Building a Boring Teacher

09Mar10

The New York Times published an article in their magazine this past weekend titled “Building a Better Teacher“. The article outlines the task of placing better teachers in classrooms. The trouble comes in when defining “better teachers”. What makes a good teacher? In the US, the yardstick for “good” teaching seems to be standardized testing, which is whole barrel of worms I’ll get to another time.

And not the good barrel of worms either

The article revolves around a series of instructional techniques called Lemov’s Taxonomy, a list of characteristics supposedly found in effective teachers collected by educator Doug Lemov. I say “supposedly” because the measure of a good teacher appears to be based on a combination of standardized test scores and  some unknown subjective measure. I think the ranking of teachers needs to be based on a sound system of measurement with reproducible results; otherwise, what’s the point? Garbage in = garbage out. It’s like using astrology as the basis for scientific measurements (no offense to any budding astrologers out there).

Aries has a 17.4% chance of surpassing 13 Standard Attractive Units (SAU)

Reproducible results are hard to come by in education, especially with the huge disparity in each child’s background (e.g. socioeconomic, genetic, educational). It’s a complicated area though, and I commend Lemov for giving it a go, as haphazard as the attempt may be.

However, when the article veers onto the subject of content-based knowledge, I could not agree more. Frankly, I’m shocked it took so long for the article to make this point. Content-based knowledge is the foundation of effective teaching.

Of course, a knowledgeable teacher does not necessarily make a good teacher, but I think it’s a minimum requirement. After that? Well, to accurately assess teachers, we need an appropriate measuring stick for teachers, and for this we need to look at what exactly we want students to get out of their education. Do we want them to become better at standardized tests? Do we want them to enter prestigious universities? Do we want them above a certain salary in 5 years?

Maybe the whole practice of assessing teachers has no basis in reality and poor teachers are a consequence of the dysfunctional education system they are part of. Perhaps that’s where we need to focus our attention.

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2 Responses to “Building a Boring Teacher”

  1. 1 brazenteacher

    I think we are just beginning to realize (after ignoring kicking and screaming children being pounded into industrial molds for the past 75 years) that there is NO WAY to reproduce results across the board with children.

    I think the reason we cling to the notion that we can, is because we have in the past (and still to this day) view children as products. This is not surprising in a capitalist economy, where the fuel for society is the efficient, systematic production and consumption of goods and services.

    I think we are seeing that education is meant to prepare children for this capitalist model, and not much more. The push away from an industrial school approach has only just started in the past decade, because we are noticing that all of our industrial jobs are being shipped abroad. Now we need creative, innovative, free-thinking minds to lead our job market into the next decade, and we realize are fucking ourselves with the current model of education. It pisses me off to no end that our national pocketbook had to be threatened for us to realize this… but better to realize it because of our greed than not at all… right? Sigh, double sigh.

    Lastly, I think there is a disparity between the kind of teachers colleges are producing, and the kind that the industrial school model wants to get. I was educated in my undergrad to be highly creative, innovative, idealistic, and adventurous with my students and lesson planning. You arrive in your first school and bam! Hit in the head with a ton of bureaucracy and it doesn’t stop coming til you retire. The kind of teachers that ‘excel’ in an industrial model (aka… don’t want to QUIT) are typically very organized, linear thinkers, who tend to be data driven, and can produce results in children. Very rarely I see teachers who have excessive amounts of both ends of spectrum… most humans aren’t hardwired to be excellent at it all.

    That is a lot of “I thinks.” Haven’t felt inspired to post something long on a blog in awhile. Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment.

      The author Dan Pink essentially makes the same argument you make, that we need more “right-brain people” (i.e. creative, innovative, unconventional thinkers), and he’s written a couple books about it (“A Whole New Mind”, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”). Our society is definitely moving away from the industrial model, and we cling to the industrial-education model. Maybe because a lot of people have a lot invested in this model, maybe because it’s easier than constantly innovating how we teach, I don’t know.

      In the U.S especially, all of the data-driven, results oriented education is sad. Students seem to achieve in spite of the education system, not because of it. I have a lot of thoughts about this, and I’d like to eventually write about the education system in different countries, and what they’re doing right (or wrong).

      As for what types of teachers excel in this type of rigid, results-oriented education system, I think there is a need for both types of teachers. Certainly not all children are the same, and some children may look up to the results-oriented teachers , while others look up to creative types. I think there are two key things that creative teachers you mention can do to excel in the education system as it currently exists:

      1. Use the autonomy you have in the classroom. In spite of what administrators tell you, if you have confidence in your methods, use them. There is pressure to “teach to the test”, but children will obviously learn better if they have an interest in the subject, not being drilled with test-related questions. The administrators aren’t in your classroom (well, most of the time), so you have freedom to teach how you want, as long as you cover the curriculum. This brings me to the second point…

      2. Find creative ways to assess children and implement a curriculum. From what I’ve seen of certain curriculums (is that a word?), children are required to learn very specific topics that theywill likely never see again (e.g. memorizing the names of rocks in a grade 7 science class), which are assessed in ways that are not always clear for those involved (e.g. 15% of a students grade in a mathematics class is for communication). I think it’s important that students are assessed in a way which requires some rote-learning and some creativity (which is probably expected of most classes), and that provides them with constant feedback. A recent study (which I should blog about) found that the more quickly a learner receives feedback, the more quickly they are to retain information.

      Of course, I’m not sure how much rote-learning there is in elementary arts education (I’d probably feel sick after looking at the curriculum for that age group), but I think at that age, most learning should be a form of play for kids (and that goes especially for arts, physical education and other creative activities).

      Your comment inspired me to post a long comment on a blog, which I ALSO haven’t done in awhile, so thank YOU.


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