Building a Better Teacher (II)

The year 2010 was important to me in a lot of ways: I started a PhD program in educational theory and policy, I started this blog, I moved schools, and I read Elizabeth Green’s Building a  Better Teacher article in the New York Times Magazine.  Such was the importance of that article that I include it in the list above.

Why?  It said just about everything I wanted someone to say.  That schooling could be understood as more than just folk practice; that good teaching techniques could be scaled up and popularized; that with the creation of a shared vocabulary describing effective practice, we could – probably quickly – make big gains in the quality of our schools.  And these ideas – explicit and implicit – all set against the background of the assertion that schooling is important.

It also introduced me to Doug Lemov.

In August of this year, her book-length treatise arrived.  Green captures much of the spirit of our age; an age of insightful non-fiction devoted to ideas, public goods, and private folly.  I see in her Atul Gawande and his insistence that we can improve through carefully guided practice and feedback (as well as the possibility for scaling up good practice); I see in her the insight of the brilliantly scathing piece by Jill Lepore on the silliness of favouring the magic of “disruption” over steady gains; I see a better-evidenced Malcolm Gladwell, touching on broad social themes with an eye for the compelling anecdote.

It holds (at least) these truths:

  1. The best teachers are made.  They are, to use the dichotomy Green attributes to Lemov, strivers.
  2. Continuous improvement is the appropriate model to follow.  Slow, steady, thoughtful adjustments.
  3. Data is key. Either quantitative or qualitative.  But you need to have a measure of what is working.
  4. An interesting and sustainable model for individual improvement is teachers teaching teachers.  With little hierarchy.
  5. The thing that matters is the very specific teaching practices, what Hanushek called the black box of teaching.  What happens in the classroom between teachers and students, and students and their peers, is what schooling’s success rests on.

There are a lot of books written about schooling, but this is one of the few that takes a granular view of the thousands of small decisions teachers need to make to improve student outcomes.  It is not merely the elucidation of one teacher’s view about her teaching practice, but rather a synthesis of the history of a movement to improve schooling (one that does not stretch back too far, actually).  And its conclusions point to a more hopeful future; while the outcomes of schooling rival the other helping professions, we stand at an interesting an exciting point in time, within striking distance of codifying and disseminating the best teaching practices.  Green’s book is a very satisfying (if incomplete) survey of what has been done, what needs to be done, and (at least tentatively) how to do it.