I know a good teacher when I see one.

The question of what makes someone a good teacher is an important one.  It is something I have written about before.  Today in on an email list someone included a link to a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, Most Likely to Succeed.  It starts out talking about football, making a solid connection to teaching:  No matter how good someone looks in college, there are no guarantees about how they will perform in the “pros”.  He talks about a study done by folks from the University of Virginia, where they videotaped teachers and classrooms, charted what went on and “graded” teachers on their performance.  It is just like what the the football scout did at the beginning of the article.

What they have found is not surprising to me, but I think it is worth talking about.  If nothing else, this is important to talk about:

Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success.

They say that yes-no feedback is the most typical feedback in the classroom and that it “provides almost no information for the kid in terms of learning”.

When we, the teachers, are the ones with all the knowledge, when we are at center stage, yes-no feedback is sort of natural.  We are dispensing that knowledge to our students, and they have to get it “right”.

Teacher: What is the capital of Pennsylvania, Nancy?

Nancy:  Philadelphia?

Teacher: No, that’s wrong.  Susie, what’s the capital of Pennsylvania?

Although I haven’t thought about it in many years, writing this I remember a time when just that very thing happened. I was in 5th grade, and my mother was in the classroom for some reason.  The teacher, a nice old man, was quizzing us on the state capitals.  I was asked the capital of Pennsylvania.  I don’t remember now if I said Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, but I know I didn’t say Harrisburg!  I was embarrassed, of course.  My mother later asked me how I could have missed that one.  (She is, after all, from Pennsylvania.)  I didn’t learn the capital of Pennsylvania that day.  I didn’t really learn that until many years later when I lived in Pennsylvania myself.  And except maybe for those few years, I have never had any reason to know what the capital of Pennsylvania is.

The researchers Gladwell talks about say feedback should provide a chance for the student who was “wrong” and for the rest of the class to learn. They talk about tying what goes on in the classroom to the kids’ lives.  So how could that teacher have handled the situation differently?  He could have asked me if I had ever been to Pennsylvania.  I would have told him I had been there just the summer before.  He could have asked me where I went while I was there.  I probably would have told him we went to Philadelphia, at least.  He could have spent 30 seconds or so talking about Philadelphia, explaining that it was not the state capital.  Then he might have asked other students if they had ever been there.  The answer probably would have been no.  He would then probably have had to ask anyone else if they knew what the capital was, and someone would have known.  I would have felt less stupid in class that day because I had some knowledge and information to share with the class.  And, because I was really thinking about it, I probably would have learned that very day that Harrisburg was the capital of the state of Pennsylvania.

Gladwell says:

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students’ needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel as if he or she were getting his personal attention. But these aren’t cognitive skills.

I couldn’t agree more.  You can’t teach teachers to do this in a course in a college of education.

Gladwell goes on to talk about apprenticeship programs as a possible solution.  But of course, as with all possible solutions, there are some people who won’t like it.  I think we have, in effect, a type of apprenticeship program already.  Look at the teachers who leave the field within a few years because they discover it isn’t what they want to do for the rest of their lives.  But by then they are discouraged and disillusioned and, I would imagine, feel bad about themselves in the process.

I have had people in colleges of education tell me that they work with some people who just “get it” right off the bat and others who struggle throughout their “training”.  Somehow there must be a way to work with those two groups of students differently.  Maybe those who struggle could begin to “get it”.  And those who “get it” could either finish sooner or go one to learn about more and different possibilities.  But that would require changing — really changing — the way we educate future teachers.  And like all major reform to education, chances of that happening seem slim.


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