Building A Better Teacher

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html?pagewanted=all. Copy-pasted excerpts below.

Some teachers could regularly lift their students’ test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others’ students left with below-average results year after year.

This record encouraged a belief in some people that good teaching must be purely instinctive, a kind of magic performed by born superstars.

The reformers are also trying to create incentives to bring what Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor in Washington, calls a “different caliber of person” into the profession. Rhee has proposed giving cash bonuses to those teachers whose students learn the most, as measured by factors that include standardized tests — and firing those who don’t measure up. … Incentives are intuitively appealing: if a teacher could make real money, maybe more people would choose teaching over finance or engineering or law, expanding the labor pool.

The incentives did shock some schools into recognizing their shortcomings. But most of them were like the one in Syracuse: they knew they had to change, but they didn’t know how. “There was an implementation gap,” Lemov told me. “Incentives by themselves were not going to be enough.”… Lemov doesn’t reject incentives.  … Yet he has come to the conclusion that simply dangling better pay will not improve student performance on its own.

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try.

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was 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 thought about soccer, another passion. If his teammates wanted him to play better, they didn’t just say, “Get better.” They told him to “mark tighter” or “close the space.” Maybe the reason he and others were struggling so mightily to talk and even to think about teaching was that the right words didn’t exist — or at least, they hadn’t been collected. And so he set out to assemble the hidden wisdom of the best teachers in America.

LEMOV WAS NOT the first educator to come to the conclusion that teachers need better training. In the spring of 1986, a group of university deans sat in an apartment near the University of Illinois at Chicago … They planned to mail the document to about 100 universities, along with an invitation to join their crusade, a coalition they named the Holmes Group, … “People were saying, ‘Well, you’re lucky to get 30,’ ” … By the end of the year, nearly every invited dean had signed on.

The process of studying their own sins was “painful,”

The most damning testimony comes from the graduates of education schools. No professional feels completely prepared on her first day of work, but while a new lawyer might work under the tutelage of a seasoned partner, a first-year teacher usually takes charge of her classroom from the very first day…. “I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn’t teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do,” she told me.

In the 20th century, as normal schools were brought under the umbrella of the modern university, other imperatives took over. Measured against the glamorous fields of history, economics and psychology, classroom technique began to look downright mundane. Many education professors adopted the tools of social science and took on schools as their subject. Others flew the banner of progressivism or its contemporary cousin constructivism: a theory of learning that emphasizes the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else.

When Doug Lemov, who is 42, set out to become a teacher of teachers, he was painfully aware of his own limitations. … After his disappointing visit to Syracuse, he decided to seek out the best teachers he could find — as defined partly by their students’ test scores — and learn from them.  … The odyssey produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)

Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.” The romantic objection to emphasizing it is that a class too focused on rules and order will only replicate the power structure; a more common view is that classroom management is essential but somewhat boring and certainly less interesting than creating lesson plans. While some education schools offer courses in classroom management, they often address only abstract ideas, like the importance of writing up systems of rules, rather than the rules themselves. Other education schools do not teach the subject at all. 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.

Lemov switched off the video. “Imagine if his first direction had been, ‘Please get your things out for class,’ ” he said. Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do. There were other tricks Zimmerli used too. Lemov pointed to technique No. 43: Positive Framing, by which teachers correct misbehavior not by chiding students for what they’re doing wrong but by offering what Lemov calls “a vision of a positive outcome.” Zimmerli’s thank-yous and just-like-you’re-doings were a perfect execution of one of Positive Framing’s sub-categories, Build Momentum/Narrate the Positive.

All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining.

Lemov is interested in offering teachers what he describes as an incentive just as powerful as cash: the chance to get better.

ANOTHER QUESTION IS THIS: Is good classroom management enough to ensure good instruction? Heather Hill, an associate professor at Harvard University, showed me a video of a teacher called by the pseudonym Wilma. Wilma has charisma; every eye in the classroom is on her as she moves back and forth across the blackboard. But Hill saw something else. “If you look at it from a pedagogical lens, Wilma is actually a good teacher,” Hill told me. “But when you look at the math, things begin to fall apart.”

Hill is a member of a group of educators, who, like Lemov, are studying great teachers. But whereas Lemov came out of the practical world of the classroom, this group is based in university research centers. And rather than focus on universal teaching techniques that can be applied across subjects and grade levels, Hill and her colleagues ask what good teachers should know about the specific subjects they teach.

Dropping a lesson plan and fruitfully improvising requires a certain kind of knowledge — knowledge that Ball, a college French major, did not always have. In fact, she told me that math was the subject she felt least confident teaching at the beginning of her career. Frustrated, she decided to sign up for math classes at a local community college and then at Michigan State. She worked her way from calculus to number theory. “Pretty much right away,” she told me, “I saw that studying math was helping.

Working with Hyman Bass, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. 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.

At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”

The idea that just knowing math was not enough to teach it seemed legitimate, but Ball wanted to test her theory. Working with Hill, the Harvard professor, and another colleague, she developed a multiple-choice test for teachers. … Hill then cross-referenced teachers’ results with their students’ test scores. The results were impressive: students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score

Ball and Lemov have never met, and Ball had not heard of Lemov’s taxonomy until I told her about it over a late dinner last December in Ann Arbor. We were joined by Bass, the mathematician, and Francesca Forzani, an alumnus of Teach for America who is managing the university’s teacher-training overhaul. Ball had just declared that teaching “is decidedly not about being yourself,” but the other two were having trouble articulating just how teachers should behave.

The more I talked about the taxonomy with Ball and her colleagues, the more it became clear that she was just as much a master of the 49 techniques as Bob Zimmerli. There were just two small differences. First, whereas Lemov’s taxonomy is content-neutral, Ball connects hers to math. The second difference was that, while these practices were so ingrained they seemed imprinted on Ball’s soul, when it came to talking about them, to passing them onto her students, she had no words.

The notion that an expert may not be able to describe or convey his own expertise is nothing new. A star basketball player doesn’t necessarily make a star analyst/commentator nor a star coach, and vice versa.

One obstacle is when the expert isn’t accepting of the notion that what he does should or needs to be broken down, possibly fearing that it becomes watered-down and misconstrued. On the other side, an obstacle is when a person can see or even talk about a subject area, but not have expertise, and feel that he is “enough” – enough to do all possible roles (eg coach, player, commentator, teacher). The parallel can be drawn between the roles or emphases discussed in the article: a person who is a good classroom manager, charismatic, gets the students to behave; a person who is an expert, thoroughly knowledgeable about the subject matter; a person who knows about classroom managing but doesn’t necessarily have the sensitivity and skills to carry it out; and a person who is not only something of an expert, but can share and convey points of view with those students who have misunderstandings or lack of comprehension.

The word, “fear”, above may sound excessive. However, the resistance to accepting, contemplating, and even integrating other people’s – particularly less expert or less serious people – perspectives and grasp of the same subject matter – the resistance can be quite robust and irrational. Irrational because it doesn’t necessarily lead to one becoming more stupid or dishonest when one accepts other points of view – yet this can be the subjective experience of the prospect. Emotional because of the robustness of the resistance – it can have real “weight” for being immutable and provide impetus for innumerable excuses and justifications to procrastinate and dismiss.

Regarding accepting the “painful” challenge to look at oneself, there’s another parallel to stages of change, something usually thought of in relation to substance abuse but is relevant to human change in general. The first stage is “precontemplative” – the person cannot even see or imagine that there’s anything wrong, or any other way to be. An star ball player may not even see or imagine holding the ball incorrectly. An expert martial artist may find is difficult to imagine not developing or honing one’s own sensitivity and accuracy, and discovering the things that hinder doing so. The second stage is “contemplative” – the person starts to ponder, or be able to ponder, the possibility that there might be another way, possibly even a better way, for things to be. One “trap” is one can convince oneself that it is quite a low priority to actually apply that change to oneself. Eg. “The problems, if there are any, aren’t that serious. The problems aren’t that relevant to my particular situation. It would be harder for me, compared to other people, to make that change. On second thought, I’m actually fine the way things are – I can handle it.”

There was some inclusion near the end of the article about “manipulative-ness”. I wonder what this, I think cultural, sensitivity or aversion to appearing manipulative is. When you are a group leader, are you not manipulating the group? Is it “manipulative” when the technique you are using isn’t “yours” yet (ie you are aware that you are “doing” a technique)?

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