Green: Teaching can be taught

Good teaching can be taught, argues journalist Elizabeth Green, co-founder of Chalkbeat, in Building a Better Teacher.

University of Michigan Education School Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball changed Green’s thinking, she tells USA Today‘s Greg Toppo.

When I met Deborah Ball, she gave me a math problem: 49 times 5. I said, ‘I’ve got this: 245.’ Deborah said, ‘Now tell me why a child would think that 49 times 5 equals 405.’ I had no idea. But she explained that the student had simply switched a step in the traditional multiplication algorithm, correctly carrying the 4 in 9 x 5 = 45, but then incorrectly adding it to 4 before multiplying by 5, instead of adding it to 4 x 5 (8 x 5 = 40).

Teachers . . . need to be able to reverse-engineer students’ mistakes. Yet it takes a special kind of knowledge to do that reverse-engineering. Even professional mathematicians can’t do it without training. Just knowing a subject is not enough to teach it.

The Japanese hold “public lessons” by great teachers that can attract as many as 1,000 observers, says Green.

But the point isn’t just to watch a model for everyone else to replicate. It’s also to experiment. They even have a teaching version of the television show Iron Chef, where two teachers will teach the same topic on one stage, but in two different ways. Each lesson becomes a hypothesis to see what’s working well. And then the best ideas get enshrined in the country’s national “course of study” and in textbooks, both of which are written by the best teachers.

U.S. teachers are expected to figure out how to teach effectively on their own, says Green.

The most elite professors “are the ones who focus the least on teaching” she  tells the New York Times. Methods classes “receive the weakest funding, are least informed by research and bear little clear connection to what teachers are actually going to have to do when they leave the university and enter the classroom.”

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  1. It’s an interesting idea, an ed school that’s teaching teachers to teach, I’m unconvinced however that there’s all that much demand as of yet for graduates who have some grasp on their professional skills. Another few years, as the number of kids attending charters, and under the impetus of vouchers and ESAs, private schools, I can see it but as of now, no.

    What’s interesting in the linked article is that the author can’t seem to find the broad implication in the efforts to increase teacher accountability and teacher autonomy.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      Tangential to your main point, but worth mentioning nonetheless: The advent of 529 plans basically killed off ESAs. They still exist, but few financial companies will open new accounts. I like them because you can use the money before college, whereas 529 plan monies are for college/post-HS education only.

    • Tangential indeed. No thoughts on the revelation that teaching can be taught? Or the uncertainty of inclining an ed school curriculum in that direction, irony be damned?

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Seeing how Tom Loveless disagreed strongly with Green in the next post, is she trustworthy or just trying to sell a book?

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    The former math department head at my school traditionally taught the calculus course. Everyone thought he was great. Students liked the class and did well on AP exams.

    However, lots of students weren’t doing well in the non-Honors ninth grade Algebra 1 class. So he decided to get “up close and personal” with the problem and teach one of those classes himself. OMG, was he frustrated! He’d try this and try that, things that had worked for him in the past and THEY JUST WOULD NOT WORK.

    What won the education version of lron Chef for his calculus kids would not have won for his Algebra 1 kids. There is not now, never has been, and never will be, one best way to teach all students. Because, surprise!, kids are different.

  4. palisadesk says:

    Teaching certainly *can* be taught — it is a skill set (and which particular skills are needed depends on what is to be taught and to whom). I was “taught” to teach, I certainly didn’t know diddly squat about it before I was taught. I went to a very effective teacher preparation program (I was lucky) . Among other things, I was taught how to assess a student’s level of preparation/knowledge’skill, how to organize instructional sequences, how to observe and refine these based on student response, how to do “task analysis” to determine exactly what a student (or group) was misunderstanding, missing, or misapplying, how to give descriptive feedback, various ways of keeping observational records (to inform teaching and reporting both), how to present group lessons… the list goes on.

    I was clueless about all of this beforehand.

    I took advantage of good teacher training at Morningside Academy’s “Teacher Academy” which ran for 4 weeks (in July-August) and was very intense (I think it is only 3 weeks now): I strongly recommend this; it was outstanding. There were teachers there from all over (reservations, inner city schools, a few private schools; the summer I was there a whole bunch were there from the Recovery District in New Orleans), fabulous folk all committed to excellence and learning more ways to foster student achievement.

    Fred Jones has a lot to say about the myth of the “born teacher.” He found that the most effective teachers had similar behavioral repertoires, which may have been better developed in some before they became teachers, but which others could learn. Organization and observational skills are absolutely key and can be developed and honed. The one thing I have found it impossible to teach anyone else is something which, for lack of a better term, I named “instructional sense.” I don’t believe it is mystical, but it’s a non-conscious “instinct” that guides one to know when to push harder, when to back up and rehearse some things again, when to be encouraging, demanding, brisk, warm, whatever, and how to set the pace and provide constructive criticism and motivation. It’s all tied up together, and some (few, fortunately) that I have known have simply been unable to get a grip.

    I think if I had a reason to do so I could do a task analysis of “instructional sense” as well, and it too could be taught. But a person needs good observational skills, needs to be mentally well-organized (organizing “stuff” is beneficial too), and needs to be able to see connections readily, to understand and respond appropriately to students’ behavior and learning..
    It may well be, as most of my younger colleagues have told me, that they learn little to nothing about teaching before they started their career. But that does not mean that it cannot be taught, only that it is not *being* taught.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    He’s hardly the first to find parallels, but Steve Sailer recently had some interesting thoughts about teachers and entertainers:

    “But what if schoolteaching is less like Science, where the goal is one unchanging method for doing things, and more like Entertainment, where what works varies over multiple dimensions in all sorts of complicated ways?

    “In general, school teaching can be thought of as a very unglamorous form of show biz, which involves stand-up performers (teachers) trying to make powerful connections with their audiences (students).

    “We are not surprised that some entertainers are better than other entertainers, nor are we surprised that some entertainers connect best with certain audiences, nor that entertainers go in and out of fashion in terms of influencing audiences. Moreover, the performances are sensitive to all the supporting infrastructure that performers may or may not need, such as good scripts, good publicity, and general social attitudes about their kind of performance.

    “In other words, if you think of entertainment acts as social science experiments, they have poor replicability.”

    There are some things about being an entertainer that can be taught, but as with teaching, there are some things that cannot. And if you want to be a pop star, you probably shouldn’t assume that opera training will be easily transferable.