Sunday, February 21, 2016

My Review of "Building a Better Teacher"

I've been struggling with my classes this year, so I've been revisiting some books about teaching. When none of them gave me any insight into my dilemma this year, I decided to try some new material. Aimlessly browsing through the neighborhood Barnes and Noble, I came across Elizabeth Green's book with the incredulous title "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching works (and How to Teach It to Everyone)". After skimming a few chapters and recognizing some names from the world of education (Lee Shulman, Deborah Ball*, Magdalene Lampert, Doug Lemov) I decided to give it a try.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I brought it home, but what I read wasn't it. That said, I liked the book. It was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in teacher education. It probably would have been more accurately titled, "A layman's guide to the history of the research on teaching from 1980 through 2015", but who would buy that book? I thought it would be helpful to write a short review of the book to help me process what I read.

Truthfully, I'm not sure that I read a lot that was very new to me. I knew that it had been long argued that teaching is difficult intellectual work. I was pleased to see that Green was not at all dismissive of the challenges of the classroom, as are some writers on educational issues. What was helpful for me was Green's agnostic and critical stance on schools of education and educational entrepreneurs. She argued that each camp was engaged in the same goal: to describe and classify effective pedagogy so that it can be taught to aspiring teachers. However, she was careful to acknowledge that each camp was differently equipped to attack the problem. Schools of education are often fighting a culture and value war about what teaching should look like, what Dan Lortie called the apprenticeship of observation in his seminal work, Schoolteacher. The education start-ups entered the fray explicitly rejecting what schools were in the hopes of creating what schools could be. Many schools of education are research institutions which means (hopefully) that they are thoughtful about what teaching methods to try and how to try them responsibly. And they should be well-positioned to collect and analyze the data in both a qualitative and quantitative way. The charter schools were more or less haphazard in collecting information about student achievement and trying to match it to effective teachers. 

What both camps seem to have in common is the belief that good teaching can be taught! That is a pretty revolutionary idea. I've heard a lot of people say that good teachers are born not made. I've had administrators tell me that I'm just a "naturally good" teacher. I believe that the notion that some people have a gift for teaching and others don't is dangerous for (at least) two reasons. For teachers who work very hard at improving their craft, being told that they are "naturally good" demeans and discredits the effort they have put forth. For teachers who think that teaching is a talent, it releases them from any responsibility to get better; it absolves them from all pedagogical sins. How can we improve as a profession if we don't acknowledge that some instructional practices are more likely to result in student learning and others are less likely to bring about the desired results?

In the conclusion to Green's book, both camps constructed lists of effective pedagogies. Deborah Ball and colleagues put together what they call "High Leverage Practices" which are a set of "fundamental capabilities" that they believe all teachers should master. All of the practices and more are available on their website dedicated to improving teaching. Meanwhile, Doug Lemov published a book. "Teach Like a Champion" that documents his taxonomy of effective teaching "techniques". I know that some people have been dismissive of Lemov's approach because it feels like behavior modification. But, Ball's cognitive stance could be critiqued for emphasizing thoughts over actions. I don't think it's fair to compare them. I think that a thoughtful and critical teacher should be reading and using both of them to inform and improve his or her practice. That's what I'll be doing. 

*Deborah Ball is a widely recognized authority on mathematics education and I had read much of her research. Also, my graduate school advisor was a student of Deborah Ball so I like to think of her as my academic grandmother.**

**You know, a grandmother who lives halfway across the country, whom you've never met, and who most likely has no idea what you exist. So, we're not close.

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