What Works in Teaching

Diane Ravitch in Good Intentions, Ignorant Elites, and Scoundrels (via Downes), writes,

We live in a dangerous and dark time for schools. In many districts, the gears of power are controlled by non-educators who don't have a clue. They madly embrace testing and data and data-driven instruction because they have not a single idea about how kids learn and how teachers teach and what conditions are necessary to promote teaching and learning. This new breed also populates some of our nation's leading think tanks. Most of them have never taught; have never been in a classroom since they were students; know nothing of the history of education and nothing about research, but they know how to fix the nation's schools.

These assertions are true to some degree. I can certainly compare such non-educators with educators who have never taught ESL students, who have never learned another language, and know nothing of the research on second language acquisition, but they believe that ESL students can become fluent in English in just a few years.

What Works in Teaching?
At the same time, I can also understand why many could care less about the history of education and its research. Just look at the reading wars of "whole language" vs. phonics approaches, the math wars of "whole math" vs. traditional math curricula, and other education wars that pit "progressives" vs. "traditionalists" (see Hirsch's The Roots of the Education Wars). These different camps know educational history and research. Yet, they—just like Ravitch and Meier—disagree on how to educate students. Unlike the scientific consensus on F=ma, which works well in most cases (and in those cases it doesn't, there is a scientific consensus on why it doesn't work), there is no educational consensus on the best approaches to teaching students. Or, if there is, it's torn apart by political and ideological clashes.

Without a consensus among educators on what works and without consistent results, it's quite natural that non-educators will step into the fray with their own ideas of what might work. And that doesn't always mean that they do not consult with educators or "don't have a clue." Within the Gates Foundation, for example, the Program Director of Education in the U.S. is Vicki Phillips, who has been a district superintendent in Oregon, secretary of education and chief state school officer in Pennsylvania, and a middle and high school teacher, and she has a doctorate in education. Instead, it means that the core of what works in teaching may be more a matter of common sense than than the insights of educational research, a common sense that says that the foundation of what works in teaching is a knowledge of subject matter and relationships of trust and respect between teachers and students.

What Works is Subject Matter Knowledge
Ravitch also blasts Teach for America:

[Superintendents] will tell you that they are going to change "the quality" of teachers by recruiting Ivy League graduates and Teach for America folk. They are going to push out all those experienced fogies, so that their newbies have no one to learn from, no one to show them the ropes, no one to help with knotty day-to-day problems.

I posted on this before, but some research shows that Teach for America teachers are better than experienced teachers. In Making a Difference, we read,

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

Apparently, the further the subject matter moves away from every day experience, as in the case of math and the sciences, the more important subject matter knowledge becomes in teaching. And apparently, subject matter knowledge is more important than knowing the history of education and its research. (For similar findings, see Teacher Quality.)

Not that TFA teachers have no knowledge of pedagogical practice. Ravitch exaggerates the newbies not having someone to show them the ropes. From the Making a Difference article,

TFA corps members participate in an intensive five-week summer national institute and a two week local orientation/induction program prior to their first teaching assignment.

In recent years, TFA corps members have also engaged in on-going professional development activities provided by TFA and whatever other supports school districts provide new teachers.

Now the average 3-credit semester course takes up 45 hours a semester. The 5+2 weeks of training, assuming a 40-hour training week, comes to 280 hours or a little over 18 credits (or six courses) of practical educational training. That's not insignificant. Regardless of the training they receive, the research is clear on TFA teacher outperforming experienced teachers at the secondary level. It makes one wonder, as Stephen Downes did concerning these results,

What does this say about the efficacy of teacher training?

Or perhaps, we should wonder about the efficacy of teacher training provided by schools of education as compared to that provided by TFA.

What Works is Relationships and Attitude
It would be easy to continue and pick holes in the rest of Ravitch's sound bites, but I'll leave that discussion for the comments already on her article. Instead, note that she says that Meier's success with small schools was due to her "singular passion" (which is also likely a factor in the success of TFA teachers).

Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust) wrote:

Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. (p. 2)

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too. (p. 14)

These points are not considered often enough. Researchers research methods. Meier practiced relationships of respect and trust, and had the attitude of a learner. Method without such relationships and attitudes will run into walls of resistance to learning.

Relationships and attitudes are also underscored by the book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, Vice Provost for Instruction and Director of Montclair University’s Teaching and Learning Resource Center. This book reports on outstanding teachers from various disciplines across the university, including medical and law schools. Obviously, these professors did not have a background in educational history or research. Yet they stood out. Here is a list of characteristics of teachers who stand out (excerpts from pages 15-19):

Without exception, outstanding teachers know their subjects extremely well.
Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sections, problem-based sessions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.
Simply put, the best teachers expect "more." ... they avoid objectives that are arbitrarily tied to the course and favor those that embody the kind of thinking and acting expected for life.
While methods vary, the best teachers often try to create what we have come to call a "natural critical learning environment. In that environment, people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assujmptions, and examine their mental models of reality. These are challenging yet supportive conditions in which learners feel a sense of control over their education; work collaboratively with others; believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any summative judgment of their effort."
Highly effective teachers tend to reflect a strong trust in students. ... Above all, they tend to treat students with what can only be called simple decency.
All the teachers we studied have some systematic program—some more elaborate than others—to assess their own efforts and to make appropriate changes.

As the book points out, these characteristics are driven by attitudes towards their research, their teaching, and their students, attitudes of respect, trust, and beliefs that they are still learning and that their students can learn.

What Works in Teaching and in Life
None of this is to say that educational theories of learning belong to the dustbin. They guide my own teaching practices. It would waste time to develop my pedagogy through trial and error alone instead of taking advantage of what others have already learned.

Instead, the point is that although educational theories can build upon a foundation, a foundation must be in place first. And the foundation of what works in teaching—or any other endeavor—is a command of subject matter knowledge, respect for others, and an attitude of learning.