Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Building A+ Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

I saw this book, Building A+ Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green, discussed in a newspaper article. It seemed to fill a need I had expressed several times in my teacher credentialing program. Nowhere in the program do they teach you HOW to teach. It's all theory and celebration of diversity, but they never give the nuts and bolts - the "do this" that I longed for.

This book seemed like it would address that lacuna. 

She begins noting a common notion that teachers are "born" not created. This leaves the ability to teach well up to chance and charm. Green states, "I have come to think that this is a dangerous notion. By misunderstanding how teaching works, we misunderstand what it will take to make it better -- ensuring that, far too often, teaching doesn't work at all." (p. 9) With close to four million teachers, it simply cannot be true that they must come pre-packaged with the attributes of a great teacher. If teaching cannot be taught, we, as a nation, are in trouble. This idea gave me hope that I was on the right track with this book.

In the late 1940s a few bold individuals sought to determine what makes a great teacher, what practices actually lead to learning. It rapidly became clear that great teachers definitely had an impact on student learning. The question became what exactly was it that made these teachers great? They looked at a behaviorist model as well as cognitive learning processes. 

Eventually, two teachers, Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert began to pull together examples of great teaching, starting with math. They called the patterns they were seeing "This Kind of Teaching" (TKOT). They set about to infuse the educational community with what they had found.

Originally, teachers were trained in "lab schools." These were schools connected to Teachers Colleges in which the student teachers would observe master teachers, and then be given a chance to try out the principles for themselves under supervision. Eventually, universities pushed out the practical Teacher Colleges and replaced the training with educational theory. As Ball and Lampert, along with others convinced by their methodology, sought to reimplement a kind of lab school to teach TKOT, they faced strong opposition from an entrenched bureaucracy.

While TKOT failed to scale in the United States, it was happening in Japan. As the purveyors of TKOT began to notice that Japan seemed to be spontaneously doing what the TKOT women had struggled to implement. The Japanese called it "jugyokenkyu" and it involved a complex system in which the teachers worked together to constantly improve themselves and their lessons. When the Deborah Ball was watching the Japanese put into practice the very ideas she had advocated, she noticed that the interpreter was struggling. Simply put, the Japanese had developed an educational language that had no counterpart in English. "Of course Americans struggled to improve their teaching. When they tried to talk or even think about it, they suffered a fundamental handicap: they had no words." (p. 149)

Soon "no-excuses" charter schools came into being. They, too suffered from the "no words" phenomena. While they did a good job of raising test scores and parental involvement, they still had no idea what made a good teacher. Eventually Doug Lemov created what he called a taxonomy. It was a set of procedures teacher could incorporate that actually improved their teaching abilities. Unfortunately, in creating something outside the educational establishment, he had no access to the kinds of reforms the TKOT people were desperate to implement within the system.

Eventually the "no-excuses" schools were able to get their systems down and see real behavioral improvement, but there seemed to be something missing in the highly structured and regimented environment. They called it "rigor." 

Part of this missing ingredient was central to all of American education. There was no "educational infrastructure." This was defined by David Cohen as a common curriculum, common testing, and common teacher training. In short, the American school system is a schizophrenic collection of institutions, federal, state, local, with no one entity wholly in charge. This leads to various reforms and new programs constantly surfacing, often with conflicting advice or directions. Teachers have learned to quietly nod, close the classroom door, and think, "This too shall pass."

The charters and other reformers began to define "rigor" as four things:
1. Adults couldn't do all the talking 
2. The students had to talk about the academic idea at hand 
3. They had to use academic vocabulary 
4. They had to use evidence: quoting the text, citing a primary source, reasoning through a proof, using experimental evidence.
This was the "Holy Grail." 

Moving up to today, there is cause for optimism. Three components of the educational infrastructure are poised to be in place, Common Core and the testing designed to go with it. Now we need the rigorous teacher training. Unfortunately, Common Core is under attack. While the attacks on the specifics of it may be justified, the most common line of critique is the commonality of it - a top down mandate. Yet it is this feature that make it so necessary. America needs a common core. If not this one, another. But right now, our educational standards are a hodge podge, varying from state to state. Not all of the curriculum should be top-down. There should be room for local concerns, but without a common body of knowledge and skills required of all students, teachers are shooting in the dark. The tests are another issue. For the teacher training part, a brand new entity has been given birth, Teacher Works. We will see if it comes to fruition.

In summing up what she learned in the course of the book, Green gives some insights as to what makes a better teacher. They... 
1. are as curious about wrong answers as they are about right answers -- and they encourage students to make mistakes 
2. override accepted social codes. 
3. ask questions to encourage reasoning not regurgitation. 
4. make their thinking visible. 
5. are supported by solid educational infrastructure.
Unfortunately the book didn't deliver exactly what I had hoped for. It certainly pinpointed the problem and detailed efforts to solve the problem, but it didn't really tell me WHAT to do. I guess that's what the newly created Teacher Works is for.

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