Friday, March 12, 2010

Can We Build a Better Teacher?

I recently read an article from the entitled Building a Better Teacher. It has been making its way around the net and seems to be garnering positive reviews. I wanted to take a second to offer my opinion on the matter.

Before I delve into the article, I feel I need to expound upon my own theories a bit (to only be fair). Continuing with one of my previous posts where I elaborated on my views of technology. According to Franklin, there are prescriptive and there are holistic technologies. Prescriptive technologies attempt to reduce problems down to a set of discrete, independent steps. These steps can be completed with no idea of the final product, no investment in the process and with no connection to the subsequent step. Whereas holistic technologies give control of the entire process to the worker; these are the technologies utilized by artisans for example. I feel that true teaching falls into this category, as a holistic technology.

For me, teaching is both art and science. Art is the appreciation of the beautiful in abstract, holistic terms. Whereas science is the appreciation of the beautiful in logical, ordered terms. To me they are not two sides of the same coin, or at different ends of the spectrum. In my mind, they are each a lens in the glasses we view the world through. When we focus too much through the science lens we lose perspective on the abstractness and chaos that exists around us. If we insted choose to only view through the artistic lens, we lack an understanding of the order that exists in the world. This may sound contradictory or oxymoronic, but order can not exist without chaos.

True teachers are able to balance between these two lenses. They apply the skills and knowledge they need to impart the lessons they have decided need to be taught. The means of dissemination can appear to be random to an outside observer, because the true teacher is teaching to many people; many minds; many views.

The work being performed by Lemov as reported in this article attempts to reduce teaching down to its science side only. He is working on creating a series of discrete, independent steps that anyone (or anything) could take to 'teach' a class. To me, this is no different to watching Kenneth Branagh play Hamlet versus watching me play Hamlet. His performance is a nuanced act of beauty, mine would be a focused repetition of a series of memorized steps. It would appear forced and unnatural.

I always have two initial thoughts when I read of an 'educational researcher' attempting to quantify the act of teaching to help 'build better teachers'. My first thought is that if they are successful, why don't we just program a robot to perform these steps. With the proper logic, it is a fully possible feat. Why would we need people to teach anymore, if all those people are doing is performing a series of quantifiable, discrete, programmable steps.

My second thought stems from the 'build a better teacher' idea. Why not build a better student instead? What would a better student look like? If you assume we need better teachers, and the proof that better teachers have been produced is the attainment of better grades, then in essence you imply that we need better students.

I would like to examine a few quotes from the article:

This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. (p7)

I don't feel that what Lemov is touting is pedagogical knowledge. It is a series of classroom management techniques. My view of pedagogy relates to methods of sharing knowledge in the classroom, not the methods of controlling the learners. Effective pedagogy negates the need for classroom management techniques (in all but the most extreme cases).

“But I feel like it’s insufficient. . . . It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking if the kids are running the classroom.” (p8)

I'm not sure if this is meant in a positive light (i.e. democratic classroom) or in a negative light (i.e. the kids are running rampant). If it is the former, then I don't understand how it wouldn't matter what questions you ask. So, I lean towards it being the latter. This to me is the most telling aspect of Lemov's own personal pedagogy: children need to be controlled while in school. I don't subscribe to this so I can't subscribe to his 'manifesto'.

For these kinds of challenges, Bellucci leans on Kramer’s seven years of experience teaching math, plus her own applied math degree from nearby Union College. She also improvises. (p9)

She also improvises? But, that can't be reduced to a prescription? It must be implied that this improvisation is negative by Lemov's own hypothesis.

While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. (p9)

Thank you.

And while Lemov has faith in his taxonomy because he chose his champions based on their students’ test scores (p9)

Really? Well, I guess I can prove anything with that application of the scientific method.

“You could change the world with a first-year teacher like that,” he said. (p9 Lemov)

If that is so, why has the world not changed? A statement like that is only made if the premise is untrue (i.e. the world is unchanged, needs changing and can be changed). I don't understand his need for this statement, it is pure rhetoric.

For an interesting counter-point by Malcolm Gladwell (who I just learned was born in the city I now live in ... cool), I would encourage you to read Most Likely to Succeed.

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