This is the closest I will come to reviewing Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. (For earlier posts on specific parts of the book, see here and here; see also my response to the book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math” (New York Times, July 27). I find that the book raises important questions about teacher training but makes false oppositions between the “bad old days” and the promising present or future. In addition, I question its underlying assumption that we need a grand model for teacher training. As I see it, the best teacher education (and training) will be humble in scale and goal; it will give teachers the knowledge and skills they need to exercise independent thought, which will transcend existing models.
Elizabeth Green does us a great service by bringing the question of teacher education to the forefront and challenging the rhetoric and policy about “good” and “bad” teachers. She argues passionately that teachers can improve through deliberate study of the craft, yet she does not ignore the complexities of this proposition. The book is sure to meet with strong responses, because it deals with old (not new) controversies underlying pedagogy.
Unfortunately, she tries to resolve at least some of the complexities through a cosmic tale of slowly converging perspectives. We have Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, and their TKOT group on the one hand, and Lemov and his “Taxonomy” group and “no-excuses schools” on the other. At first, it seems that Green is setting up a dialectic–but this does not seem to be the point. Slowly, through failures, revisions, and chance meetings, the two groups start to come together, or so it seems. Enter the Common Core, which (in Green’s depiction) seems to mesh well with both TKOT and the revised “Taxonomy.” It seems–though this may be incorrect–that Green is placing hope in the possibility that some great convergence will lead to a great master plan for teacher training.
Robert Pondiscio, who finds that Green comes “perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build,” shares Green’s belief that any viable plan for teacher training must be scalable: “But if teachers are to be made, after all, rather than born, then good instructional practice must be something that can be identified, named, practiced, and mastered by millions.” (I wish I could attend the September 2 discussion, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, between Pondiscio and Green; alas, I am at school until late afternoon and can’t possibly get to D.C.).
I argue the opposite: that both TKOT and the Taxonomy go wrong when they try to become comprehensive models. Scale them down a bit–make them into working principles for certain situations–and they can be of great use. The problem with an overarching model is that it comes from the minds of the few–so you have a few thinkers at the top, and many followers at the bottom. Teaching must allow for independence of thought, or education itself will be downgraded.
Green quotes Ball’s statement that the math she learned in school was “uninspiring at best, mentally and emotionally crushing at worst.” Her own pedagogical approach seems to repudiate and counter the “old style.” Yet one of her classmates might have been inspired by the lessons that she found so dull. I have seen math students–and have been a math student–who, listening to the teacher’s presentation, detected a pattern or corollary and jumped out of the seat with excitement. I have had teachers who expected this and who would pose questions along the way: “Where do you see this going? What would change if I did such-and-such instead?” In addition, my math teachers (in high school) were skilled at diagnosing my errors. They could quickly tell the difference between a careless error and a conceptual one; in addition, they recognized when I was solving a problem in a way they hadn’t considered. Good math pedagogy has been alive and well for a long time. (So has bad math pedagogy–but it often appeared in the guise of a new method.)
What about classroom discipline? In my book and in an op-ed, I criticize Lemov’s Taxonomy for its rigidity and excessive emphasis on external behavior. My main argument is that Lemov’s system promotes a “thinking gap” between those who depend on directives from moment to moment and those who have internal focus and direction. A classroom of students in the latter group–which you will find in top-level schools and colleges–do not need SLANT, nor do they get punished for minor aberrations (such as looking out the window). The focus–for them and for the teacher–is on the substance of the lesson; within that focus, they have great intellectual liberty. Helping students reach such self-possession is another matter–it takes some effort–but the Taxonomy, as a full model, is not the route. Yet certain techniques within the Taxonomy could be of help to teachers.
If, as a teacher, you have a mind of your own, you will find any model insufficient for your purposes. The challenge lies in recognizing those aspects that could be helpful. For example, I object strongly to an overemphasis on “reading strategies.” I find that generic strategies do little to illuminate specific texts–and that strategy instruction tends to bring down the intellectual level of a course. Granted, students need to learn strategies of various kinds, but they can do that in the context of the subject matter. Green describes Pam Grossman’s strategy emphasis with apparent enthusiasm that I do not share (see pp. 268 and 302, for instance). It is important to challenge such enthusiasms. Most principles of teaching can be taken too far; the challenge lies in recognizing when they do.
Likewise, a teacher should be willing to question advice. When Green prepares to give a guest lesson to a high school class, she accepts the regular teacher’s (Andy Snyder’s) judgment that the readings she initially selected would be “too boring” for the students. I do not blame her for deferring to his judgment here; this is a one-off occurrence, and he is a highly skilled and respected teacher. Yet in general it is important to question assumptions about what students will find “boring.” My students have gotten excited about John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt, and other writers that some would consider far beyond teenagers’ realm of interest. Much depends on what the teacher does with such works. That leads to the point of this piece.
Good teachers are knowledgeable, questioning, and self-questioning. They learn much from others–but also learn from the many hours of rumination over the course material, lesson plans, and students’ work. To insist on an opposition between the “bad old days” of teacher isolation and the “good new days” of collaboration is to set things up for a great error. Green writes, on p. 311: “The only way to get better teaching, [some teachers] argued, was to leave teachers alone–‘liberate’ them, one columnist put it, and ‘let them be themselves.’ Yet leaving teachers alone was exactly what American schools had done for years, with no great success.”Here Green commits two fallacies: first, by quoting the columnist, she comes close to ridiculing the idea that teachers should be left alone–an idea that has great merit when not taken too far. Second, she implies that schools were uniformly leaving teachers alone for years–which is not true. Collaboration and professional development are not recent inventions.
In teaching, both solitude and collaboration have an essential place. If you never consult with others, you may develop blind spots; if you only consult with others, you may settle for the judgments of the group. Collaboration, at its best, is distinct from group work; it involves a great deal of solitary work. One goes off and thinks on one’s own; then one brings one’s insights to the table and listens to others. This allows for substantial discussion. When collaboration is reduced to group work, when it no longer has a solitary component, it becomes shallow. Although this varies widely from one situation to the next, I would say that the solitary work should take up about 80 percent of the time, and the remaining 20 percent should go to in–person collaboration. Instead, I see a widespread assumption that collaboration and meetings are one and the same.
What, then, should teacher education look like? First, teachers should have a liberal education–a background in math, literature, history, science, art, music, and preferably philosophy and a second language. They should have additional preparation in their own subject. This “preparation” should consist not simply of required courses and grades, but of intellectual discussion; “professional development” should often consist of literary and mathematical study.
Then what of the pedagogy? Teachers should be offered techniques and tools–with the emphasis on the underlying principles, and with the recognition that any given technique may be more appropriate for one setting than another. Beginning teachers–or teachers in an especially challenging setting–may need more structure at the outset, but ultimately they should be encouraged to find their way.
Finally, teachers must not be crushed with unreasonable duties. Too many teachers have to create their curricula on the fly, while teaching; this is unreasonable and harmful. (Some aspects of a curriculum may well be spontaneous, and that’s good; but there’s more room for spontaneity when you know what it is you’re teaching.) Teachers should not be assigned to teach subjects that they don’t know; that, too, is a setup. Finally, teachers should have more time in the day for planning–both on their own and with colleagues.
These three facets of teacher preparation–liberal education, pedagogical techniques (to be used with judgment), and a restructuring of teachers’ responsibilities–would do a great deal to strengthen the teaching profession. Various pedagogical models could come into play, yet teachers would be expected to go beyond them. Is that not what we hope our students will do: learn, defy, and transcend the structure we have offered?
Note: I made some edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it. I made two more minor edits on September 1. Then, on September 8, I made a substantial addition to paragraph 10 and inserted a new paragraph after that.