Good teachers are born not made?

September 3, 2010 at 1:39 pm 14 comments

American Radioworks is making two claims in this piece that I find disturbing (though both could very well be true). First, that it’s not possible to make teachers effective — they’re either good or they’re not.  From the below quote, the authors of the piece aren’t comfortable with that idea either, since they quickly shift to a project showing progress in improving teachers and thus dispute Hanushek’s claim.

But the scarier claim is the implicit challenge to the old Bruner claim: “We being with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”  I’m presuming that adults (even ineffective teachers) are a kind of “child at any stage of development.”  At some point, is the Bruner hypothesis false, and we just have to give up? That there are humans who lose the plasticity of their cognitive systems and can no longer be reshaped and reformed?

Is it possible to take ineffective teachers and make them better? Economist Eric Hanushek, who has done some of the most influential research about the importance of teachers, thinks the answer is, “no.”

Hanushek: My interpretation of the evidence is that teachers are born and not made.

There have been only a few big studies of programs that are supposed to help teachers improve, and the evidence is: they don’t work. That’s why Hanushek thinks the focus should be getting rid of bad teachers, and recruiting better ones. But there are more than three million teachers in the United States. If every child is really going to have a good teacher, there needs to be some way to help teachers improve.

via Testing Teachers — American RadioWorks — Transcript.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  September 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Mark,

    This is another of many “distribution of variation” confusions — and has been discussed in this forum a number of times over the last year or so.

    Go to neutral ground, and ask the same question about musicians. At the most transcendent level, there is no question that inborn talent has to be added to the incredible amounts of training and practice that every good musician does.

    But there are many more good and useful levels than “transcendent”, and some of these can be reached without super-special inborn talents.

    And, again, we have to draw lines establishing thresholds before we can even make comments on these matters.

    Given the nature of teaching and learning, I would bet a lot that terrific (but non-transcendent) teachers would be incredibly helpful to most learners, and that many people can be “made” into those teachers through training and practice.

    Anecdotely, I have been fascinated by Tim Gallwey’s innovations in “meta-coaching” (where he takes people who have not played a particular sport, and gives them a routine to use with practitioners which produces noticeable improvements). This is because a large part of real teaching is not to impart information in some special way, but to boost the awareness of the learner, and this can be done by non-pratitioners.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 5, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      Hi Alan,

      This may just be my lack of knowledge about musicians, but I don’t believe that musical ability is “inborn.” Music is too new to play a role in evolution and genetics, right? There can’t be a “music gene” yet. I can believe that early experiences can lead to talents that others don’t have, and I could also believe that it’s not possible to make up for those early experiences with later development. But “inborn” seems too strong.

      CHeers,
      Mark

      Reply
      • 3. Alan Kay  |  September 5, 2010 at 6:28 pm

        In science it’s not about belief but by trying to understand what is going on.

        What is going on is that “music” according to Anthropology, is a human universal, so we all are genetically predisposed towards it (and the distribution of variation says that a very tiny percentage will have very little sensitivity to it, most will have enough to like to listen to it, many will be drawn to sing and play it, and a tiny percentage will be very sensitive to it.

        On the other hand, dogs and cats are not wired for music in any discernible way.

        As for the rest, I think you misread what I wrote, so take another look. It is entirely in accord with the above, with what has been observed, and what I’ve experienced over more than 65 years of being drawn to music, playing it, and composing it.

        The bottom line is that most people can learn to play and compose music at one level or another — not at all unlike reading and writing. And they can get much better at it through practice, especially by following the technical knowledge that has been built up over centuries.

        And it is also the case that there are “special” players and composers. Most of them also practice a lot, especially in classical forms, but also in jazz.

        But still there are “special” players and composers.

        One of the interesting next levels of all this is that music is not a single skill, but a composite of a number of topics and skills. It is almost always the case that a musician, whether really good or average, is better at some of these topics than others. So musical practice is largely working more on the parts of your package that don’t work as well as others.

        For example, I have had to work all my life on rhythm, and have built a kind of “synthetic rhythm guy” inside my head via lots of practice. Many of the people I play with have never had to do this. On the other hand I more or less reinvented harmony when I was a teenager (it is quite mathematical) whereas many really good musicians struggle with this.

        In the end, when you hear a group of good players playing well, you are hearing people who have brought their abilities to a balanced place via “differential practice”.

        I think this is what real education is all about ….

        Best wishes,

        Alan

        Reply
  • 5. Katrin Becker  |  September 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Good teachers can be made, just as good (i.e. competent) musicians, actors, carpenters, mechanics…

    The difference between good and great is something one is born with, but it too needs help to blossom. There is the rare individual who can become great while being self-taught, but even that almost never happens without passion & practice.

    Reply
  • 6. Alan Kay  |  September 6, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Answering this maddening blog which doesn’t like conversations — Mark’s comment of September 6, 2010 at 1:31 pm
    (which is currently number 4 but could change …)

    I’m not a Kuhnian, nor are lots of scientists. Kuhn was a philosopher, and as with all of that tribe is mainly useful for bringing up important issues, less so for answering them.

    We are born with brains that are genetically set up for belief (and sometimes this is a workable heuristic for survival), but science is all about not letting our desires to (and actualities of) belief get in the way of trying to get around all the noise that our nervous system generates at every level.

    In the end we have the problem that the representations in our brain/minds, even those we invent and can invent, force the best we can do to be a relationship between these and “what’s out there”. We are doing good science when we have some idea of the disparities between these two.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
    • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 6, 2010 at 4:57 pm

      Alan, there is a reply button at the bottom of each comment, for conversations. Mark may have set the comment depth too low for your taste: it is one of the parameters that WordPress.com allows him to set. Mark, perhaps you should set the comment depth to 5 rather than 2. It is under “Settings -> discussion”.

      Reply
      • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  September 6, 2010 at 8:58 pm

        Thanks — I didn’t know about that, and have now changed it as you suggest.

        Reply
        • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm

          I’m fairly new to using wordpress.com, so I wasted some time this summer exploring the control panels.

          Reply
  • 10. Darrin Thompson  |  September 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    The author’s conclusion contradicts some, I think, pretty obvious evidence. Quality and improvement initiatives in industry are tough to get right. Why should improving teaching be any easier?

    At their best improvement programs as advocated by Deming are simple measurement and science so the idea that something can’t be improved is silly. There will always be variation between people, see Deming. We can structure our systems to celebrate and amplify that variation or we can study it. We can experiment with ways to move our means and deviations to achieve better results.

    The fact that after a few tries or “big studies” we haven’t succeeded might tell us to try some different ideas. That that good teachers are magical people sounds more like PR being drummed up somewhere than an idea ready to be tested.

    Reply
  • 11. Peter Donaldson  |  February 21, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Unfortunately I wasn’t able to read the summary of Eric’s research as the link appears to be broken at the moment. However I would say that a large proportion of professional development to increase teacher effectiveness probably fails for several reasons.

    1. It’s often too generic in nature. We know that both near and far transfer of learning in any area is difficult to get right and doesn’t happen as much as we’d like it to.
    2.There’s often an implementation gap between a teaching technique or approach and being able to use it in a classroom with your students in your context. A normal teaching day often does not give teachers the necessary uninterrupted thinking time to bridge this gap.
    3. Large portions of teacher behaviour and decision making have to be automatic rather than conscious because of the complexity of the situations they have to deal with. New approaches require quite a bit of limited cognitive resources which doesn’t leave a lot of room to reflect on why something was successful or unsuccessful until after the event.
    4. content and ordering is largely, or solely, determined by the person providing the professional learning instead of based on the needs of the teachers present. This also means that the opportunity to immediately apply what they’ve learned to their own practice is severely limited.
    5. Teachers implementing changes to their practice don’t get enough feedback on their own performance or the level of impact this change is having on their students. Some changes won’t yield immediate results but are likely to have impact over a larger period of time. See research into Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education(CASE) for examples of small immediate impact and much larger and wide ranging impact over a longer time period.

    I guess you could therefore characterise in-service professional development as a wicked problem. However I don’t think that economically speaking you’d get faster improvements in the system just by getting rid of ineffective teachers. It smacks too much of doing the easy thing rather than the right thing.

    Reply
    • 12. alanone1  |  February 21, 2014 at 7:33 am

      These findings are much too binary. It is far more likely the case that — as in other areas of learning — there are a variety of abilities brought to the learning. Some of these do not require a lot of help, some can be helped quite a bit, and some we don’t know how to help.

      (We always postulate “5″ or more “kinds of learners” without trying to nail the categories exactly. Just having more than 1 or 2 kinds in mind really helps pedagogy and curriculum development.)

      (You can add this onto my rant (but accurate) re the previous “very weak efforts” by educational researchers to get to the bottom of some of the real issues.)

      Reply
      • 13. Peter Donaldson  |  February 22, 2014 at 4:25 am

        @Alan The heart of the issue relates to whether a teacher can apply what they’ve learned to their own classroom situation and crucially when and with whom to use particular approaches.

        Teachers, myself included, mostly get better when we have a clear idea of what we’re trying to achieve with a particular approach and get feedback through dialogue with other professionals. It might be different in America but neither of these conditions tend to be met in a large proportion of inservice learning.

        In cs education we also have the added complication of not having a shared perspective of what the overarching aims of education in this area should be.

        For me one of the really big ideas worth exploring is that complex structures and behaviours can arise from simple systems of rules. However that’s something that isn’t evident in my current practice due to a whole load of external constraints. It’s also difficult to do without pupils achieving a certain level of understanding and fluency with computational mechanisms.

        Reply
  • 14. Ken Allan  |  July 6, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Kia ora Mark! Teaching is definitely a complex talent. What makes a good teacher is a combination of things including skills that can be learnt. If we assume James Kauffman’s premise that for effective teaching to occur in any teaching situation, quality instruction is paramount (see The Tragicomedy of Public Education: Laughing and Crying Thinking and Fixing, James M Kauffman, FULL Court Press, 2010 – ISBN 1-57861-682-4) then for any one individual it is possible for that teacher to optimise his or her effectiveness. Sure, some teachers are going to be better than others but isn’t this true for any talent possessed by individuals in a group? However, the desire to become a good teacher is a drive that can transcend many apparent barriers to achieving a high degree of effectiveness in teaching.

    Reply

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