Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Teaching, Rather Than Teachers, as a Path toward Improving Classroom Instruction

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Teaching, Rather Than Teachers, as a Path toward Improving Classroom Instruction

Article excerpt

The thesis of this article is that working directly on improving teaching--the methods used to interact with students about content--is the most productive option for improving classroom instruction. To support the thesis, we identify three ways that educators and policy makers have worked to improve teaching: (a) recruit more talented people, (b) improve the qualifications of teachers entering or already in the profession, and (c) improve the instructional methods that are implemented in classrooms. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the combination of all three might be optimal. But our goal in this article is to highlight the value of the third approach because it is often overshadowed in policy discussions by the first approach and treated by educators as a by-product of the second approach. We argue that these priorities should be reversed.

The first two approaches share a focus on the qualities of the people who teach. The first--recruiting more talented people--apparently assumes that teaching skills are innate, or at least correlated with general measures of intelligence or exceptional achievement. More talented people will somehow know how to deliver more effective instruction. The second--improving the qualifications of prospective and practicing teachers--recognizes that people need to be trained to teach well. But this approach shares with the first the assumption that improved teaching flows from the qualifications of the individuals who teach. The third approach, to focus on the methods of teaching rather than the people who teach, is unusual enough in the United States that we begin our argument by trying to make the more familiar approaches look strange and problematic. We then present a more recent version of the second approach--improving the qualifications of teachers--that resolves some, but not all, of the problems we identify. We then contrast this updated second approach with directly studying and improving the methods of teaching. Our description includes a potpourri of inconclusive evidence that we believe supports increasing the prominence of this third approach. Finally, we examine a series of reasons that explain why attention to the people who teach, despite the evidence, remains the U.S. preferred strategy for improving teaching.

Why the Familiar Should Look Strange

The history of U.S. education is filled with efforts to improve schools and classrooms (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). What approaches have been tried to improve the quality of classroom instruction? The U.S. approach frequently has focused on improving the quality of the teachers (Kennedy, 2010). This approach includes recruiting people with the fight characteristics (e.g., distinguished academic records, strong content knowledge, high motivation, desirable personality traits; e.g., teachforamerica.org), training preservice and inservice teachers to acquire these characteristics, and removing teachers who are presumed not to exhibit them as evidenced by their poor performance (usually measured by students' achievement scores; Klein et al., 2010). As will be seen later, the United States persists with this approach even though the data linking any of the characteristics mentioned above with students' learning are weak, and the historical record shows no lasting impact of this approach (Cuban, 1993; Hoetker & Ahlbrand, 1969).

What makes the persistence of focusing on teachers as the path to improving teaching especially strange is the logic that spawned its existence in the first place. As described by David Cohen (2010), the decentralized educational system in the United States discouraged the adoption of a common curriculum.

Absent a common curriculum, teachers could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consisted of efforts to teach teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This was very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U. …

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