There is a fascinating article in the NY Times magazine this week about what techniques make a good teacher in primary and secondary schools. Teachers obviously make a difference to how much students learn—perhaps the Albert Einstein’s and Francis Crick’s would have showed genius regardless, but all the rest of us can remember exceptional teachers we had that left a mark on us. Statistical analyses on teacher quality and learning (for instance, this one from Tennessee [Ed note: this publication has been removed from the website the link referred to]) seem to support this.
So what makes a good K-12 teacher, and is it something that can be taught? The Times article focuses on two people studying this question. One is a teacher and school administrator named Doug Lemov who visited classrooms of excellent teachers around the country, and developed a taxonomy of effective teaching practices. He identified 49 things that good teachers do to control classrooms and keep students thinking. His claim is that these are skills which can be explicitly taught and learned by teachers, and will make them better. Check out the video clips in the article. Though the examples are intuitive once they are explained, it doesn’t seem at all surprising these techniques would be hard to figure out on your own.
The other person highlighted is Deborah Ball, a math teacher and education professor at the University of Michigan. She focuses on the content side, what do teachers have to know about the subject they are teaching. She’s apparently come up with a math test that can pick out teachers whose students will learn math better or worse, based on the teacher’s own knowledge of math. As the article points out, controlling your class doesn’t help your students learning if you don’t have a good grasp on the material.
Neither of these lines of research is particularly novel. It’s actually surprising that we don’t have more of a handle on what makes a good teacher by now, given the number of studies on the subject. I’ve never been a K-12 teacher and don’t claim any expertise to discuss these latest studies from a practical viewpoint, but one thing that struck me related to our work at SimBiotic was the role of comfort and expertise in the content as highlighted by Ball’s work. Some of the techniques that Ball discussed could only be done by someone who really knows math—for instance, she gives an example of leading an elementary school class through a discussion (springing from a students question) about whether a number could be both even and odd. You can’t lead that discussion without really understanding numbers, and that’s a problem that crops up across the curriculum.
We faced a similar problem in our work writing virtual environmental science and technology labs for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. One of the labs we wrote was an introduction to programming called Program a Bunny. Using an innovative graphical programming language from the Teacher Education Program at MIT, we managed to put together a lab where students program a little bunny to hop around eating lettuce and carrots. The really encouraging thing about this lab is that a dozen middle school teachers, great teachers but mostly with no experience in programming, were able to implement this lab in their classes. Afterwards, they told us their students got really excited doing it, and the lab’s use has now spread to other teachers across Maine.
I think what we were able to do was structure the lab with the right level of guidance to make students learn, but just as importantly, to make teachers who are not programmers comfortable helping their students through the lab. We did this while retaining an open-endedness so the lab is challenging and produces real learning in the students. I think this is the role of good curriculum. For teachers with good general teaching skills, but lacking some part of the content skills (and all of us will lack knowledge somewhere), a good curriculum can help a teacher both teach that content in an effective and correct way, and learn themselves so they are better able to help their students. For our work at SimBiotic, I would love to see studies that looked at the effect of all three factors in concert—classroom management, content knowledge, and curriculum. We know that good curriculum alone cannot match the effect of a good teacher, but I would predict that each of the three are separate skills, and combinations of those produce the greatest positive effects on students.