Can great teaching be taught?

Bill Gates Fails Education 101, writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Feb. 28, Gates argued that student achievement has remained virtually flat over the past four decades despite doubling per-student spending in K-12 schools because teaching is the one profession that has no clear indicators of excellence. . . His solution is to “identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.”

. . . First and foremost, inspired teaching is an art and not a science. As I’ve written often before, outstanding teachers often ignore the principles of effective instruction and still get remarkable results.

“Great teachers” are virtuosos, writes Gardner. Trying to imitate them is useless. At best, Gates’ proposal will turn out average teachers.

Great artists (or scientists) of instruction may not be able to transfer their genius to ordinary folk. But surely novice teachers can learn teaching craft from excellent, non-genius teachers.  Those who lack the divine spark that makes a great teacher can aspire to be good teachers, maybe even very good teachers.

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  1. By this logic, then, if an art is unteachable, shall we stop all arts training of all varieties? Why give up at teaching?

    Does this line of thinking make an MFA a joke because “art can’t be learned?”

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    “Those who lack the divine spark that makes a great teacher can aspire to be good teachers, maybe even very good teachers.”

    And good is good enough. I would be satisfied if every kid in America had a good teacher. At least for now. We can aspire to very good.

  3. Elizabeth says” By this logic, then, if an art is unteachable, shall we stop all arts training of all varieties? Why give up at teaching?”

    Indeed, why stop at teaching AND art? Whether Gardner understands it or not, MOST fields have a high level of “art” in the broader sense, of creativity and of individualized and unique approaches. Not many generals will ever perform on the level of a Ridgway or a Rommel…does this mean that officer training should be abandoned?

    And if teaching is unteachable, why would the obvious conclusion not be to close all the ed schools that lurk within American universities? Why is the “unteachable” argument made only in an attempt to head off meddling by an outsider? The question answers itself, of course.

  4. Also: last year, The Atlantic ran an interesting article on what makes a great teacher. Excerpt:
    Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

    Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

    But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this mean for a lesson plan?’” So Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    I don’t understand why Walt is scared of Gates on this one. Maybe we cannot all have great teachers in every classroom but as Stacy said we can have good. If good means these teachers are highly effective then this will be good for the kids.

    All professionals (are teachers truly professionals?) want to improve their craft…whatever it is. The PD I have seen or heard about in my district is a joke.

    I would think the sharing of “best practices”, novel ideas that have proven, evidence based results, etc from teachers to teachers would be interesting. It is don’t mean one has to mimic what another does but one might pick up bits and pieces and adopt/modify them to make themself better….

  6. Karen Sherwood says:

    The phrase “best practices” does not refer to innovative techniques, lessons, or projects that individual teachers have created and used to motivate students and enhance their education; that would be information welcomed by all teachers. However, at this time “best practices” is just another bit of pedagogical jargon, referring to the long list of classroom activities and “commandments” created by educational researchers and social scientists, many of whom might never have taught. Some of these “best” practices are certainly valid, but others are unworkable, even silly, depending on specific classroom conditions. For example, “best practices” might say that students should not be given vocabulary lists and then be expected to study and learn those words; instead, students should be creating lists of words they have come across and want to learn. However, suppose a teacher wants students to preview new/difficult words from a novel that the class will be reading and he/she makes up a list of those words and definitions and creates a lively and interesting classroom activity using that list. The students are enthusiastic, they learn the words-thus improving their understandind of the novel-, and they improve their vocabulary skills. It seems like a successful outcome, and everyone should be happy…BUT, that is not necessarily the case. The English supervisor might just as easily declare this an unsatisfactory lesson because “best practices” decree that students should not be given a prescribed list of words. Similarly, if a teacher has a class full of students who enjoy working independently and are doing well, a supervisor might still tell the teacher that since “best practices” names group work as the optimal learning situation, the teacher should revise the lessons so that the students can work in groups (no matter how much students may dislike it.) What should be a list of suggestions, becomes a list of rules which, ironically enough, may stifle creativity on the part of both the students and the teachers.

  7. Yes, the government is pushing the same “best practices” schtick on physicians; bureaucrats who don’t have any clinical practice, let alone in a particular specialty, decide what options/treatments the physician may offer to the real, live, non-standardized patient sitting in his office.

  8. This moronic thinking, along with the ‘only the best teachers for our kids’ would give us 3 teachers, and each would be worthy of a Nobel Prize. He should get real.