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) 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?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.