Building better teachers

Since Krypton can’t supply enough SuperTeachers, can we build a better teacher out of ordinary mortals? Elizabeth Green in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine looks at training teachers in the techniques developed by successful teachers and developing teachers’ knowledge of how students may misunderstand new ideas.

Doug Lemov, author of the upcoming Teach Like a Champion, thinks what looks like “natural-born genius” is 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 believes “students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions.”

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.

EdWeek blogger Walt Gardner thinks it’s harder to imitate successful teachers than Lemov thinks.

Good technique isn’t everything, argues Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a University of Michigan education professor. Neither is mastery of the subject.  Good math teachers must know what math looks like to learners.

It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. 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.

Ball calls this Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or MKT.  She developed a test of math knowledge and MKT and compared teachers’ results with their students’ test scores.  Students of teachers with above-average MKT scores learned “three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one.”

Sixty percent of mathematicians who took the test “bombed” on the MKT questions.

Inspired by Ball, other researchers have been busily excavating parallel sets of knowledge for other subject areas. A Stanford professor named Pam Grossman is now trying to articulate a similar body of knowledge for English teachers, discerning what kinds of questions to ask about literature and how to lead a group discussion about a book.

As a tutor, figuring out what was going on in my student’s mind was a huge challenge — and I only had one kid at a time.  I wonder to what extent this can be taught to new teachers.

About Joanne


  1. That’s a very interesting quote from “Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a University of Michigan education professor.” Can we get a link to that?

  2. It’s not something you teach to new teachers. It’s something you help them develop during the first three years.

  3. Scrooge McDuck says:

    I’ve seen videos of Ball’s lectures on mathematical knowledge. She makes a good pitch on her technique giving an example of a multiplication problem that a student gets wrong and asks the audience what the student was thinking. I talked to a high school math teacher who has been teaching for 30 years and is very effective and asked her about Ball’s “technique”. She said there are certain mistakes that students make that you learn to recognize over time. If you don’t recognize the mistake, you just ask the kid what he/she did. Then you correct him or her.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    “I wonder to what extent this can be taught to new teachers.”

    I will make the wild and uninformed guess that this can be taught very well to teachers ONCE SOMEONE DOES A STUDY OF THE KINDS OF MISTAKES THAT KIDS MAKE.

    Using the provided example: 307 – 168

    I’d venture a guess that there are only a handful of popular answers. You won’t see 945½, for example.

    Once we know the vast majority of wrong answers, we can probably build a taxonomy of them. This would be good even by itself. Next would be a selection of various strategies to try to correct each error.

    In an ideal world, collecting this knowledge and then making and testing error-correction sequences and strategies would be what ed-schools did. From reading books and on-line posts, I get the impression that this sort of activity is very uncommon in ed-schools.


    -Mark Roulo

  5. “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.

    There are a lot of little tricks of the trade. I’ve picked up several very valuable ones, but never from an ed. class or in-service training.

    It wasn’t until my 5th year of teaching that a colleague told me it’s better to use 1st person instead of 2nd person when correcting a student’s behavior. Dang, that made a huge difference.

    Some of my colleagues have classes that always pay attention. Always, every word. I’ve observed them and I have no idea how they do it.

    Some teachers simply are blessed with magic.

    Too bad I wasn’t. I have to work like the devil.

  6. I thought that understanding the types of math mistakes made, and how to address them, was a significant factor in both Liping Ma’s work, and in the training given to (prospective) math teachers in Singapore.

  7. There’s been a few studies of math miscue analysis, most prominently out of the University of Oregon, possibly the University of Kansas. Most of these are sped-related. When you’re doing remedial work, one of the first things you realize is that you need to figure out what the miscue is, what you do to remediate it, and monitor future performance. It also takes the ability to make a kid comfortable enough with you that they can say “I don’t get it,” and work through the process with you instead of shutting down, hiding the work from you, goofing off because they don’t understand, or other evasions.

    The roles of student-teacher trust, student-principal trust, and teacher-principal trust, are drastically underrated in any studies of school reform. But eliciting that trust in order to make those jumps in achievement that kids can do is as much an art as it is a science–and it takes time and practice to learn how to do it. Too many people think it’s enough to tell a kid they could be great. They leave out the other piece, which is the monitoring, mentoring, encouraging, and setting standards that puts the kids in line to be great.

  8. It’s good to look at possible causes of wrong answers, and it’s also good to look at possible causes why no answers are forthcoming. One possible reason is that students are not oriented in the presentation that the teacher is giving. They have lost track of what the topic is, where it began, and where it is going.

    For example, A history teacher is lecturing about the economic system of a country, explaining how it was affected by and contributed to the War of 1812. The students listen carefully and take notes, but they have a problem. They don’t know whether the teacher is talking about the economic system of the United States or of England. They can continue to take in the information, and it will continue to make at least some sense to them, but until they get oriented, by finding out which country the teacher is talking about, they cannot really assimilate the information they are receiving.

    Could something like this happen in my classes? Well, I try not to let it. Yesterday in an algebra class, about halfway through an explanation on completing the square of a quadratic function, I reminded them. “Remember what we’re doing. We started with y = x2 – 6x + 9 That’s a quadratic function. We can graph it, and we know its graph is a parabola opening up. We changed the form by completing the square. x2 – 6x is not a complete square. We can make it a square by adding 9. Remember we have completed the square before in solving quadratic equations. . . . . . .”

    Did I need to give this reminder of what we were doing? I think it’s well worth the minute or two it takes. Indeed I repeated that reminder a time or two again before we were all done with that topic. If I were the history teacher in the example above, I would remind the students a time or two that I was talking about the economy of England, not the United States. I would do that because I have trained myself to automatically do that in whatever I am teaching.

    I’d like to say they taught me that in ed school. But they didn’t.

    I’d also like to say they taught me in ed school to maintain eye contact with the class. But they didn’t. A principal told me that in my second year of teaching. It made an important difference. I was still never very good at discipline, but it did help a lot to remember to maintain a lot of eye contact with students.

    joycm in the comment above mentions student-teacher trust, and other things, and how it is developed. My experience gives me some definite ideas about that, but ed school did not. How come?

    Robert Wright in his comment mentions the idea of using the 1st person instead of the third person when correcting a student. I don’t understand why that would make a difference, but if it does I want to know about it. Wouldn’t that have been worth fifteen minutes or a half hour in some ed school class? Maybe I was absent that day.

    And maybe I was absent the day the prof delved deeply in the whole subject of handling competition in the classroom, both the wanted kind and the unwanted kind.

    So once again I’m bashing ed school.

    The example I gave in the second paragraph about the history class is lifted directly from There’s more there.

  9. Brian, I think these techniques we’re talking about are stuff you have to learn as you are teaching. It could have been thrown at me in 15 minutes in Ed school, but I wasn’t equipped to see the value because I wasn’t dealing with the problem. That’s why like an internship model so much. Get the pre-service teachers in the classroom almost immediately working with master teachers so they can develop.

    This is also why I don’t buy that teachers peak at 5 years. A year or two ago I started the practice of introducing the day by explaining what we were going to do in context of the unit. We’re going read this article and take some notes in preparation for a discussion on x novel, etc. It occurred to me that my plans are not a big secret from the kids. Everybody likes to see the big picture. It eliminates the “why are we doing this, this is stupid” whine and we get more done.

  10. The statement from the article that what appears to be natural talent to teach is really deliberate technique reminds me of the book, “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. In it, he explains that to become an expert (or even proficient) requires many years of deliberate practice. (And he explains that what looks like natural talent really isn’t.) I would suspect that the great teachers are the ones who gave themselves that practice by analyzing their interactions with students and trying to understand what went right/wrong.

  11. Lightly seasoned, I wouldn’t disagree at all about an internship being the essential part of teacher training. When I was young we had student teaching at the end of the teacher training program. My student teaching experience was not good, but that’s another story. Now I understand prospective teachers get in the classroom very early, and from what I read I conclude that some beginning teachers have a good experience with their student teaching, or whatever they call it. So I guess there is some progress, at least in some ways.

    But outside of the internship, or whatever we have, it does seem that the criticism of ed school I hear today, indeed in comments above, are pretty much the same criticisms I heard almost fifty years ago when I started college in 1961. One model of ed school reform would be throw out every thing but the internship. Perhaps that would be an improvement. I’m not sure.

    I do take every opportunity to criticize ed school. I think we should. But certainly we should also address the question of what ed school should be like. I think we should abolish ed school requirements, but that is not the same as abolishing ed school. Ed school ought to compete in a free market of merit (not that any other profession would be willing to do that, I’m just saying it would be good for education to do that). So long as ed school courses are required, ed school ideas can stagnate.

    So what should be taught in ed school courses? There is an argument to be made that no profession can teach all the nitty gritty details. Those have to be learned on the job. But surely professional training ought to provide some sort of background to which those details can be added on as they become available. I don’t think education courses can avoid getting into some of the sort of thing talked about in this discussion. They have to get into it deep enough so that teachers have some beginning point, and some perspective.

    I criticize ed schools, but I think the problem is deeper and wider. I have long felt, and argued now and then, that many very good teachers are very poor at communicating what they do. By following their common sense and intuition they do the right thing at the right time, and are good teachers. I presume most good teachers also make good mentors. But being a mentor, I would think, is quite a different thing than being a good professor of education. In a specific situation in a real school with real students and a real problem such a good teacher may give very good advice, such as “Give him detention!” or “That problem is confusing.”, or “She’s playing games. Quit responding”, or “She’s not playing games. She’s frustrated just about to her limit”. But how does that translate into what should be taught in ed school? I’m not sure.

    I do think that if we take a very good classroom teacher and make him or her responsible for a methods course in ed school, everyone would be disappointed and frustrated. What we lack is a science of pedagogy. What we lack is a dispassionate and very analytic investigation into teaching. I don’t think we have even close to that, and I don‘t think research, of which we have tons and tons, can be of much value until we have that analytic foundation. So if I may toot my own horn once again, here’s my idea of one thing fundamentally wrong with pedagogy, , and here’s my idea of the fundamental flaw in ed school,

  12. A relative, retired after 40 years as a HS teacher of outstanding reputation, has a BA and MA in history from the College of Arts and Sciences. He took only enough ed courses for certification and was fortunate that his state’s requirements were not extensive. He has always said that the only necessary ed courses were (1)growth/development/psych (2) methods (3)tests and measurements and (4) practice teaching; all both level- and subject-specific and all taught by professors who have significant subject and level experience. In my experience, the ed schools have the worst teachers in the university, the professors are unlikely to have had significant experience in the k-12 system and are unlikely to have any practical expertise to offer.

  13. momof4: add school law and a course in teaching students with learning disabilities/abnormal psych.

    Brian: I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. How come nobody ever asks us? Ha. I will say I’ve had good and bad professors in all departments.

    I teach prof dev. in my building/district. You’d think it would be a piece of cake since I, you know, teach all day. It’s been an interesting learning curve.

  14. What are some of the things you were taught in ed school that you ended up not using? or that ended up being actually UNhelpful? I’ve often heard that ed school doesn’t prepare teachers well (or well enough) but I’m wondering what needs to be cut.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Doesn’t matter how good you are, some nuts&bolts technique work can improve you.
    Alternately, if you’re only average, technique training could make a big difference. Particularly if your shortfalls are in various discrete techniques.
    “Move in vees and doubleyous” said the Methods of Instruction instructor at Ft. Benning. That way, you’re always going toward or away from the class, which is more likely to get attention than either standing still or moving laterally.
    Saw a couple of well-trained amateurs do a lengthy song once. The guy was always moving forward when it was his turn to take the lead. You never saw him move backwards to prepare for his next forward move. I guess he hid behind the attention his partner was getting when she had the lead. Dramatically very effective, and an example of technique or craft. Point is, you can’t do that stuff without being trained and it was effective.

  16. Clix, on one of my first ed. school tests, we were asked how many sprocket holes were in an inch of 16mm film.

    I had a methods class in English where I learned a couple of good ideas and I was assigned “Hooked On Books” and “The Way It’s Sposed to Be” which were worth reading. “Hooked On Books” had a strong, positive impact on me. Later, I read some Neil Postman and that was good, too, especially his belief that we should compete with popular culture rather than put grammar rules in rap songs.

    Most of ed school meant putting up with meaningless crap. Getting through ed school helped prepare me for the meaningless crap I have to now endure on a daily basis.