How to improve teaching

Elizabeth Green has a fascinating long read in the NYT today, from her forthcoming book.  The best thing about it is her attention to quality assurance practices: she’s much less about this or that cool classroom hack than about a program that improves teaching, whatever practices the latter turns out to entail.  Here are the key paragraphs, in my view:

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. A year after he got to Chicago, he went to a one-day conference of teachers and mathematicians and was perplexed by the fact that the gathering occurred only twice a year. In Japan, meetings between math-education professors and teachers happened as a matter of course, even before the new American ideas arrived. More distressing to Takahashi was that American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

This is approximately the “quality circle” the sainted W. Edwards Deming taught Japanese manufacturers when our own were too arrogant to listen, and with which Toyota and pals ate Detroit’s lunch.  Teaching, as has been often noted, is the most isolating profession (maybe second to pathology [update 28/VII: Nope, says edgepath in comments]) but I guess not in Japan.  I wonder if Japanese pathologists get away from their microscopes and schmoose with peers about their work?

Equally interesting, Green’s report is redolent with the idea that good teaching is not a trait, but that teachers can learn to be better. This is a problem because if true, it implies actual work, while totting up test scores and firing the teachers at the bottom of the list is a lot quicker and easier.

Higher ed faculty, keep moving; nothing to see here. Green’s prescription is for other people; we know that children learn in a completely different way from college students, and more important, that K-12 teachers are nothing like us: they need to learn to teach, and keep on learning, while we just need to eat the magic pill taped on the back of our PhD diplomas. The only reason a college professor should ever be in another’s classroom is at promotion and tenure time, where the name of the game is reward or punishment, not improving practice.  Common room conversation about pedagogy, of course, is goofing off and if tolerated (much less encouraged) must surely have devastating effects on research productivity. It may even endanger the record of the football team: why take foolhardy chances with our core values, either way?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “How to improve teaching”

  1. Pathologists "schmoose" with their peers about their work every day, usually multiple times per day. Your choice of pathology as an "isolating profession" is a poor one, and misinformed.

    1. Glad to hear it, especially for the day one is has me on a slide and asks his buddy to kibitz.

  2. I spent four years of my elementary education attending a laboratory school at a teachers college. Each grade level had 3-5 student teachers under the supervision of a master teacher. This enabled the master teacher to divide the students into tracking groups (different groups depending on the subject matter). We students were not aware of the nature of these separations which allowed the master and student teachers to concentrate on the needs of each group. In retrospect, it seems to me that the interaction and conversations among student teachers and master teachers contributed greatly to the development of the teachers in training. [Disclaimer: My aunt was one of the master teachers and some of my insights result from adulthood conversations with her.]

  3. Thanks for this. For what it's worth, in our local public school district, the kind of focus on professional development described here is now common: common planning time for teachers of the same grade within a school building, mentor teachers, "instructional rounds" (involving both teachers and administrators), looking at student work, focusing on "problems of practice", etc.

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