Sunday, March 7, 2010

Can Teachers be Taught to Teach Better?

By now many of you have read Elizabeth Green's article in the current New York Times Magazine, Can Teachers Be Taught to Teach Better?  Already, one of my Israeli friends has asked if I have read the article.  Now, I don't know how early Reuven gets up, but I was reading the article when his e-mail arrived!  The article is already the second most shared article in the NY Times.  For some unexplainable reason, an article on vacationing in Tuscany is rated higher.....sigh.

Green, through her interviews with some very smart people raises excellent points, alludes to many of the historical reasons great teachers have not been successfully replicated, and fails to address qualities which effective teachers possess.  Part of the reason I came to Israel was to try to discover why so many American student teachers had difficulties during their practica, and why so many were no longer teaching five years after being hired.  Israel faces many of the same problems.  Ah, but back to Green...America sets one of the lowest (being charitable here) bars for prospective teachers.  To become a doctor, one needs to complete an undergraduate program, take the MCAT exam, be admitted to med school (no small feat), and complete a rigorous course of study.  Lawyers have a similar path.  But, to get into a teacher prep program, there is no testing hurdle and admittance is not an issue for most people.  Green makes a clear case for the need for this profession with no hurdles.  In her bar graph analysis, she points out there are slightly under one million lawyers in America, but nearly four million teachers.  There is simply no time to set rigorous standards for admitting students to teacher prep programs.  There is a dire need of replacement teachers.

Green writes that first-year teachers in America are expected to face classrooms of more than 30 children with no mentoring, professional follow-up, or other tools to help them become effective teachers.  Other countries, notably Singapore (that bastion of top-notch mathematics scores every country aspires to) and Germany (with one of the most rigid, prescribed education systems in the world); have figured out how to draw their best and brightest students into education, how to train them, and how to retain them.  Perhaps the American reformers mentioned in the Times article should interview Singaporean and German teachers/administrators, bring those ideas back to American schools of education, and, then track teachers trained under those systems. 

One concept emphasized in Green's article is the idea that effective American teachers allow students time to think about their answers/thinking.  This is important to help kids develop thinking skills.  The term Green avoids to describe this is currently called meta-cognition, thinking about one's thinking.  Effective teachers not only know the correct answer to a problem/question, they are also able to think through every "wrong" method kids throw at them.  In some cases, math facts for example, the "wrong" answers might be known in advance.  In other instances, history for example, there might be "wrong" answers the teacher could not know in advance, but will still have to deal with when they arise.  I have never yet had to tell a class, "I need to think about this a bit, let's continue the discussion tomorrow."  But, I know that someday I will face that situation.

Then there is the issue of how kids learn.  Over the past ten years, thanks to MRIs and other brain pictures, teachers now know more than ever before how kids learn, how they retain information, and how they are able to recall, review, synthesize, analyze, and evaluate information.  The problem is that we know this generally.  Kids don't come to class with their brain pictures in hand.  It would be terrific if they did.  Teachers would understand much more about how individual children learn.  Green's article and the accompanying comments (at this writing most add to the discussion) are a good basis for discussion or as the Slate Political Gabfest folks say, good cocktail chatter.  If only I attended cocktail parties....

1 comment:

  1. The profession of teaching has never had much respect. In large part, I think we battle the inertia of deeply held opinions about teachers rooted in decades of history.

    All Kinds Of Minds trains teachers to work with students to develop their personal learning profiles, a list of strengths and weaknesses that the student herself and other teachers may use to inform the learning process. It's not exactly a MRI, but it can be very effective when fully implemented.