Are good teachers made or born? Made, says The Economist and an increasing section of the literature, but the public still tends to look for super-teachers rather than train the ones we have in what works.
Early on in humanity’s lifespan, whether you lived or died of a disease was largely in the hands of the heavens. Some people were born with the ability to intercede with the heavens, and they were recognized and elevated early on for their innate talents. They might have extensive knowledge of the theory of how the gods thought and behaved, as well as how they could be convinced to change their minds.
Fast forward, and medicine is more skills-based than theory-based: theory clearly matters, of course, but doctors learn specific techniques that can help improve outcomes and allow patients to recover. Medical schools focus on teaching the concrete details of how the body works and how to treat disease, rather than abstract philosophies about medicine.
Unfortunately, says The Economist, teaching is still in the first state. The overwhelming narrative in education tends to be about accountability; testing and other methods find out how good teachers are, so we can separate the wheat from the chaff. That may have value, but far more useful is to ensure teachers are teaching well, using skills and practices that can be learned. Unfortunately, far too many education degrees focus on abstract theories of pedagogy rather than actually teaching how to teach.
The data highlights how important it is. The things we fight about in public policy – school uniforms, class size, streaming – make effectively no difference to student outcomes. Good teaching, on the other hand, makes all the difference, with good teachers getting students to learn about three times as much material as poor ones. That is the difference between getting 1.5 years of education or 0.5 years each year.
Good teachers ask probing questions of students; assign short writing tasks to check progress and get children thinking; they plan their classes and how to achieve their goals; have classes that are teacher-led but interactive; anticipate errors; and space out the content they cover. Regardless of your theory of teaching, these methods help students learn, in the same way that regardless of your theory of medicine, some practices will help patients recover.
North America has a lot learn from the places that prioritize education, such as Finland, Japan and Singapore. Their systems aren’t perfect either, but we certainly have room for progress.
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