Building Better Teachers

Many of us have turned our thoughts and hopes toward the Wesleyan student injured this weekend at the Beta Theta Pi  fraternity. The university will be updating the campus community about her condition as we receive more information from her family.


The semester is now well underway, even if some students are still finalizing their schedules. I’ve been talking with colleagues about their classes, and I’m always so impressed by their excitement and engagement with the course material and with their students. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to have so many fine teachers, and over the last several years we have added resources that encourage professors to share instructional techniques, including the use of new technologies. Great teachers are always learning.

Across the country, politicians, pundits and educators have been debating how we can improve instruction in the K-12 system. I recently reviewed a fine book on the subject, Elizabeth Green’s How to Build a Better Teacher. This is cross-posted with the Washington Post:



America has some of the best schools on the planet and one of the worst systems of education in the developed world. We have produced educational philosophies that have inspired teachers and students on every continent, but we have failed badly in implementing strategies that would either cultivate talents or address deficiencies.

This is not for lack of trying. Over a long period of time, federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars creating fancy programs dedicated to reorganizing where and how kids learn. In recent years we have built a testing industry based on the theory that if you can evaluate something, you can improve it. After all that effort, we have the tests, but where are the viable strategies for improving teaching and learning?

In “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green examines the forces for and obstacles against change in our schools. But she doesn’t engage directly in the political debates that swirl around tenure, unions, cheating, over-testing and growing inequality. Instead, she identifies and dispels three deep sources of confusion: one myth and two inadequate arguments.

Green finds the “Myth of the Natural-Born Teacher” to be pervasive and pernicious. It attributes great teaching to personality traits that can’t be learned: “You either have it or you don’t.” This keeps us from developing a professional culture to improve teaching. Instead, we seek to hire people who have “it,” without defining what “it” is.

Two arguments that feed off this myth are labeled by Green accountability and autonomy. According to the first, we must measure a teacher’s results by testing his or her students (again and again). Data from the tests will be used to hold the teacher accountable (read: punishments and rewards) without a clue about how to improve performance. According to the autonomy argument, nobody can understand what goes on in a classroom better than teachers themselves. Instruction is so personal that we must respect the professional autonomy of teachers and let them do what feels right to them (whatever that is).

The myth and the arguments keep us from accomplishing what the philosopher John Dewey called for decades ago: develop “an analysis of what the gifted teacher does intuitively,” so we can create a culture in which effective teaching and deep learning take place.

Green describes with verve some of the key efforts to show that great teaching is a professional achievement rather than a natural ability. In the 1980s Lee Shulman recognized that teachers, like physicians, must learn how to combine their specific subject expertise with an ability to make that knowledge relevant to others. More recently, Magdalene Lampert has shown how sharing best classroom practices can promote teaching as a “complex craft” mastered over time. Green paints a picture of dedicated professionals striving to create a culture that can refine, share, improve upon and disseminate effective pedagogy. She points out that teachers need to know how to turn “a student’s slippery intuition into solid understanding” — and that this kind of knowledge can itself be taught.

Creating the infrastructure to develop this knowledge is a massive undertaking, given the scale of our heterogeneous systems. There are more than 3.7 million teachers in this country, and looming retirements mean that we can expect to hire around 3 million new teachers by 2020.

But the most interesting parts of “Building a Better Teacher” don’t have to do with numbers, systems or politics. Green is at her best when she describes how dedicated teachers work in the classroom. It isn’t nearly enough, she explains, for instructors to show their pupils how to get the right answers. Teachers have to divine why youngsters landed on the wrong answers and then steer them away from error so that in the future they can find their own way.

And that’s the key to great teaching at any level: cultivating in students the enhanced capacity to think for themselves in productive ways when they are no longer in the classroom or doing homework. This is so much more than following a rule or showing discipline (though both are often necessary). Green’s pages on teachers who help their students to think mathematically are particularly effective. But how to share teaching strategies that work?

Green compares the Japanese use of discussion sessions, jugyokenkyu, with the American reluctance to talk about teaching techniques at all. In Japan, regular observation and discussions turn the discovery of effective strategies in individual classrooms into a comprehension of craft that can be shared by a community of professionals.

A community of professionals is not the same thing as a union defending basic working conditions; nor is it a high-flying cadre of charismatic instructors whose students score well on exams. It’s the human core of effective instruction. All the testing in the world is just an “exoskeleton” and won’t provide this foundation.

Many obstacles inhibit the development of a culture for learning the craft of teaching. But Green emphasizes the ingredients for positive change that are currently in place. In addition to advances in teacher training, there are energetic entrepreneurs creating schools with ambitious, measurable goals: “The Common Core offered coherence, the research on teaching and teacher education offered a starting point for a curriculum, and the entrepreneurs added passion and a laboratory for experimentation.”

Now that we know how great a difference skilled teachers can make, we should leave behind the myth of the natural teacher, and our obsessions with accountability or autonomy. “The only logical conclusion,” Green writes, is “that American education ought to build a coherent infrastructure — clear goals, accurate tests, trained instructors — to teach teaching.”

Despite her lack of attention to the wider culture and context, Green’s account of passionate educators dedicated to their “complex craft” should be part of every new teacher’s education. It is vital for the United States to build better teachers to inspire the lifelong learning that not only our students but also their instructors so desperately need.


3 thoughts on “Building Better Teachers”

  1. Let me start from the end: “… to build better teachers to inspire the lifelong learning …” – this is a non-sequitur. Life-long learning happens when individuals self-teach themselves (mostly) and has nothing to do with the overall discussion in the paragraphs above. ask any successful CEO about his life-lng learning and he’d be amused at the notion of him or her holding onto the apron of any teacher, excellent or bad. However, bad teachers in primary or high school may infuse a horror or distaste for learning in students as much as brilliant teachers will spawn a host of adults who later do “life-long learning” as a matter of course. But at the core of all this lies what you describe as “… built a testing industry based on the theory that if you can evaluate something, you can improve it …” – the US seems to have a very strange notion of testing in this regard. Let’s assume we test if engineering professors are good teachers by seeing how well their engineering students fare. How do you measure a “good engineer”? Let him/her build a machine. If the machine works (and this knowledge was not in him/her before encountering the professor of course), then let this be a measure of the teaching qualities of his/her instructors. But how do the US and the OECD countries in general measure the quality of teaching? They do not let the students afterwards build a machine, rather they apply an artificial battery of tests that have little if anything to do with later abilities needed in any profession. Even IF the students scored high, this would not be a measure of teacher prowess but something aloof like Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

  2. Thank you for your review of Green’s book; I look forward to reading it soon. I see from your notes that Green’s work resonates with the “autonomy” and “accountability” discussions that continue also in higher education. Unfortunately, the two topics are often positioned as conflicting, when in fact they harmonize nicely when faculty colleagues share, review, and support each other’s instructional strategies and tactics. Universities as well as school districts will benefit from organized plans for professional development that make faculty active participants in improving their own courses. Along the road toward having clear learning expectations for every course (student learning outcomes) and at the institutional level (institutional learning outcomes), there are many opportunities for our instructors to define and refine their activities, assignments, and rubrics, sharing them with students and colleagues alike. While universities may be far from standardized testing of students, we stand to glean insights about our instruction by measuring and analyzing patterns of student success at those learning outcomes. The analysis should be shared with the teachers as a matter of course in the professional development cycle.

    On another note, what do you make of the recent attention given to the ongoing research about how students learn better when asked to try to resolve confusion over conflicting evidence (e.g.
    It seems quite powerful, when applied judiciously, but as the Chronicle article points out, “…harnessing the power of confusion becomes difficult—and risky.”
    Perhaps the establishment of clearly defined learning expectations and outcomes plays a role here too, as a way of building “lighthouses” that remain visible to students among the “fog banks” that temporary confusion imposes.
    Your thoughts?

    -Steven Smolnik

  3. The last paragraph is sort of “lame” for me…especially after over-analyzing again: “Despite her lack of attention to the wider culture and context…” I have been analyzing American teachers/schools/quality of education for more than a decade now, and, the idea that there is a a nation-wide crisis in education…is simply not true. As a Finn, growing up with polyglot parents who were educators both in Finland and here, I have been distraught (more like super-annoyed) over the full-assault on teachers by so many “talking heads” about teachers’ complete culpability for the so-called ‘dismal state’ of American education in this country. The latest idea (more like the most vicious attack on teachers) from political pundits, the billionaire entrepreneurs Ms. Green mentions and seems so smitten with, and all kinds of ersatz “education reformers and progressives” who’ve never actually, uh, hmmm, TAUGHT in a classroom for a reasonable number of years, is that, “yup, most teachers are stupid; low-hanging fruit from bottom-tier state U’s, or some other lame university.”
    The condescension toward teachers is at an all time high, both by liberals and conservatives. It is so wrong and so ridiculous at the same time, and, frankly, as a dual citizen, it embarrasses me that things are worse now then the early 70’s in public education. When I am really spacing-out, I think, “hmmm…we have Silicon Valley, and then we have Newark, Detroit, Ferguson, etc.
    And, worse, all the people who bash teachers usually went to elite private schools/parochial schools in in their youth, or grew up in a wealthy suburb with a public HS where the taxes alone, would keep all poor people out. Everyone who feels teachers today are low-quality, should be forced to send their kids to the local Charter School (the privatization pet-projects of the 1%) which reformers in particular, feel is the wave-of-the-future.
    For the record, I had a fabulous public education at lowly, boiler-plate public schools in Brooklyn, NY and NJ. My brothers and I went on to Wes and Ivies…and we seem to be the last of the solid middle class to attend those universities. I had many “born teachers,” (sorry, Ms. Green) who thought my classmates and I were bound for the stars – kids of all ethnicity and race, by the way, ouch, for you, the uninformed reformers, who never walked the streets of Brooklyn in the late 60’s early 70’s.
    My mother and father were “natural” teachers who revered their students of all abilities. And, there were plenty of men and women in my schools who were dedicated to teaching. They were excellent teachers who were passionate and fully-in-command about their knowledge and “a coherent infrastructure'” whatever that means. Reformers use too much silly verbiage, by the way.
    The TRUE issue that no one seems to want to talk about, is: “Why is there still such a huge achievement gap between our mostly urban, poor, minority kids, ESL kids, and, everyone else?” That is the billion dollar question. Conveniently, someone like Ms. Green never speaks about rural schools in the middle of Nebraska, or something; here’s a clue: they are just fine. And, because of “geographic diversity,” the smartest “fly-over” state kids will get into the elite schools.
    The idea that lousy teachers are to blame for the failure of closing the achievement gap with our urban schools and everything else, is such a canard. In PISA exams, 15- year-old students from Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts are the top in Reading, and 2nd in Math behind China. Look it up. Of course, the US is selecting from the public HS’s of the highest DERG, not all HS’ in their state or country. Believe, me, the rest of the European countries and East Asians also select their top students – they’re simply not going to include school systems deep in the rural sticks of their country, or from their most impoverished areas – trust me on that.
    I fear that constantly bashing teachers will result in NO ONE ever, EVER wanting to become a teacher. At least, no one from elite universities like Wesleyan or the Ivies (tuition/loans are high enough). Why bother; it’s low-paying; no tenure soon; tests will determine your competence/relevance/salary; and, you can be terminated without any recourse if you are deemed “borderline-failing your students.”
    Couching ideas about creating better teachers by adopting the methods used in Japan is so ludicrous – Japan is a VERY homogenous culture and a fairly closed society as far as immigrants. The USA has some deep fissures in trying to figure out why we have so much poverty (and, increasing poverty) in our cities, still, after the 46 years I have lived here. I have felt that the USA has never fully wanted to examine its inherent poverty & its causes and its eternity in most of the major cities in this country. Claiming that the quality of teachers has led to this conundrum, is just not fair; Teachers can not solve the “wider culture and context,” no matter how newly trained, ambitious, perky, or erudite they may be.

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