Cracking the Code: How to Train Better Teachers.

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.

  • knottsy

    Assuming that this is the Holy Grail, how would one set up the training program for
    1) education majors
    2) young teachers
    3) seasoned teachers

    Would it both address the general teaching skills, as well as the subject specific skills? I believe that article touched on people knowing math versus being able to teach math.

  • It’s ridiculous to me that people don’t think teachers need training on the basics. We accept that experienced teachers are better but people don’t seem to connect that to the fact that they’ve tried different teaching methods over the years and have honed their skills based on what works. You can train the techniques they’ve acquired to new people. That’s true for every other job. When I was trained for teaching SAT prep, almost all we did was learn how to stand in front of a classroom and engage rather than tell. We had to practice asking questions instead of dictating, turning so that our eyes were on the students at the same time we wrote, walking around as a way to keep people engaged, etc. I really don’t understand why we try to put teachers in a special box on this score.

  • Megan

    I think that the teaching skills in Lemov’s taxonomy are a bare minimum for a good teacher to control a classroom and keep students engaged. BUT, that won’t do you any good unless you have pedagogical content knowledge in order to actually teach students concepts. It’s just as serious a problem when schools focus on classroom management at the expense of content knowledge as when they focus on content knowledge at the expense of classroom management. Notably, though, the latter hardly ever happens.

    • Alisa

      As I said in the post, concrete skills must be employed along with other things, pedagogical theory and knowledge of your subject area would obviously be a couple of them. There was no suggestion that this measure should be used in isolation.

      • Megan

        I don’t think anyone explicitly argues that classroom management techniques and other teaching skills like the one’s in Lemov’s taxonomy are the only things required to make a good teacher. Lemov himself is quoted in a throw-away line in the NYT article saying that content knowledge is important. I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t consider other aspects of what makes a good teacher.

        But I do think it’s a question of balance. A certain segment of the charter school movement specifically — the one promoted by Lemov — tends to hold these techniques up as a sort of holy grail of teaching, when really holding students’ attention is only the first step towards actually educating them. Step into a direct instruction classroom and you’ll see what I mean.

        I suppose my takeaway is that the NYT article is trying to set up a false dichotomy between teaching practice and the really deep and complicated content knowledge required for teaching. It’s not either/or, but both/and.

        • TheMindFrame

          Megan, as a teacher with 6 years of experience I think you are really missing the point around the “class room management” concept. It’s not necesarily about discipline. Holding a student’s attention is more than “just the first step” as you so lightly put it. Classroom management is about helping the student understand the connection between his or her life and experience and the content you are trying to teach it. I think your characterization of Lemov and the endorsement of his techniques does a disservice to the real benefits classroom management brings to the education of a child. If you can’t help a students connect and see “WHY” they should care about whatever topic you are teaching (be it the French Revolution or pre-calculus) all your content knowledge is going out the window. I’d encourage you to read the article over along with the supporting links, I think you missed an important part of the argument.

          • Megan

            I actually don’t think I missed an important part of the argument. And I have read the article in its entirety. And not only do I have 4 years of teaching experience, but I am currently a PhD candidate in education. And, for the record, I am in 100% agreement with k’s comment below, who managed to sum up my major problem with the article. I have no qualms with Lemov’s taxonomy and think it’s a fine addition to a teacher education program, but am a tad bit upset that it received so much attention in the article at the expense of Ball’s work.

            Partly I’m frustrated because I think we’re talking past each other. I agree with you that helping students “understand the connection between his or her life and experience and the content you are trying to teach” is important. I also agree that helping students “connect and see “WHY” they should care about whatever topic you are teaching” is important. I disagree that Lemov’s taxonomy does this, by itself, without other teaching strategies. Would you say that standing still while talking connects students with the “WHY”? Does cold-calling students make them realize why they’re studying French? Does positive framing help a student make a connection between his or her life and the content you’re teaching? I would answer no, these techniques encourage attention, but they do not encourage a deep connection between the material being covered and a student’s life.

            I’m not trying to denigrate classroom management. It is a fundamental part of teaching, one that is often misunderstood and assumed to be about personality rather than practice and technique. But let’s be clear: it’s only one aspect of teaching, and, while important, is not the most important thing a teacher does.

            • quadmoniker

              I disagree that Lemov’s taxonomy does this, by itself, without other teaching strategies.

              Megan, that’s her problem. She never said it does it by itself. You keep suggesting that she has.

              • Megan

                I can accept that the OP will consider teaching techniques in addition to the taxonomy, which is why I wrote this earlier: “I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t consider other aspects of what makes a good teacher.”

                My last post was directed at TheMindFrame, who wrote that “classroom management is more than just the “first step.” I took this to mean it was, in itself, a goal of teaching. Or maybe the first two steps? Either way, I disagree. I also think some of our disagreement was in the definition of classroom management, since I took the article’s focus on skills like using a strong voice and hand signals to emphatically not include different teaching techniques that would relate content to students’ lives. I put those skills in a different category.

                Like I said above, it’s a question of balance. Right now, with a certain segment of the charter school movement, hedge fund gurus hopping on the education train, and the NYT article discussed in the post, I think too much attention is being paid to the mechanical skills required in classroom management. To me, classroom management techniques are to teaching what persuasive writing is to the practice of law. They are a requirement but are not sufficient, and if a lawyer could only show persuasive writing skills but not knowledge of the law, that lawyer would not pass the bar. I don’t think we, as an educational system, treat teachers the same way. Maybe we never could, but that’s a separate issue.

                I realize I’m blowing up this discussion for apparently no good reason. I don’t think anyone credible will stand up and argue that if every teacher used Levmov’s techniques we would fix our education system, close the achievement gap, and catch up to the rest of the world in science and math. I didn’t mean that to come across as my critique. But my original point stands: it is just as serious a problem when school focus on classroom management above content knowledge as it is when schools focus on content knowledge above classroom management. And I see much, much more of the former than the latter.

  • -k-

    I was kind of pissed when I read the NYT piece that the author sat down with Deborah Freaking Ball and didn’t have a whole lot more to say about the encounter than that she’s updated her glasses. (I was also kind of grossed out by her assumption that we’d all agree that it was unfathomable that a woman with a prostitution conviction could ever be anything else, and appalling that her desired ‘something else’ was teaching, because clearly the only thing we could expect for her to do would be do get in front of a group of students and preach about the glories of selling your body for sex.. but I digress.)

    The 19 practices that were glossed over there are the outcome of quite a bit of work and thought on the part of the highly respected group of people that are part of Michigan’s Teacher Education Initiative- high-leverage practices that form a kind of technical core for teacher learning. They’re about the specialized work that teachers do across content areas (which, as QM alludes to, a lot of people don’t really believe exists, a la ‘those who can’t..’)- they’re neither content neutral nor just about math, although that’s the focus of DB’s work and the most sensible way angle for her to take in illustrating some of these ideas. And while the work is ongoing, “no words” is not, in my experience, an accurate characterization. I feel like either these people reeeally didn’t bring their A-game to that dinner, or Green did some pretty lazy reporting, or some combination of the two. Wah wah.