Can we teach teachers?

by Matthew Koslowski on March 11, 2010
in Anecdotes

While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research [Jonah Rockoff, economist at Columbia University] can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?
–From “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2010.

When I first read the above in The New York Times Magazine, I was shocked. This economist questions if we can teach people to be successful teachers.

While I believe that there are natural limits to each person’s ability, I believe that education and training help people increase their natural strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Being able to teach someone something requires more than just knowledge, it requires the ability to communicate that knowledge. Education and training in methods can help teachers acquire the ability to communicate their knowledge.

Imagine that instead of providing hands-on training to Emergency Medical Technicians we taught them only the theoretical concepts behind the techniques. They learn anatomy, biology and some chemistry; they discuss the theory and the history of the techniques; but they are never taught the techniques themselves. Then, in the field, the technician does not know how provide CPR and someone dies.

In this scenario, would an economist question whether teaching particular techniques and methods in addition to academic knowledge was worth the money?

If you think my scenario sounds far-fetched, please read the following quote. In 2006, Arthur Levine, a former president of Teacher College at Columbia University, wrote:

“Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.”
–Arthur Levine, quoted in “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine

Despite these two quotes, the article “Building a Better Teacher” focuses on Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools and his research into what makes good and great teachers. He systematically surveyed and videotaped teachers who students consistently scored well year after year. From his research, he was able to distill many techniques that he found the best teachers employed.

Mr. Lemov’s work shows that research is being done into whether teacher training can help improve educational outcomes. The article convinced me that it is possible to improve communication of ideas using techniques and methods that are not currently a standard part of teacher education.

Future teachers and their future students will be best served by the changing focus of teacher training institutes from high level, abstract pedagogical theory to on-the-ground, concrete teaching methods.