Continuing Conversation... Elizabeth Green on Education and Building a Better Teacher

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Elizabeth Green on Education a... Thomas Piketty on Inequality a...

In this week's episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts spoke with education journalist Elizabeth Green about her new book, Building a Better Teacher. Their conversation covers teaching as a craft, the role and history of schools of education, and the efficacy of various education reforms.

Now we'd like to hear your reaction to this week's conversation. Reply to the prompts below in the comments, or use them to spark your own conversation offline. And let us know how it goes...As always, we love to hear from you.

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Check Your Knowledge:

1. Describe what Green means when she speaks of teaching as a craft. How does this compare to what aspiring teachers are taught in colleges of education, according to Green?


Going Deeper:

3. Is good teaching more art or science? Use examples from the conversation to buttress your answer. (Personal experience is welcome here as well.)

4. To what extent is there a problem in colleges of education today, and is that problem better characterized as a problem of (misaligned) incentives or of culture? Explain.


Extra Credit:

5. Roberts had a similar conversation with Doug Lemov in 2013. What is the Get it/Do it gap, according to Lemov? Lemov has had lots of success in "building better teachers" through Uncommon Schools. To what extent can this same level of success be replicated in public schools? Explain.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Mark W writes:

1. Describe what Green means when she speaks of teaching as a craft. How does this compare to what aspiring teachers are taught in colleges of education, according to Green?

It seems that craft is the developed set of skills that come with experience and a deep knowledge of the behavior. One sees a similar use of craft with items like beer where "craft beer" makers are more in tuned with the finer details of the activity and pay close attention to these factors.

Going Deeper:

3. Is good teaching more art or science? Use examples from the conversation to buttress your answer. (Personal experience is welcome here as well.)

As a teacher, I refute this binary. I'll argue that there are certainly known techniques (science) that work better, but the wide set of variables make applying these techniques on a broad level very difficult. Perhaps the art is being aware of the many techniques and understanding the ideal points of application.

4. To what extent is there a problem in colleges of education today, and is that problem better characterized as a problem of (misaligned) incentives or of culture? Explain.

I believe both domains have problems. Colleges need to train teachers for the classroom but realistic simulations are difficult to utilize. Just as the "not in my backyard" perspective limits nuclear plants and prisons, few would be interested in allowing their children be educated by amateur teachers in training.

That being said, great teaching is hard to define. What makes a good teacher? One might list a collection of features visible in students or data points garnered by a series of metrics but how certain are we that these are accurate? One idea often presented on EconTalk is the limitation of models and human attempts to find certainty in areas of great variability. One should consider the human factor in education when attempting to nail down a metrics to evaluate teachers. Yes, terrible teachers do exist just as a NINJ loan is a bad idea, but beyond the outliers the nuance is a difficult domain from which to find certainty.


Extra Credit:

5. Roberts had a similar conversation with Doug Lemov in 2013. What is the Get it/Do it gap, according to Lemov? Lemov has had lots of success in "building better teachers" through Uncommon Schools. To what extent can this same level of success be replicated in public schools? Explain.

Lemov speaks of a gap between learning that simply educates the student on the concept and falls short with actually using/ applying the information. Bloom's taxonomy speaks to this varied level of learning and good teachers work to move through the levels of Bloom. And yet while teachers can be advised of the need to have students demonstrate their learning one wonders where the gap lies. Do today's teachers care less or are they less skilled? Were the teachers of previous generations (who educated the writers we read and discuss today) better? Numerous factors are at play: cultural perspectives towards learning, family structure being but a few.

Dan Winters writes:

1. Describe what Green means when she speaks of teaching as a craft. How does this compare to what aspiring teachers are taught in colleges of education, according to Green?

Green describes teaching as a craft meaning it contains a set of skills that can be learned through intentional practice with the guidance of one more skilled. Having gone through a college of education 25 years ago (not sure how much has changed) I can tell you that teachers are taught some superficial philosophy of education along with policy courses and maybe one course on something called methods! Basically, when you finally jump into student teaching you begin to discover the wide range of skills, knowledge, and dispositions that will be needed to succeed in front of your critical audience.

3. Is good teaching more art or science? Use examples from the conversation to buttress your answer. (Personal experience is welcome here as well.)

I appreciate how Ms. Green shares her own experience in front of high schoolers where she came to appreciate the value of relationship with her students. She contended that love is a science Indeed you must love your children enough to design instruction that will challenge them to think and practice until they master concepts and knowledge. I think, however, that Ms. Green would fall on the side of teaching being MORE science than art, while my experience tells me that it is a balance of those two dynamics and indeed the interplay of both. Robert Marzano, a famous education researcher wrote a book by the title "The Art and Science of Teaching".

4. To what extent is there a problem in colleges of education today, and is that problem better characterized as a problem of (misaligned) incentives or of culture? Explain.

Not being an economist, (elementary school Principal) I haven't given the incentive question much thought. Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking, like Ms. Green, that there is not much stomach for this challenge given that so many teachers are needed and education schools get no negative consequences for sending out weak products. Hey Russ - maybe we should get a Kick Starter campaign for training K-12 teachers in the craft of teaching? My wife's a math teacher turned high school AP, so I think we'd really get along swell!

Extra Credit:

5. Roberts had a similar conversation with Doug Lemov in 2013. What is the Get it/Do it gap, according to Lemov? Lemov has had lots of success in "building better teachers" through Uncommon Schools. To what extent can this same level of success be replicated in public schools? Explain.

Sucker for Extra Credit here. Mr. Lemov explained how so many of his first cohort of teachers made no change in practice after 6 months of his training. He realized that he needed to embed practice of the skills within his training to help these teachers become proficient in execution. (He also loves the soccer coach analogies while I'm a John Wooden Basketball guy myself)

In my role as a high school and elementary school administrator for nearly 20 years, I believe that I have helped many teachers improve their craft through professional development, coaching and feedback, but have been fighting an uphill battle against isolationism, and traditionalism that is fairly epidemic in K-12 education. My current school is using some of the practice techniques from Doug Lemov this school year as well as the use of videotaping for reflection and improved practice. I'm surrounded by an amazing group of teachers at my school who are eager to get better and my conclusion is that improving teaching is very, very difficulty, but far from impossible. I'm in a public school where the professional day has changed dramatically. Teachers have collaborative grade level planning time every two weeks (and we need more) and they come together to debate practice, analyze results, and make adjustments for improved student learning. Resources like Ms. Green's book and the work of John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers and others) are available and welcome to those of us "in the trenches" who are eager to elevate K-12 education to the level of a serious profession striving for excellence and both quantitative and qualitative results. Thanks for keeping those education issues on the front burner.

Amy Willis writes:

@Dan The Kickstarter idea is great! I also spent many years in a high school classroom and in professional development; I empathize. But isn't there a problem here, similar to one we've discussed in relation to MOOCs (see this episode, for example) - accreditation. That is, how would teachers who entered our Kickstarter "program" earn accepted PD credit? What's the way around that?

Eric Goetz writes:

Green's point about having a language to describe good teaching techniques reminded me of the classic architecture book: A Pattern Language and how that idea of naming useful patterns within a discipline is so valuable. Just as that idea of patterns was so successfully applied to architecture, and later to object oriented software design, having a taxonomy of teaching patterns: how to implement them, when to apply them, etc could really advance the state of the art in teaching.

Dan Winters writes:

@Amy Your argument is a tough one given that the public school system relies on the current accreditation system, however this can be overcome. High Tech High in San Diego has their own Graduate Program that includes teacher credentialing as well as an M.A. in Leadership and other offerings. It appears one can create a uniquely different preparation program while still satisfying the requirements of state credentialing.

Curtis Lanoue writes:

I listened to the full episode and had some comments I'd like to share. Having been a certified teacher for 13 years (I calculated the hours actually teaching -- puts me over Gladwell's 10k :)), there were some things that resonated and some that I thought weren't quite accurate.

To begin with, I always have felt that teaching is a craft. I came to teaching from music so I immediately saw the analogy. While some other teachers don't recognize this on a cerebral level, I could see in their practice that the majority of "good" teachers (my own evaluation) viewed teaching as a craft and sought to become better teachers by viewing it that way (consciously or not).

So in that I am in complete agreement with Green. Where I begin to disagree is in her portrayal of education schools. I came to teaching as a second career -- I had to take education courses in order to get certified but do not have a full degree in education. Nonetheless, I took about 2 years worth of credits.

In that time, I found the majority of my course work and instructors focused on teaching as a craft. Sure, there were theoretical components, but these always led back to the classroom and how to implement them. Role playing was a (hated) part of each course. Some courses are specifically meant to approximate classroom conditions (and included videotaped feedback after).

While my education experiences are limited to two universities (FIU and UM both in Miami) and I have only ever taught in Miami Dade County Public Schools, I would be surprised if my experience is that different from teachers from other backgrounds. Perhaps Green succumbed to that ever present confirmation bias or just suffers from never having been a teacher but still trying to write about teaching. I'm not sure.

Amy Willis writes:

@Eric, thanks for the book rec. I'll be checking that out this weekend...great point!

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