Teaching Teachers to Teach: A New Book Uncovers What Makes Great Teachers Tick, and Shows How Others Can Learn the Craft

By Goral, Tim | District Administration, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Teaching Teachers to Teach: A New Book Uncovers What Makes Great Teachers Tick, and Shows How Others Can Learn the Craft


Goral, Tim, District Administration


We've all heard the saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. "In most schools there are a few teachers that stand out from the pack, the ones who go beyond showing students how to get "the right answer" to inspire them to understand why they got that answer and what it means.

"The common view of great teachers is that they are born that way. Teaching is their calling--not a matter of craft and training, but alchemical inspiration, "says Elizabeth Green, editor-in-chief of the education news service Chalkbeat. But, as she discovered in the course of her research--and in her own abbreviated teaching experience--that isn't necessarily the case. Great teachers are those who have tapped into how we learn at a deeper level, and that, Green says, is a skill that can be passed on.

In her book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works And How To Teach It To Everyone (W.W. Norton & Company 2014), Green shows what happens in the classrooms of great teachers and how that can be scaled to an entire school or district.

Why, after some 250 years of education history in this country, is there still so much debate about what makes good teachers?

There has definitely been progress but I agree it has been a lot slower than makes any sense. It is only relatively recently that there has been a real effort to figure out what makes good teachers and how we can create better ones.

You wrote that those early 20th century researchers, tasked with identifying the traits of good teachers, approached the job with undisguised reluctance.

Right. They were supposed to be studying teaching but ended up studying everything but. They studied the history of education, the psychology of education, the economics of education and the sociology of education--but not teaching itself as a craft. It created an impediment to studying teaching in the way it needs to be studied, and that continues today.

Before universities took over teacher education, we had Normal Schools that were focused on training teachers in their craft. But when universities got involved, the people who led the education schools came from other disciplines. And they applied those disciplines to the study of education--which they defined very broadly--instead of creating a new discipline of their own.

Tell me about some of the teachers you profiled, such as Deborah Ball.

I learned from her that good teaching requires a specialized knowledge that is totally different from either knowing the subject or knowing pedagogy in general. It's a mix of the two. Teachers need to be able to identify the ideas that students lack. It's something we can teach people, but too often, we don't. Some teachers eventually figure it out on their own, but if they are unable to do that there are big consequences.

There is a kind of knowledge that good teachers have that professionals in other disciplines don't: How do mistakes happen? How does learning happen? What can you do to reverse misunderstanding?

Deborah has studied that carefully and mapped it out. She's also shown that it's possible to help prepare teachers to have that knowledge so they don't have to create it from scratch on their own.

How did she come to that realization?

It began when her students weren't retaining what she had taught them one week to the next. She would work with them on long division one week and then two weeks later they'd forget everything they had supposedly learned. The reason was that they hadn't learned the fundamentals of math in a way they could retain. It looked like they were learning, but they actually weren't.

She focused on how students were making mistakes--what researchers call "diagnostic teaching." Instead of simply having them practice the same drills over and over, she studied what they were thinking and let them make sense of the math along with her. …

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