How Do You Make Teachers Great?

I saw a TED talk given by Bill Gates about 6 years ago that he called “How do you make teachers great? I remember being bothered from the start by the premise that someone can “make” someone else great. I’ve had people make me do all kinds of things in my life, but could someone really make me be a great teacher?

I did take a break from my work that day for the 12 minutes it took me to listen to both parts of the talk. As often happens, however, I quickly dismissed Mr. Gates’ points as being naïve and misguided, and returned to my work.

I was reminded last week of the videos when a principal asked if I had seen them and what I thought of Gates’ points. After watching the videos again, and spending a little time looking at the research, I realized that the questions he asks, and the conclusions he comes to are much more complicated than I initially thought. A full review and rebuttal of each point will have to be left to another day. I do, however, want to address his overarching question, which is something I have been grappling with for several years in my work for the One-to-One Institute.

“What is good teaching?”

Gates identifies an example of good teaching from a KIPP school classroom he visited. He describes “the teacher running around…like a sports rally…and the teacher was constantly scanning to see which kids weren’t paying attention…and calling on kids rapidly…” This teacher-centered approach is extrinsically motivated, and seeks to control and manipulate students. I believe, however, from our understanding of how the brain learns, and the body of research about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, that this teacher-centered approach does not foster critical thinking and problem solving, or develop the student agency, self-direction, grit, flexibility, and adaptability that can lead to deep levels of learning and understanding.

When identifying the characteristics of a good teacher, Gates also makes the claim the experience doesn’t matter. In fact, the two seminal studies on the relationship between teacher effectiveness and student achievement – the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) and Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, and the University of Texas at Dallas Texas Schools Project) state otherwise. According to these studies, teacher experience, typically five years or more, produces higher student results. Other studies suggest that the effect of inexperience can actually be a significant obstacle to student achievement.

Gates also claims that more teacher education doesn’t equate to better student results. Although he believes that it is important for American competitiveness to have a highly educated population, he doesn’t seem to think it is important for teachers. He actually ridicules the idea that teachers are often rewarded for pursuing advanced degrees. The Tennessee and Texas studies, however, document that a teacher’s education and qualifications is critical to student achievement. Content knowledge, strong academic skills as measured by things such as a teacher’s SAT or ACT scores, college grade point average, and selectivity of the college they attended, and even certification are factors relating to a teacher’s effectiveness in raising student achievement.

So, how do we make teachers great?

Well, you can’t. We can inspire each other, guide, coerce, and force each other to do all kinds of things. Greatness, however, is a continuous pursuit that must come from within. This lack of understanding about how human beings learn, and human systems improve is the real issue. Our compliance policies and accountability measures drive everything in education from the teacher-centered pedagogy used in most classrooms, to the “us vs. them” culture between teachers and administration, to the lack of respect we give teachers in our communities and in the media. The carrot and stick strategies that are attached to these policies have been the prevailing improvement drivers in the American education system for almost 40 years, and have failed to demonstrate results. I thought by now we would have realized this. Until we adopt a continuous improvement model – a la “Jim Collins’ Good to Great” – and a more personalized learning pedagogy, we will continue to risk the future of our children and our nation.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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