Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill.
But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born.
To the 11- and 12-year-olds in his maths class, Jimmy Cavanagh seems like a born teacher. He is warm but firm. His voice is strong. Correct answers make him smile. Mr Cavanagh is the product of a new way of training teachers. Rather than spending their time musing on the meaning of education, he and his peers have been drilled in the craft of the classroom. Their dozens of honed techniques cover everything from discipline to making sure all children are thinking hard. Not a second is wasted. North Star teachers may seem naturals. They are anything but.
Like many of his colleagues are or have been, Mr Cavanagh is enrolled at the Relay Graduate School of Education. Along with similar institutions around the world, Relay is applying lessons from cognitive science, medical education and sports training to the business of supplying better teachers. Their technique is calibrated, practised, coached and relentlessly assessed like that of a top-flight athlete. Jamey Verrilli, who runs Relay’s Newark branch (there are seven others), says the approach shows teaching for what it is: not an innate gift, nor a refuge for those who, as the old saw has it, “can’t do”, but “an incredibly intricate, complex and beautiful craft”.
Are great teachers born or made?
Prejudices played out in popular culture suggest the former. Bad teachers are portrayed as lazy and kid-hating. Edna Krabappel of The Simpsons treats lessons as obstacles to cigarette breaks. Good and inspiring teachers, meanwhile, such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s marine-turned-educator in Dangerous Minds, or J.K. Rowling’s Minerva McGonagall, are portrayed as endowed with supernatural gifts (literally so, in the case of the head of Gryffindor). In 2011 a survey of attitudes to education found that such portrayals reflect what people believe: 70% of Americans thought the ability to teach was more the result of innate talent than training.
Elizabeth Green, the author of Building A Better Teacher, calls this the myth of the natural-born teacher. Such a belief makes finding a good teacher like panning for gold: get rid of all those that don’t cut it; keep the shiny ones. This is in part why, for the past two decades, increasing the ‘accountability’ of teachers has been a priority for educational reformers.
There is a good deal of sense in this. In cities such as Washington DC, performance-related pay and dismissing the worst teachers have boosted test scores. But relying on hiring and firing without addressing the ways that teachers actually teach is unlikely to work. Education-policy wonks have neglected what one of them once called the “black box of the production process” and others might call “the classroom”. Open that black box, and two important truths pop out. A fair chunk of what teachers (and others) believe about teaching is wrong. And ways of teaching better—often much better—can be learned. Grit can become gold. Continue reading “Teaching the teachers”