What works for teachers? Let’s find out

“Teacher moves” — the many decisions a teacher makes every day — have been ignored by education researchers, writes Michael Goldstein, who founded the high-scoring MATCH charter school in Boston, in Education Next.

Should I ask for raised hands, or cold-call? Should I give a warning or a detention? Do I require this student to attend my afterschool help session, or make it optional? Should I spend 10 minutes grading each five-paragraph essay, 20 minutes, or just not pay attention to time and work on each until it “feels” done?

Researchers care about raising test scores, while teachers “care more about solving today’s problems,” Goldstein writes.

Teachers need to use time efficiently. Researchers don’t consider opportunity cost: They want teachers to spend more time on X without saying where they should spend less time.

Education researchers often put forward strategies that make teachers’ lives harder, not easier. Have you ever tried to “differentiate instruction”? When policy experts give a lecture or speak publicly, do they create five different iterations for their varied audience? Probably not.

 Experienced teachers have seen fads, allegedly supported by research, come and go. Newbies pick up the veterans’ skepticism. To develop useful research, “it makes sense to focus on topics that teachers care about,” writes Goldstein.

1. How to be more efficient. Many teachers want to work less without being neglectful. Or they’d like to free up time to invest in new priorities.

2. How to manage the classroom so kids behave better, thus lowering the “misbehavior tax” on learning. If a middle school teacher can “reset” the class only 3 times per period, instead of 5, that’s probably 1,440 fewer times per year that he has to deal with misbehavior. (By “reset,” I mean when a teacher says something like, “Guys, come on. I need your eyes on me. I need you to settle down. Joey, that means you. I’m going to wait until I have everyone’s eyes.”)

3. How to motivate and generate student effort, especially, how to “flip” kids who arrive having not worked hard in previous classes or years. This includes both getting kids to exert effort during class and getting them to work hard at home.

4. How to get kids to remember material that they seemingly once knew. Cognitive science has moved the ball forward here; now we need applied experiments with teachers.

5. How to best explain particular ideas and concepts. Each year, tens of thousands of math teachers try to get kids to understand the notion that division by zero does not exist.

Goldstein proposes the Teaching Move Genome Project to identify teacher moves and rate their effectiveness. He wants randomized trials, not just perceived best practices.

In his best-selling book Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov describes 49 teaching moves he has observed in the nation’s top charter schools. At the University of Michigan, Deborah Ball and her colleagues are close to unveiling a list of 88 math teacher moves. Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline and Jon Saphier’s Skillful Teacher discuss scores of moves, like the “10-2” rule (have kids summarize for 2 minutes in small groups after 10 minutes of teacher-led instruction), much of it supported by nonrandomized research.

Goldstein envisions a randomized trial of Lemov’s  “Right Is Right” move.

The idea is that when a kid gives an answer that is mostly right, the teacher should hold out until it’s 100 percent correct. Lemov describes various tactics the teacher can use to elicit the 100 percent right answer from the student (or first from another student, before having the original student repeat or extend the correct answer).

The obvious cost of implementing this move is time. These back-and-forths add up to lost minutes each period when other topics are not being discussed. A less skillful teacher might be drawn into a protracted discussion, when her next best alternative (simply announce the 100 percent right answer, and move on) might work better. We just don’t know.

Is it feasible to test the effectiveness of “teacher moves” for different teachers and different sets of students?  Is it a good use of time?

About Joanne


  1. it’s a great idea! 🙂

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The idea is that when a kid gives an answer that is mostly right, the teacher should hold out until it’s 100 percent correct. Lemov describes various tactics the teacher can use to elicit the 100 percent right answer from the student (or first from another student, before having the original student repeat or extend the correct answer).

    Sounds like the Socratic Method. Sounds like you’re demanding that the student think.

    Dangerous stuff, that. It might not work out so well you: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/10/31/after-student-complaints-utah-professor-denied-job.

  3. Effectiveness can only be tested in relation to what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to get students to apply the Pythagorean theorem to simple problems, that’s one thing. If you would like them to think about various proofs and corollaries, that’s another.

    And it also depends largely on the students you’re teaching. You might use a quite different approach for intensely motivated, focused students (who exist, though there’s little discussion of them) than for students who are likely to punch someone if you take your eye off them for a second.

    Terms like “effectiveness” and “achievement” are used out in the abstract far too often. They make sense only in relation to the subject matter and the students learning it.

  4. Ponderosa says:

    Good points, Diana.

    As I’ve tried to implement some of Lemov’s techniques this year with my seventh graders, I’ve been recalling some of the ambivalence you expressed about his book on the Core Knowledge blog. The KIPP/Lemov style has its limits. One thing that started to dawn on me is that most of Lemov’s model teachers seem to teach in high-powered charter schools where the school culture is decidedly “tight”. Trying to be crisp and efficient in my slack non-charter public school does not fly so well. If you’re trying to be a Lemovian warm/strict drill sergeant and all your kids’ other teachers are rather loosey-goosey, the kids will rebel. So I’ve had to back off on SLANT and other Lemov favorites, though I keep cold call and a few others. I’ve retreated on Right is Right because the wait is so often agonizingly long. I’m retreating on “100%” as well because I don’t think I can lift up the chronic non-achievers absent a whole school culture of accountability a la KIPP (and, really, even KIPP cannot do 100%: many leave KIPP).

    • Ponderosa, you make a crucial point which I think too often gets washed over in ed reform discussions: without strong leadership and a supportive professional school community and culture, even the best of teachers will struggle. We’re way too focused on compartmentalizing and isolating and disaggregating teachers and classrooms and students. It takes a whole school to nurture a whole child.

    • Yes, Ponderosa, you are right. It helps enormously when the expectations are consistent (or at least reasonably so) from one classroom to the next.

      With uniformly tight structures throughout a school, teachers can keep things over control. But over time, students should learn how to control themselves when things are a little looser. Not loosey-goosey, just loose like a class discussion, seminar, or lecture with questions and answers.

      When I began teaching, I thought students knew what it meant to discuss something in class. Many did not. To some, class discussion was essentially free time, because they weren’t being put to work. I was baffled when an administrator would come in the room and ask, “Why aren’t the children working?” My answer, “we’re discussing…” didn’t seem to make sense to her.

      But that isn’t a reason to give up on class discussions or to make them rigid–it just means that students may need some intermediate steps before they can understand flexible formats. My beef with Lemov is not that he emphasizes structure but that he doesn’t see beyond such structure, doesn’t see the point where it might hamper the learning.

      Kids who are messy and bright would be miserable in settings where the emphasis is on being neat and organized and doing everything just so. And kids who do learn to do everything just right may be baffled later in college, where what matters is that you learn the material, complete your assignments, and find a particular interest, and where no one expects you to track the speaker with your eyes all the time.

  5. Diana,

    I agree that a middle ground between Lemov and loosey-goosey is the ideal. What I love about Lemov is that he champions efficiency. It seems to me that it’s a national scandal that so much time in public schools gets wasted with chit-chat and slow student compliance, if not outright defiance. From what I gather from kids’, subs’ and my colleagues’ remarks (I have little direct experience because we almost never get to observe each other), kids talk OVER the teacher in other classes all the time. I vigorously combat this in my classroom, which sometimes engenders some major friction. But there is something ugly and soulless about an over-tight atmosphere. The failure of some of my Lemovian reforms may have been a blessing in disguise.

  6. Mevelle Sage says:

    Students should have the opportunity to express their ideas in ways that allows them to truly feel like themselves. However teachers need to teach the students when it is appropriate to speak loosely and when sturcture is needed. An effective teacher is able to make the right decisions for the class she is currently teaching. What may work for one class may not work well for another. Managing the time effectively is whats key.

  7. Great…yet another misinterpreted and mangled set of teaching guidelines layered on top of the existing mess that I’ll be seeing in 5-10 years or so.