Thursday, March 04, 2010

Who are the good teachers, and what makes them tick?

More importantly, is it possible to train people to be really good at teaching?

These questions are explored in two recent articles by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic and and Elizabeth Green in NYTimes. Their thesis is that good teaching is something that one can get trained for; and it certainly does not require charisma -- though a little bit of it never hurts!

From Ripley's story:

Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness. [...]

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this mean for a lesson plan?’” So Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act.

And from Green's story:

Lemov played a video of a class taught by one of his teaching virtuosos, a slim man named Bob Zimmerli. Lemov used it to introduce one of the 49 techniques in his taxonomy, one he calls What to Do. The clip opens at the start of class, which Zimmerli was teaching for the first time, with children — fifth graders, all of them black, mostly boys — looking everywhere but at the board. One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class in a neat tie. “O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.” He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

Lemov switched off the video. “Imagine if his first direction had been, ‘Please get your things out for class,’ ” he said. Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do. There were other tricks Zimmerli used too. Lemov pointed to technique No. 43: Positive Framing, by which teachers correct misbehavior not by chiding students for what they’re doing wrong but by offering what Lemov calls “a vision of a positive outcome.” Zimmerli’s thank-yous and just-like-you’re-doings were a perfect execution of one of Positive Framing’s sub-categories, Build Momentum/Narrate the Positive.

“It’s this positive wave; you can almost see it going across the classroom from right to left,” Lemov said. He restarted the clip and asked us to watch the boy with the binder. At the start his head is down and he is paging slowly through his binder. Ten seconds in, he looks to his left, where another boy has his paper and pencil out and is staring at Zimmerli. For the first time, he looks up at the teacher. He stops paging. “He’s like, ‘O.K., what’s this?’ ” Lemov narrated. “ ‘I guess I’m going to go with it.’ ” After 30 seconds, his binder is closed, and he’s stowing it under his desk.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    For university teachers, this may be useful:
    "Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians" Edited by Joel Segal:
    Some sections are available at googlebooks. There is much about teaching (see Arthur Mattuck chapter), curriculum development, building a dept...

  2. Anonymous said...

    There is "method acting", so now let's try "method teaching". I am not holding my breath for this one.