If we want better teachers we need to teach them to be better

Definitely one of the most influential books on my own thinking I have read in recent years is Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher.  This recent NPR story on teaching nicely encapsulates some of the key points about how we approach teaching wrong and what needs to change:

Deborah Ball realized years ago she had a problem.

It was around 1980. She’d been working as an elementary school teacher in East Lansing, Michigan for about five years. But she felt like she just wasn’t getting any better at it…

Ball is now the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, and kind of a rock star in the field of teacher education…

“I’m really trying hard to dispel this idea that teaching is this thing you’re born to do and it’s somehow natural to everyday life,” Ball says. “I don’t think either of those things is true.” [emphases mine]

What Ball is trying to model at U of M is a system where future teachers have to demonstrate they can do some core things — like present a math problem, and lead a discussion about it — before they’re safe to practice.

“Nobody goes out in a pilot school and is told: ‘Go out in the plane today! Try it out. See how it works,'” Ball says.

What Ball is trying to model at U of M is a system where future teachers have to demonstrate they can do some core things – like present a math problem, and lead a discussion about it – before they’re safe to practice.

She says pilots, doctors, plumbers and hairdressers don’t learn on the job. And teachers shouldn’t either.

Yes!  Of course, many countries that out-perform us understand us and approach teacher training in a far smarter way.  There’s plenty of problems in American education and this is no magic bullet.  But suffice it to say, we could dramatically improve teacher quality (which definitely does matter), by thinking and acting a lot smarter about how we train (and continue to train) our teachers.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to If we want better teachers we need to teach them to be better

  1. ohwilleke says:

    The problem is that we currently spend immense amounts of time, both in the pre-certification curriculum of prospective teachers (ca. 25% of pre-certification credit hours) and post-certification teacher’s education (both in service training and routine awards of graduate degrees to a large share of K-12 teachers) in how to teach, with essentially no demonstrable results.

    If anything, liberal arts graduates with more subject matter class instruction as undergraduates and higher average IQs (K-12 teachers tend to be drawn on average from the low end of the undergraduate talent pool) who are exempted from teacher’s ed classes as undergraduates perform better in the classroom. And there is no validated research that graduate coursework in education is adding any value either.

    While there may be room to improve teaching with better teacher’s education with college classes in teaching, the sum total of what actually works that can be conveyed in that setting may fit in 2-4 classes before diminishing marginal returns approach zero.

    Higher ed manages with all subject matter instruction and no teaching instruction and probably has better quality teaching on average than K-12. While higher ed probably could use a class or two of teacher education to convey some core pedagogy tips, on the whole, we should be investing less in teachers ed than we do, and more in attracting people who have more subject matter expertise and are more academically able in general to the discipline.

    There are lots of similarly situated professions where formal academic instruction in how to sell, write, manage, etc. doesn’t add much value or has swiftly diminishing returns: almost all kind of sales, journalism, creative writing, and most direct management positions. Sometimes substantive instruction on subject matter adds value to sales (e.g. teaching real estate brokers a bit of real estate law, or securities brokers a bit about investing), but only rarely does teaching people how to sell, per se, add value.

    Moreover, even when it is possible to teach/learn something like teaching, sales, writing or direct management, often the most useful instruction is in the form of on the job mentoring or in structuring the job itself based upon education research, rather than classroom instruction in how to teach, which can add much less value.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I agree with most all of what you said. Most of what we need to do to “teach” the teachers better should happen in internships and in the K-12 classroom, not them sitting in Education classes in college.

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