Teaching without heroes

Hero teachers won’t improve inner-city schools, writes Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution. There aren’t enough of them.

What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren’t heroes. Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people, poorly paid and ill-motivated – i.e. the system we have today.

There is such a method, writes Tabarrok, citing author Ian Ayres’ support for Direct Instruction in Super Crunchers, a book about the use of data to make decisions. Large experimental studies have shown Direct Instruction, which requires teachers to follow a “carefully designed and evaluated script,” is the most effective teaching method, Ayres concludes. He writes:

DI is scalable. Its success isn’t contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher … You don’t need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher. DI can be implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary teachers. You just need to be able to follow the script.

“The data also show that DI does not impede creativity or self-esteem,” Tabarrok adds.

The education establishment, however, hates DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they prefer the model of teacher as hero.

It’s my impression that DI requires competent, though not necessarily heroic, teachers who check continuously for student understanding; just following the script isn’t good enough. Perhaps teachers who’ve used DI can elucidate.

At D-Ed Reckoning, Ken the DI blogger writes about the dangers of ambiguity in teaching, a danger that DI works to avoid.

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Comments

  1. Peter Drucker said that if a job can only be done by a “hero,” then the job needs to be redesigned. Specifically, he said that if a job has defeated three good people in a row, then there is something wrong with the job.

    But Prof Drucker was also fond of the observation that “you can’t just hire a hand. Its owner always comes with it”..meaning that no job should be designed without room for thought or initiative.

    There has to be a balance. We don’t want teaching jobs that can only be done by rare and exceptional people, but we also shouldn’t go down the path of all too many customer service organizations and attempt to micromanage all aspects of employee/teacher behavior.

  2. I like heroes; they generate a lot of enthusiasm by example. It’s interesting to work at a school with them, as they can provide a spark that leads me to improvements in my methods or changing the structure of what I’m doing.

    What many teachers are, instead of heroes, is martyrs. They work non-stop, staying in their rooms long after the rest of the staff has left. They take work home even after that, laboring long into the night, grading. They often don’t socialize much with other teachers – they don’t have respect for those who chose to have other commitments in their life. They may juggle many balls, but those balls are always Teacher Balls.

    What they don’t have is balance. Most of us have families and friends. We have other interests than school. While we do support our school and the students (just last Friday, my husband and I went to the Homecoming game), we don’t attend EVERY event.

    My students enjoy the fact that I do other things besides Physical Science. I talk about watching The Biggest Loser and Dancing With the Stars. I bring in plants from my garden, and pictures of my kids and grandkids. It gives them the sense that teaching (and teachers) can be multi-dimensional, and that the job is NOT just a vocation, but part of a well-rounded life.

    While I believe, like Jaime Escalante, that I could be doing more, I’m not willing to make teaching my only activity. I think a more reasonable suggestion is to ask teachers to stretch themselves for 5% more effort. In a staff of 40 teachers, that’s the equivalent of 2 more teachers.

  3. But Prof Drucker was also fond of the observation that “you can’t just hire a hand. Its owner always comes with it”..meaning that no job should be designed without room for thought or initiative.

    Indeed. And Direct Instruction requires a good deal of thought on behalf of the teacher. The teacher is continually monitoring their students and revising the lessons based on feedback about what the students are learning.

    What Direct Instruction gives teachers is the tools to teach effectively.

    Teachers in a DI school are also expected to support each other and problem-solve together (eg, a particularly difficult student, what’s going on, how do we manage her behaviour? is it possible that there’s a physical cause?).

    Also note that the Direct Instruction reading and maths courses only take up half of the school day. Teachers need to fill in the other half. Of course teachers are welcome to use DI principles in that other half, but there’s no script and no such intensive support. Teachers have to use their brains.

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