"Building a better teacher" = teacher as tool

“Building a better teacher“–appearing in the New York Times Sunday section last week– takes a mechanistic view of teaching, breaking the pedagogic “art” down into discrete behaviors which can be classified (tax-o-nomized). Once you’ve dissected something into its parts, you can study, replicate, and improve the parts, thus re-constituting  a better whole, the logic goes.  A premise of the mechanical approach is that there is no “art” to teaching. It is all technique and tools, and anyone can be trained to effectively teach.

Such an approach makes sense. The technology of learning as measured in American schools has as its central tool, the teacher, and anything one does to improve the teacher’s performance as communicator of cultural information and transmitter of skills sets, so much the better.  In a mechanistic view, teachers are  trans-generational information routers and organizers. Can we get youth thinking in desirable ways(measurable on tests)? Then we have succeeded.

To be a good transgenerational info router, one needs to be able to pull off some of the following (taken from Lemov’s book site):

  • Technique #1: No Opt Out. Move students from the blank stare or stubborn shrug to giving the right answer every time.
  • Technique #35: Do It Again. When students fail to successfully complete a basic task from entering the classroom quietly to passing papers around doing it again, doing it right, and doing it perfectly, results in the best consequences.
  • Technique #38: No Warnings. If you’re angry with your students, it usually means you should be angry with yourself. This technique shows how to effectively address misbehaviors in your classroom. 

I really would have benefited–twenty some years ago when I got my teacher training–with any of these techniques. Instead of a discrete set of useful skills (or tool box), I got a whole bunch of theory and legislative history related to American public education (a little library that decorates my shelves very admirably, it must be said, but does little to help me work with students). If I had only had Lemov’s book, God knows how many of my students could have been maximally served by me.

The New York Times article has another corollary:  once you’ve got the criteria set for the most efficient teachers, you have another tool: one for measuring teachers. (Can you say “teacher accountability”?) One can easily imagine Lemov’s taxonomy being written into evaluation forms used for hiring, remediation, and firing. How many “cold calls” did the candidate perform? How effective was his “precise praise”? What degree of “strong voice” did the candidate use? 

That is probably why so many cagey veteran teachers in the EC ning discussion around this book have decided one thing: they need to buy it, to cover their professional posteriors.

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