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Thompson: The Science of Teaching

Head caseElizabeth Green’s excellent "Building a Better Teacher" addresses the three (or four-legged) stool required for improving instruction. Green recounts Doug Lemov’s "content-neutral" taxonomy for instruction, and Deborah Ball’s subject-specific tactics. (The Comer Project was not mentioned, but it has been equally scientific in teaching the same strategies since 1968.)

Given the excellence that already exists in many systems for teaching classroom management, Why do we need a third (or fourth) leg for improving instruction?  Why do we need special efforts to attract better teaching talent and cull ineffective educators, or the $335 million Gates effort to videotape 3,000 classrooms and correlate best practices with growth metrics?

Both Lemov and Ball break down teaching into "a series of bite-sized moves,"as well as identifying misunderstandings in order to "correct that mistake in the student’s brain." Although they use different names for their approaches, both Lemov and Ball seek to "narrate the positive;" "get and hold the floor" or adopt a "strong voice;" be "direct and specific and "don't do two things at once;" as well as "establish norms and routines for classroom discourse." 

I’m confident in Lemov’s, Ball’s, and Comer’s strategies because I have been taught them for over two decades in classroom management workshops and I have seen how they usually work for my high school classes. Comer teaches the same concepts, for instance using the terms "assertion," and "redirection." During a professional development workshop, a charismatic educator from Yale demonstrated those skills on me. After saying "John," she put her hand on my shoulder, gave a direct and specific instruction, and touched my wrist.  I silently vowed to give up misbehaving forever.

But I recommend a fourth leg of reform, which would require a restatement of the position that teacher quality is the major factor in increasing student performance that schools can control.  After all, society could provide the mental health interventions and the alternative slots necessary for even the toughest secondary schools to control their buildings and have respectful learning cultures.  As the Baby Boomers retire, the best strategy could be the investments required for an environment where being a good and caring teacher, as opposed to a superstar, is enough to be an effective one. 

Comer would probably disagree with much of my proposal, but surely we can all agree with two of his principles. "No significant learning occurs without significant relationships," says Comer, as he urges the "TEAM" approach ("Together Everybody Achieves More").  This is very consistent with the principles of Lemov and Ball. The hard work required to fulfill Lemov’s 49 techniques, "Teach Like a Champion," is also a way of telling a student "I love you." Ball and others are correct that a teacher should not allow a student to avoid answering a question, but that is much easier when effective instruction is occurring in every classroom, and there is effective administration throughout the building and the central office.

Similarly, Lemov is correct that the improvement in instruction "doesn’t matter if the kids are running the classroom." And that principle was illustrated by a teacher who "even sent a disobedient student to the dean's office without a single turned head or giggle interrupting the flow of her lesson."

But how many excellent urban teachers have that option? How many neighborhood school teachers get to serve in a team where the school addresses disruptions? How many more urban educators must confront the blame game where it is presumed that teachers who don’t handle all of their classroom disruptions are just making excuses, and lack competence and/or commitment?

Given my mantra of "it's not what we adults say, it's what the student hears," I was thrilled by Ball’s dictum, "teaching depends upon what other people think, not what you think." But the only statement in the article which I dispute is Ball’s statement that "teaching ‘is decidedly not about being yourself."  If it's not a part of myself that I am also offering to the students, what am I doing in the classroom? 

I especially appreciated Ball's efforts with a student called "Sean" who kept making enthusiastic comments and "went on not making sense." Building on his interruptions, Ball adjusted her lesson plan, thus improving learning for the entire class. Maybe she would see her response to the teachable moment as different than the one pioneered by the ancient Greeks and refined by instructors ever since, but I see her technique as Socratic instruction, public school style.

By the way, the science of building a better teacher and building a better psychiatrist are comparable, as I will be discussing. 


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I think that these examples point to how we can use interventionist methods to take data of any type and direct it in a specific way to produce results.

Intervention, interruption and disaggregation lead to teaching excellence.

I don't see how you got that from the article or the post. Reading the first sentence I figured you were joking.

Rereading, the whole thing, I don't get your point.

You can't disagregate and data yourself to excellence. I see that as the point of the article. You have to look and reflect deeply on humans.

The Lemov-Ball-Comer techniques operationalize well-established psychological principles, but they don't transform teaching into a science. Teachers will be more effective if they use the techniques. That contention can be validated scientifically, but Thompson's N=1 experiment and logic is sufficient validation.

Rather than metaphorically Racing to a metaphorically Top the public weal would be better served by re-forming the social dysfunction of many classes and schools. Psychologists and sociologists know how to do this.

But reliably delivering specified instructional accomplishments is something that no discipline knows how to do. That's the dirty big secret of el-hi education.

It's quite feasible to teach kids how to read. The UK is committed to doing this for aggregate kids by the end of Grade 2. But the US has embedded reading into English Language Arts and has reduced reading proficiency to arbitrarily-set cut scores on an ungrounded statistical scale.

By 2014 it's technically feasible to "build better teachers" and to teach aggregate kids to read by Grade 2. But the political obstacles to accomplish this aspiration are daunting. The Race to the Top converts the soft bigotry of low expectations to the hard bigotry of low instructional accomplishments.

Through RTTT and differentiated accountability is trying to pass legislation to build better teachers. Teachers and school district staff have to be held to a higher standard. One senetor (Wilson indicated that he believed "99.1 percent of our (FL) teachers are great teachers". If the current standard of evaluation indicates that almost 100% 0f teachers are great, then something is wrong with the system. I do not believe you would find that percent of great employees in any career field. What percent of teachers in your school are GREAT? (and how are you measuring greatness)

Thanks Dick,

Regarding your accurate characterization of my post as N=1, I'd argue that my post is worth reading because it is one person's synthesis of reseach in education, reflections on politics, a view of how people get along, and experience in the social organisms that are the classroom and schools.

I doubt my professional opionions would be worth reading if I tried to chop everything up into measurable pieces, and not try to put them back together. Too many reformers seek something like:
1/4=hardball politics
1/4=data devoid of meaning, and
1= a magic asterisk.

Dr. Mike, I don't see the advantage of squabbling over how many educators are excellent. My point is that we need a team concept, not one man teams. We need to abandon the myth that every teacher must be a transforming hero like in the movies. Being good and caring should be enough to be able to effectively contribute to the team.

That of course, does not contradict the value of systematically upgrading educators' skills.

I enjoyed your suggestion about the time when a good and carring teacher is an effective one as suppose to this strive to become a superstar. I think as teachers the administration sometimes forgets that their rules and expections of teachers change almost daily and its hard to attain this unrealistic superstar ranking when the game has no set rules.

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