Monday, March 29, 2010

Building a Better Teacher: Get out your Manual

I recently read a New York Times magazine article called “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green. It was informative in its way, but the piece as a whole really left a lot to be desired. It was technicist and very narrow in its approach to thinking about what teaching is, who students are, and how one learns teaching as a craft. That Green is a Spencer Fellow in education made this fact all the more depressing.

The article provides a very good look at the current concerns over inadequate supplies of highly-qualified, effective teachers. Green examines various efforts to understand and document the work of such teachers, and to explain these efforts to NYT readers. She documents the work of people such as Doug Lemov, a former teacher, principal and charter-school founder who has developed a personal mission: to develop a deep knowledge of excellent teaching and to pass that knowledge along to those in the teaching profession. Lemov’s Taxonomy is what came out of this mission, and a book about it will come out soon called Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. Green also documents the work emerging out of places like Michigan State University and other places who have focused hard on high quality research and teaching about the work of teaching.

The work to better understand the work of excellent teachers is noble. For those who care about issues of equity and democracy – as many readers of this blog do – there is little more paramount than the work of teaching teachers. No other variable matters more in helping kids from poor and racially-isolated neighborhoods to experience academic success. And there is an awful lot we do not know or understand about how to develop, coach and assess excellent teaching.

But Green’s article confuses teaching technique with the larger philosophical, moral, political, and pedagogical work of educating young people. Green does a disservice to not only the craft of teaching and learning how to teach in schools, but in the process also advances the agenda of those bashing schools of education and teacher education program. She seems eager to buy into Art Levine’s 2006 assessment of teacher education as a scattered and ineffective course of study. Certainly there are a lot of bad teacher education programs out there, and each program needs to be judged and held accountable for its own flaws and problems. But Green’s criticisms are much more general lobs at schools of education as a whole, and thus do not see any of the differences in quality among programs and schools. Even Green’s characterization of the course of study for most teachers in university teacher education programs doesn’t even seem accurate:
Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.
Three points strike me about this excerpt. One, this description leaves out the role of the liberal arts curriculum. At my institution and others, the liberal arts is seen as playing an important role in teaching critical thinking, communication, and inquiry, all essential skills for great teaching. The second problem with Green’s account here is that it over-states the foundations element and the role it plays today. At my university (a public, selective state institution enrolling around 14,000 undergraduates), out of an approximately 128 credit hour teacher education degree, the foundations requirement takes up exactly three of those credit hours, constituting about 2% of the total learning (if credits could be equated to learning, which they can’t). And the third problem with this excerpt is that it’s confused. If 88 percent of education faculty school professors have taught in schools, isn’t the accusation that they are “out of touch” with real schools a bit hard to claim?

[I am among that horrifying 12 percent of professors in education schools who have never taught in elementary or secondary schools. Honestly, what can I be thinking? How can I know anything about teaching by studying it, researching it, practicing it, and committing my professional life to learning and teaching others about it? Not much, is the implication here.]

Green also gives a brief historical look at how normal schools became schools of education at modern universities:
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.
Green is right that schools of education have long suffered status problems, and have responded in various ways that were not always in the bests interest of schools or children. One wonders, however, what might be the problem with using social science to better understand how schools work or function as social systems. One also wonders where Green learned about progressivism. Not even progressivism’s worst enemies would sum it up in the dismissive way that she does here.

Technique is important, but it is always the means to an end. What “end” does any teaching technique serve, and is that end a laudable goal? If teachers cannot answer this larger question, then they are merely following a manual. Teachers must know how to teach – I know of no one in my school of education who argues otherwise – but one should not confuse the techniques of teaching with the craft of teaching. Craft is part art, part science; it is a moral endeavor that cannot be simplistically reduced to a list of techniques for people to follow after they’ve learned the content of math, history, or English literature. I doubt that Green, a Spencer fellow, understands teaching in this simplistic way. Unfortunately, her article leaves exactly that impression.

No comments: