Conversations pertaining to the persistent problem of how to increase teacher effectiveness tend to yield more questions than answers. The intuitive strategy of choosing exceptional students and overachievers in the hopes that they will in turn be exceptional teachers sounds right, but doesn’t work. Attributes that are fuzzy and difficult to quantify such as “grit” and “life satisfaction” seem to say more about a person’s potential to be a good teacher than whether they went to an ivy league school or have experience teaching difficult students at under-resourced schools. For those of us seeking some concrete way of finding, training and keeping good teachers this conclusion is less than satisfying. In addition, the need for teachers is so great is is unlikely that the ranks can be filled by only recruiting candidates who are naturally gifted in teaching.
I believe teaching is a mixture of skill sets. Having an easy rapport with students and and a certain “touch” with students can be an asset, as are many other intangibles that we think about when we reminisce about our favourite teachers. However, these ineffable qualities must coexist with studied and reflective praxis, which is not mysterious at all. Its the product of finding out what works, throwing out was doesn’t and refining it, so that it can be employed by anyone who can learn it. For a far better discussion on this than I could produce I recommend Elizabeth Green’s great piece in the NYT Magazine on the quest to train better teachers and the contributions of Doug Lemov’s work on a taxonomy of teaching techniques. The premise of Lemov’s taxonomy, which is to be published in April entitled “Teach Like A Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students On The Path To College”, is that although a lot of teaching seems like magic it is actually a defined skill set. A skill set that can be taught.
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?
I first encountered the taxonomy this winter in Boston at a training workshop, one of the dozens Lemov gives each year to teachers. Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.” The romantic objection to emphasizing it is that a class too focused on rules and order will only replicate the power structure; a more common view is that classroom management is essential but somewhat boring and certainly less interesting than creating lesson plans. While some education schools offer courses in classroom management, they often address only abstract ideas, like the importance of writing up systems of rules, rather than the rules themselves. Other education schools do not teach the subject at all. Lemov’s view is that getting students to pay attention is not only crucial but also a skill as specialized, intricate and learnable as playing guitar.
There are some who might rail against this, seeing it as a “reduction” of teaching to “mere skills” but I don’t think that at all. There has to be some form of structure that can be relied on and knowledge of what works so that so-so teachers can be helped to become good teachers and good teachers can become great teachers. Even talent needs a nudge from time to time. Given the massive gaps in the amount of good teachers we have and what we need projects like the taxonomy and mechanical changes to the way we teach teachers may be the most realistic means of meeting the challenge of improving education.