Building a Better Teacher: A Response

April 1, 2010

The announcement at the beginning of the week naming Chris Daggett as the new Dodge Foundation President and CEO forced changes in our regularly scheduled posts. We had originally scheduled today’s guest post for yesterday.

Today, we hear from our former colleague Ross Danis, the Associate Dean of Education, Director K-12 and Community Partnerships at Drew University. His essay is a response to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine called “Building a Better Teacher.”

Effective Teaching Requires Effective Preparation

By Ross Danis

Ross DanisWhere did we go wrong? How did we arrive at a place where a wonderful educator, with the best of intentions, has to “make up” 49 techniques of effective teaching, based on his observations of what effective teachers do? When I read Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” article in the March 7, 2010 New York Times Magazine, I thought for a minute that I must be dreaming about a post apocalyptic society trying to make sense of the world from the remnants of what once existed. I was imagining reading more articles like, “They Call It Music” or “Doctoring: 26 Ways to Diagnose and Fix People Who Are Not Well.”

Doug Lemov has written a book called “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.” It comes out in April, 2010. I have not read it and my commentary is based only on the description of the book in Green’s article. I also base my observations on some charter school leaders and teachers, who in the absence of an understanding of pedagogy, or a general aversion to anything attached to the traditional system of education, seem to think that everything they do or say is new, unique, novel, or better.

If I put a hundred really smart, dedicated people in classrooms, with little or no understanding of the cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning, sooner or later some of them would start to notice that they need to do things in a way that was, from their perspective, more effective. When people give directions and stand still while they are doing it, students pay attention. Technique. When you randomly call on someone, without them raising their hand, students are more actively engaged. Technique.

Why 49? Why not 100? Or 1,000? Techniques are cheap. Common as mud. Give me someone who understands the deeper theory that the technique is based upon and I will give you an educator who is a repository of countless techniques.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. The sad reality is that traditional schools of education, teacher preparation program, and in-service and professional development programs have done such a poor job preparing and developing teachers, we force excellent educators like Doug Lemov to figure it out as best they can. I commend him and support his efforts. He saw a need and did his best to respond. That is what leaders do. On the other hand, it would be unimaginable to suggest that we develop a primer for lawyers based solely on things like “Nod and make eye contact with the jury” because lawyers who win cases do this.

Doug Lemov by Benjamin Norman for the NYTimes

Photo of Doug Lemov for the New York Times by Benjamin Norman

The effective schools research that came out of the 1970’s and 1980’s was based on watching effective teachers teach. I use words like “effective” v. “good” because “good” is less clinical and seemingly more subjective, perhaps even a reflection on someone’s style. The effective schools research ultimately resulted in teacher behaviors being codified into schemas. One such schema was known as the UCLA model. It was developed by Ernie Stokowski in collaboration with Madeline Hunter. Many veteran educators know this as “The Hunter Model.” Hunter, or actually, Stokowski maintained that effective teachers selected objectives at the correct level of difficulty, taught to objectives, monitored learners and adjusted their teaching, and used principles of learning such as Active Participation, Closure, and Transfer. They addressed the conditions one should consider when using a model or straying from an objective. They provided specific strategies for asking questions, addressed wait time, and assisted in supporting the scaffolding of higher order thinking skills.

These techniques and strategies have been taught to thousands of teachers. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to transfer what one learned in a workshop to the workplace there needed to be both massed and distributed follow up. Professionals must have a plan for practicing specific skills. They need peer coaches. They need an administration that is focused on developing specific skills. They need evaluation systems that look for, recognize, and teach where needed, specific skills and strategies. We need schools full of educators with nuanced understanding of the cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning. Knowing when not to use a technique is almost as important as knowing when to use one. Think about driving. You may know how to brake but you might break differently if you had a pizza on the back seat. Teaching is at least as complicated as driving with pizza.

Now consider that research indicates that teachers have a readiness level for considering the nuanced relationship between teaching and learning. In pre-service programs, it is hard to create a mental foundation for every situation one might confront as a teacher because most teacher candidates don’t have any experience (short of student teaching). Also there is evidence that new teachers are most concerned with management, then content, and then the cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning. When new techniques and strategies are introduced matters. Follow up matters. Short of this, schools and districts are wasting valuable professional development dollars. The hit and run, make it and take it, technique-driven workshop-based approach to professional development is effective for dealing with blood-boon pathogens, or affirmative action, but not something as sophisticated as creating reflective practitioners who have a strong foundation in both theory and practice, and who are continually inventing techniques based on deep and sophisticated understanding of teaching and learning.

But we have failed to invest in a coherent approach to professional development that incorporates consistent follow up, and an observation and evaluation system tied to best practice. We have failed to include the combination of theory and practice necessary to prepare teachers fully for the challenges of the classroom. Perhaps because it requires being able to “do” in addition to “know” and universities are traditionally focused on the latter. Maybe it is just too expensive, or the professionals doing the observations are not particularly skilled in the cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning.

I do believe that great ideas don’t simply graft on and that people need to feel some ownership in and for a particular idea or strategy to gain traction and go to scale. Maybe this will be true of a technique driven approach to teaching and learning. There will be a wave of professional development—mostly in charter schools—and then we will move on to something else except in those places where there is enough ownership of the principles and ideas identified and taught my Mr. Lemov to make a significant and profound impact on teaching and learning.

I wonder how the highly acclaimed and classically trained jazz master Wynton Marsalis must have felt the first time he heard rap music. It must have been hard for him to recognize the value and legitimacy of rap—a form of music that was not based on any of the formal structures, years of training and practice, and agreed upon cannon of musicality that defines a Wynton Marsalis or any number of his contemporaries. Yet, rap is an increasingly refined form of musical and artistic expression embraced by millions. Rap even engages people in music and artistic expression who might never have survived music theory lessons. I don’t think that Mr. Lemov’s techniques are analogous to rap music. Entirely. Both Lemov’s “taxonomy” and rap music emerged from someplace other than “the academy” or “the conservatory.” But that is how a lot of things start—blues in the fields, jazz at funerals, and rap in the street—just like teaching in classrooms- all before they got to became respected art forms, studied, analyzed, and taught to young musicians in conservatories and aspiring teachers in education schools.

In the end, I commend Mr. Lemov and blame myself. Those of us in the business of preparing the next generation of teachers need to make sure that we teach the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning along with theory. The “what” and “how” of teaching should be an integral part of teacher preparation programs. Perhaps, beyond helping classroom teachers increase student achievement through the effective techniques presented in his book, Mr. Lemov’s greatest contribution will be in challenging education schools and teacher preparation programs to look at and retool their programs.

* * *

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10!
Follow the Dodge Poetry Festival on Twitter
Become a fan of the Dodge Poetry Festival on Facebook

Follow the Dodge Foundation on Twitter
Become a fan of the Dodge Foundation on Facebook