Building a Better Teacher – a review

Screenshot 2014-08-30 10.17.10

Can you build a better teacher? The answer given in Green’s excellent account of how a number of inspired teachers and researchers have tried to change the educational paradigm in America is an emphatic ‘yes’. The central premise of Building a Better Teacher is that there is no such thing as an innately gifted teacher, and that the characteristics of a good teacher can, and should, be identified, honed and passed on from one generation to the next.

I suspect that for most people reading this post, the idea that teachers are not naturally blessed with the ability to stand in front of large groups of children and inspire, challenge and educate them on a daily basis will seem self evident. But what Green makes clear, is that in America (and I suspect in many other parts of the world too) this has not always been the case, and, indeed, many people continue to see teaching as more of an ‘art than a ‘science’: that you either have it or your don’t! And while I may not perhaps agree with all aspects of the pedagogical approach Green describes as the means of professionalising our profession, I couldn’t agree more with her book’s central formulation that a ‘good teacher is not born. They are built.’

The early chapters tell a fascinating version of American educational history, in particular the efforts of a few dedicated individuals who worked hard to make it possible for teachers to teach better lessons. These inspiring figures, some largely unknown to me like Nate Gage and Lee Shulman, were responsible for helping to harness the intellectual abstractions of the American education colleges of the late 1950s onwards for the practical benefit of the classroom. Up until the likes of Gage and Shulman it hadn’t occurred to many university professors, who often ended up in education schools by default, that their primary audience should be teachers and that their primary purpose should be on producing the knowledge necessary to help them to teach more effectively. Many of the revolutionary educationists documented, such as Gage, Shulman and the father of modern educational psychology Edward Thurndike, fought against a prevailing scepticism that believed the characteristics of successful teaching could not be identified, let alone recorded and used as means of structuring teacher-training programmes.

The story of how education became more of a profession and less of a vocation really begins with Gage, a researcher who, after becoming frustrated by the lack of available research to help him improve his own teaching, set about trying to establish what went into making a successful teacher – what actions meant that some teachers were much better than others. In a time where behaviourism was the dominant approach to conducting psychological studies, Gates undertook his work by recording the behaviours of hundreds of different teachers as they taught. His method was entitled the ‘process product’ paradigm; it compared the practice of teaching (the process), to the learning that took place (the product). It involved videotaping lessons and painstakingly cataloguing the things that successful teachers were doing and correlating them with students’ results. The flaws in this approach may seem obvious now, but as the time this was revolutionary stuff and in many ways reminded me of what a colleague of mine described as the ‘Sistine Chapel of educational research methodologies’ employed by Graham Nuthall in The Hidden Lives of Learners.

Lee Shulman, a philosopher cum psychologist, picked up on the work of Nate Gage and took it in a new and exciting direction. Rather than focusing on the directly observable behaviours of teachers, which he considered ‘garbage’ and an outmoded way of carrying out psychological research, Shulman’s work concentrated instead on cognition and to trying to work out what went on inside a teacher’s head, as opposed to what they did as a result of their thinking. Shulman’s own background in psychology involved working with doctors, who he believed represented an excellent case study for unmasking the role of cognition in complex decision making. Shulman’s success at working with doctors encouraged him to apply similar methods to uncovering the decision-making processes taken by good teachers in their practice. His studies drew him to the conclusion that in many ways teaching required even more complex cognition than the diagnosing of medical conditions. Perhaps, though, Shulman’s greatest contribution to the development of a better way of thinking about teaching and teacher training was the role he played in setting up an education laboratory at the University of Michigan. This laboratory, the Institute for Research on Teaching & Learning (IRTL), went on to be something of a magnet for pedagogical reformers, and led to the greater unification of research enquiry and practical application.

The majority of the book is concerned with two extraordinary women who were brought to work at Shulman’s educational school by Judy Lanier, herself something of a pivotal figure in Green’s story of educational reform. The two women concerned were Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan, and Magdalene Lampert, also a professor of education, who at the time of her appointment was working as an elementary maths teacher. Ball also taught maths at elementary level and by all accounts was a pretty impressive and highly regarded teacher. Yet despite garnering the high esteem of her colleagues – many of whom would pack into her lessons to watch her at work – Ball was more sceptical of her ‘success’. She couldn’t understand why that, despite her best efforts, some of her students still did not seem to learn. They kept making the same mistakes with problems day in day out, even on those occasions when they seemed to ‘get it’ in class. Ball initially thought the answer lay in improving her own subject knowledge and set about familiarising herself with more and more maths content, but after a while realised that what was really needed was a specific way of teaching her growing maths knowledge.

Magdalene Lampert, the other star of Green’s book, joined Michigan State University in the early nineteen eighties, where she was employed in the unique dual capacity of researcher of education and practising elementary maths teacher. Like Ball, whom she had never actually met, Lampert believed that teaching maths successfully required a different kind of pedagogy, one that relied upon sophisticated levels of subject knowledge to underpin carefully planned lessons which involved the teacher guiding the students towards solving mathematical problems through reasoning and classroom scrutiny. Lampert grew up learning maths with her father who was a milkman and much of her thinking about maths pedagogy was based around her childhood experiences of learning maths by applying problems to real life situations. It is at MSU that Lampert and Ball first met, and together started to develop a different approach to teaching to the one more commonly seen in American classrooms. It was initially called TKOT (This Kind of Teaching) but then evolved into Subject Knowledge for Teaching (SKT).

SKT takes students through mathematical problems, from formulating initial hypothesis and mathematical proofs to the subsequent testing of those proofs by way of extended classroom discussion. Each lesson focuses on working through just one problem. This lesson design and sequence, at odds with what Green describes as the more common ‘I do’, ‘we do’, ‘you do’ format used in most American schools, is based on the individual and collective student participation working, where possible, on the application of mathematics to ‘real world’ scenarios. I am not a maths teacher myself and am sceptical about how this essentially constructivist approach to teaching would apply to my subject of English and within the context secondary education where I work. Whilst there are some sections dedicated to examples of English teaching, I would have liked to have seen more of Pam Grossman and the work that she has done on developing an English pedagogy. However, despite these biases I really enjoyed the detailed descriptions of maths lessons using the SKT pedagogy. It is surely the sign of a good book, that despite my preference for more direct instruction and learning across the kind of teaching sequence described by David Didau, I could still appreciate another way of teaching and wonder at how I could apply some of its methods to my own lessons.

At this point the focus of Green’s reporting switches to Japan, where on the back of a chance encounter at a conference she is speaking at, Magdalene Lampert becomes aware that in the Far East there is a similar model of instruction already in widespread use to the one that she had been developing with Deborah Ball. Some of the most fascinating sections of Green’s book are those concerned with detailing the characteristics of good teaching in the Japanese education system, in particular their focus on continual sustained improvement through attention to the little things and to teachers systematically working together to share the burden of planning. Whilst I was already aware that the roots of Lesson Study emerged in Japan, I had not fully realised the extent to which Lesson Study (or jugoyokenkyu as it is known) drives pedagogical and teacher development. It was also surprising to learn that the essential underpinnings of jugoyokenkyu, somewhat ironically, began life in America.

In Japan there is a whole vocabulary in place to describe crucial aspects of the learning process and the various interactions that take place between pupils and teachers, terms that enable educators to discuss and refine their practice but for which there is no real English equivalent. For instance, bansho is the art of writing on the board and kikanjunshi, which describes the way in which teachers walk between their students’ desks in order evaluate their progress and determine which students would benefit from sharing their work, and which ones would be better served by way of a quiet word. There are words for some familiar concepts, like donyu (‘lesson opener’ or our term the dreaded ‘starter’), but also a lot of other terms that seem to articulate a different type of approach to teaching, for instance tsumazuki for the kind of mistakes or misconceptions that if shared with the class would benefit all. This is more than just semantics: the Japanese classroom lexicon appears to orientate itself towards a much deeper understanding of the complexities of learning from the students’ point of view.

In the latter stages of the book Green considers the rise of charter schools in America, including the KIPP, APR and Uncommon networks. She goes into quite a lot of detail about how these schools turned around some of the inequalities in the American system by focusing on establishing cultures of order and respect. She recognises the considerable achievements made by these schools and of the steps the entrepreneurs behind them had to take in order to produce better outcomes for disadvantaged students. She also draws out how a key component of the improvements made resulted from, as with their Japanese counterparts thousands of miles away, a collaborative approach to teacher training and to sharing examples of excellent practice. Green draws a useful comparison between the way Japanese teachers developed their own teaching lexicon and the terminology created by Doug Lemov in his taxonomy of good teaching, Teach Like a Champion. Although ultimately quite different in their orientation, both these vocabulary sets ultimately enable teachers to better understand their practice and therefore to improve the quality of their teaching.

Amidst her reporting of charter schools, Green offers a gentle critique of both the undesirable consequences of their tough, zero approach to discipline, and of some of the pedagogical methods they use to train their teachers. She points out that whilst paying attention and being obedient might be a necessary first step for challenging schools to create respect and get students to a position where they can learn, once that is established much greater nuance is required to deepen student and sustain long term learning. Her discussion of Lemov’s taxonomy acknowledges the way that whilst Teach Like a Champion has undeniably been helpful to teachers in the manner in which it codifies a wide range of teaching moves, many of which are counter intuitive, the basic premise that the taxonomy is founded on – that the majority of good teaching characteristics are generic – is ultimately flawed. There is not enough space here for me to fully explore my response, other than to say that I think there is room for a balance between helping teachers develops generic aspects of their teaching (such as classroom management), and on mastering subject-specific pedagogy, or pedagogical content knowledge to use Lee Shulman’s term. In the 10 or so years I have been a teacher there has been too heavy a focus on the mistaken belief that a good teacher can teach anything. I largely agree with bloggers like Michael Fordham and Kris Boulton who suggest that there is a need to focus much more on developing teachers’ subject knowledge and the ways that that knowledge is utilised as part of a subject-specific pedagogy.

What struck me most when reading this book was the way in which although far, far from perfect, the UK education system appears to be in much better shape than the fragmentary and divisive American model. Recent developments in the way UK schools are engaging with educational research, and the growing emphasis on informed decision making at both grass roots and governmental level are, I believe, reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic. Furthermore, changes to accountability – either through the way that attainment is measured or teaching and learning is evaluated – seem a little further along in terms of thinking than appears to be the case in America, where hierarchical rubrics are increasingly being devised to evaluate teacher effectiveness, as well as to guide teachers on ways to improve. I think that there is growing recognition in this country that there may is no single definition of a great teacher – that good teachers and good teaching exist in a myriad of different forms, many of which are not reducible to simple, or hierarchical, criteria. Whilst it may be possible to build a better teacher, it may never be possible to fully codify every aspect of what that looks like, and certainly not for purely evaluative purposes.

Ultimately, whilst there are one or two points I may not fully agree with, there is a great deal to admire in Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. I think it would be very hard not to be impressed by the commitment shown by the individuals Green writes about and their desire to improve the profession by making this and every subsequent generation benefit from the collective wisdom of experienced teachers. It would also be very difficult to argue against the central message of the book: that the root to building a better profession is through placing a much greater emphasis on developing subject specific pedagogy, increasing the amount of time dedicated to the personal development of teachers and creating systems and processes that allow for much greater collaboration.

This is a very good book that I have only really touched the surface of here.

Further reading:

2010 New Yorker article that inspired the book

Sara Mosle review in The Atlantic

Critique by Tom Loveless

Critique by Robert Pondiscio




4 thoughts on “Building a Better Teacher – a review

  1. I’ve read this post several times now, and never realised I was mentioned in it! Finally reading the book myself, and planning to speak on this topic at ResearchED in September, if you’re there Phil.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kris. I am coming to Researched and may well check out you’re talk. I like your thinking around building a coherent body of knowledge. It is ridiculous that we don’t have one, or worse that we have the exact opposite!

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