field, Green primarily zeroes in on "technique."

Two of her main featured interviewees are Doug Lemov, former teacher, principal, and currently charter school founder of Uncommon Schools, who focuses on deliberate techniques not necessarily subject to specific content, and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, an assistant professor in Math and former part-time elementary school teacher "whose class was a model for teachers in training" and relates technique to content understanding.

Both illustrate that there is much to do with regard to teacher training in this country with teachers admittedly unprepared in the art of specific techniques and actual apprentice-type training when they enter the real world of school.  

Below are a few excerpts with link to full NY Times article here:

"When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school's control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to. Some teachers could regularly lift their students' test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others' students left with below-average results year after year. William Sanders, a statistician studying Tennessee teachers with a colleague, found that a student with a weak teacher for three straight years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher for those years. Teachers working in the same building, teaching the same grade, produced very different outcomes. . ."

"But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try."

"When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn't expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. "Stand still when you're giving directions," a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don't do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once."

"It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?"

"Lemov thought about soccer, another passion. If his teammates wanted him to play better, they didn't just say, "Get better." They told him to "mark tighter" or "close the space." Maybe the reason he and others were struggling so mightily to talk and even to think about teaching was that the right words didn't exist -- or at least, they hadn't been collected. And so he set out to assemble the hidden wisdom of the best teachers in America."

Click here for videos illustrating a few of the effective teacher techniques learned from the research of Doug Lemov, founder of the charter school network, Uncommon Schools.

. . ."All Lemov's techniques depend on his close reading of the students' point of view, which he is constantly imagining. . ."

Here an insight from a teacher with "extensive training":

". . . No professional feels completely prepared on her first day of work, but while a new lawyer might work under the tutelage of a seasoned partner, a first-year teacher usually takes charge of her classroom from the very first day. One survivor of this trial by fire is Amy Treadwell, a teacher for 10 years who received her master's degree in education from DePaul University, a small private university in Chicago. She took courses in children's literature and on "Race, Culture and Class"; one on the history of education, another on research, several on teaching methods. She even spent one semester as a student teacher at a Chicago elementary school. But when she walked into her first job, teaching first graders on the city's South Side, she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read. "I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn't teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do," she told me."

"They decided that rather than buy talent, they would try to build it.  .  ."

This from Deborah Ball's research:

"Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov's techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T.  . .  At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. "Teaching depends on what other people think," Ball told me, "not what you think."

We also recommend checking out the multiple comments to the NY Times "Can Teachers Be Taught To Teach Better?" which is related to the Magazine's main article mentioned above.  Link here to the full article.  Below are two example comments worth noting:

"Here are the no nonsense reasons -- not necessarily in order of importance -- why our public education system fails, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Number one is that, yes, some of the teachers are incompetent or poorly trained But not in the way the author suggests. What I mean is that some of the teachers themselves are just plain stupid, or to be less mean, not that smart. Many of the teachers who find their way into the teaching profession were themselves weak students who didn't grasp material quickly but went into education because, frankly, among the graduate curriculums to choose from, education is one of the easiest because it in of itself doesn't require you to be smart. So pare up a dumb teacher with underprivileged students, and guess what, you get even dumber students!

Another reason is that many teachers don't like kids! That's right, many are teaching solely for the pay check.

This reason leads to my next one which is that most graduate education programs are flawed because they don't expose teacher candidates to the classroom until far into the program. By this time, many candidates have to commit themselves to the profession because they've already spent or have indebted themselves by thousands of dollars. Teaching is the one profession where it is crucial that candidates get hands-on experience very early in their training. This way, those who cannot manage a classroom or discover that they don't like teaching kids as much as they thought they would can drop out early. No harm, no foul.

Another reason the teaching profession is a mess is because many of the new ideas foisted upon it come from people who have never been in a classroom! These people are essentially researchers and statistical analysts -- like the kind whose work is touted in this article -- who have no idea what it's like to get 20-30 young people to stay on task. Or, if these soothsayers have been in a classroom, they certainly haven't been in one in, say, central Harlem or the Bronx where so-called traditional teaching techniques simply do not work.

And, finally, one of the most, if not the most crucial reason why teaching is a mess is because parents are not held accountable. There needs to a be a public information campaign that tells certain parents that they -- not teachers or schools -- are their children's primary teachers, that learning should not begin and end in the classroom, that it is their job to foster an atmosphere of learning in their homes from the time of conception forward, that there should be books in their homes, that their children need to see them read for information and for pleasure, that they need to speak to and have their children respond to them in complete sentences, that their children cannot watch TV and play video games during all of their spare time and expect to do well in school, etc. . . ."

The second:

"....And by the way -- you did see the article in today's Times about Diane Ravitch's flip-flop, right? Just a couple of decades too late."

What do you think?  Are great teachers born or made or a combination of both?  Who was your worst or best teacher and why?

Video overview of Uncommon Schools below:

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We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next twelve years telling them to sit down and shut up.
Phyllis Diller

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