Showing posts with label Teacher education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Teacher education. Show all posts

Friday, June 17, 2011

What it Means to Teach

I was recently reading a draft of a doctoral dissertation. I was eager to read it because it was written by a smart student who I know to be a good teacher, and who has focused on important issues in literacy education. But, I was disappointed.

The study looked at how students thought about and reasoned about the complex information that they were asked to read. The scholar had challenged the kids with a collection of complex texts and videos.

The reason for my chagrin was not the design or results of the study, but the reaction of the researcher. The kids had evidenced examples of sophisticated and complex reading/thinking behaviors, without instruction. The researcher wanted to celebrate the fact that these kids had exhibited sophisticated reasoning as they read.

I was disappointed with my friend’s willingness (remember this is a good teacher) to accept what kids could do without any evident dissatisfaction. I’m certainly not suggesting that my young friend should have ignored the strengths these kids brought to the table (and kids have wonderful strengths), but I am perplexed at how easily satisfied teachers have become.

My take on the study was that the measurement scale had to be screwy. If the instrument used to evaluate student thinking showed that kids could already interpret challenging texts at high levels without much instructional support, then we needed a more sensitive scale capable of showing what these students could still not do. Instead of doing a victory dance in the end zone, we ought to be trying to figure out what instruction could add to the picture.

My hunch is that an errant measurement scale led the researcher to accept average levels of functioning (which most people could accomplish without schooling) as being the peak of performance, and I suspect such errors are common in American education. We have lost our sense of the power of teaching.

When we see a youngster with an ACT of 18, we interpret it as both a statement of what he can do, and a prognosis of what he will ever be able to do. The test score becomes both thermometer and barometer, reading the current temperature and predicting future rain. But tests don’t have that power; they are like Scrooge’s Ghost of the Things to Come. The future of what any of us will be able to know or do is not in our past test results, but those things lie in the teaching and learning opportunities that will be available to us.

Sadly, I can think of a lot of examples of teachers backing away from teaching when they see that kids may struggle: a book is hard, so we use an easier book or no book at all; kids are challenged by reading, so use video; kids have trouble interpreting character's emotional states in stories, so stop asking questions about why the characters are making the choices that they do; a student stops believing in himself or has no aspirations, then accept the status quo and neither push nor entice.

All teachers need a sense of what the top of the scale looks like. They may need time working with struggling learners (something we make sure reading specialists do), but also with students who perform exceedingly well, who really do get to the top of the scale. Knowledge of what levels of performance are possible is something that can be taught.

But this knowledge ultimately must be bolstered with something that cannot be taught so easily: teachers must believe in the power of teaching, too. Teachers have to know that teaching can reduce the distance between what students can do now and the achievements that we aspire for them. Our job, ultimately, is to aspire high for our students and then to use our teaching abilities to help kids negotiate those distances.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

More Ideas Not Everyone Will Like: Musings on Teacher Education

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time with some old friends. One of them, Mary Beth Curtis, reminded me about a column I had published in Reading Today when I was IRA president. The column was about teaching and teacher education and it provoked a great deal of controversy and comment at the time, so I remembered it quite well. Her reminder seems timely given the big kerfluffle over teacher education right now, so I'm re-issuing that piece here and now (the original title was "More Ideas Not Everyone Will Like"--I've added the post colon description for this wider audience).

Mark Lundholm is a comedian. Like most funnymen he can make an audience uncomfortable. When he takes the stage, he notes the diversity of perspectives in the crowd. And then he says something wise. “If I offend you, don’t walk out. Just understand that it isn’t your turn.”

What a wonderful insight. Since everybody has different views, it would be impossible for any writer, speaker, comic, or president to speak for all of us with any statement. In other words, we should expect differences of opinion, and shouldn't be offended just because it isn't our opinion that is being expressed now. (Our turn will come, or maybe it has passed). In a learned profession, as in a democratic society, we have to be open to hearing lots of opinions—even those we disagree with. And we need to engage those opinions forthrightly and respectfully.

I have taken positions in this column that have admittedly made some readers uncomfortable. I did that by challenging conventional wisdom that has been allowed to dominate our thinking without question. Sadly, some readers have been so upset that any useful discussion becomes impossible (a professor wrote recently to tell me that she couldn’t possibly discuss these issues civilly). And there have been those who exhibited what Bill Maher calls “false outrage.” These plaintiffs haven’t refuted my assertions as much as they have tried to censor my expression of them—usually by claiming to be offended or, even better, claiming to defend someone else that I must have offended.

That is not likely to change soon, since today’s column is also about conventional wisdom, and it seems sure to anger somebody. Conventional wisdom refers to widely held beliefs that may or may not be true, and as such, it tends to be the enemy of useful new theories, explanations, and practices.

If a field is to advance, it has to at least consider whether deeply cherished ideas are correct or not. It might be upsetting to find out that we don’t know how to encourage kids to read successfully or that good teachers often rely on programs, but it would be even worse to proceed with the misconception that the conventional wisdom on such subjects is based on anything more than gut feeling. If we want to succeed in improving children’s reading, we can’t continue to accept “truthiness” over truth.

Teaching expertise may be overrated
Here’s some conventional wisdom that most of us, me included, have accepted as genuine fact: teaching expertise is the key to learning. There is certainly some evidence on this one, though I suspect it wouldn’t be very convincing if we didn’t already believe in it. Maybe we’ve made teaching expertise a fetish and it’s holding us back!

What made me wonder about this was a New Yorker article on obstetrics (“The Score,” October 9, 2006, pp. 59-67). I know, I know. That is not a blue-ribbon panel report or a scholarly article from a refereed journal. But Atul Gawande’s article caught my eye because it claimed that to improve effectiveness it may be necessary to rein in or limit expert practice.

I know that sounds nuts, but Gawande makes a pretty good case that the transformation of obstetrics from a field that stressed skilled craftmanship to one based more on an industrial factory model has led to better outcomes for patients.

It’s easy to reject medical analogies since they so often depend on biological processes which are so different from what we face in teaching. But let’s not reject this one too quickly since delivering babies is more like teaching than most medical specialties. A successful delivery requires extended involvement and engagement, and depends on the physician’s ability to carry out complex behavioral procedures, often under challenging circumstances.

According to Gawande, “If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills… You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.”

“But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. really could master all these techniques.”

Gawande goes on to describe the ingenuity of the various delivery procedures (such as the use of forceps) that were invented along the way, and how medical schools emphasized these procedures for difficult births. These approaches were hard to master and few obstetricians ever really learned to use them well (which didn’t stop them—when the use of complex procedures becomes a hallmark of professionalism, then all professionals want to use those procedures no matter what the outcome).

But things changed. Obstetricians adopted rules more like those of the factory floor than of a learned profession or a skilled craft. To discourage the use of complex procedures by the inexpert, even the skilled physicians who could use them well set them aside. The result of the standardized use of “good enough” practices has led to big improvements in the health and safety of babies.

I wonder if we define teachers too much by the procedures they use. I wonder if, due to our zeal to protect educator autonomy, we have championed complex and subtle practice at the expense of overall success. Can 3.8 million teachers really do what many professional development programs push?

The old system of obstetrics created pockets of excellence; some pretty amazing doctors at times pulled off some pretty amazing deliveries. The cost of that, of course, was high: lots of botched deliveries by doctors unable to manage the challenging procedures. Obstetrics eventually surrendered this “heroic physician” model to stress standardization—and the result has been more live births and fewer damaged children. I wonder if we are clinging too tightly to our own traditional “heroic teacher” model and our excellent, but perhaps too ambitious, instructional schemes. We, too, can point to our pockets of excellence, but then think about the very real cost this might represent to the great numbers of children for whom we are responsible.

Two More Provocative Ideas
Two more provocative reading-relevant ideas that might disturb us came up in the same article: Gawande writes that “evidence-based medicine,” the use of randomized experiments to figure out what works (sound familiar?) has played a very limited role in obstetrics! Unlike other medical specialties, there are few of these kinds of studies in obstetrics and those that have been carried out are often ignored in practice. Obstetrics comes in last in the use of hard evidence among medical specialties, and yet it has done more to extend life than any of the others.

There are, to be sure, differences between medicine and education, but it’s interesting to see this successful use of a very different model of research than the one that I use and that is fast becoming the new conventional wisdom of much of our field.

How do obstetricians improve practice without experimental study? That question gives rise to one more compelling idea: it may be due mainly to something else that should sound familiar. Gawande attributes the improvements to the use of informal-but-objective assessment results that are reviewed by both the doctor and principal (okay, chief of obstetrics).

The Apgar score allows doctors and nurses to quickly and objectively evaluate a baby’s condition at 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth. That simple assessment has led obstetricians to try things out—not waiting for research—to see if they can improve their scores. Because they always know the baby’s score, the doctors can easily see the relationship between their actions and the outcomes.

It is hard not to think about DIBELS (or PALS, TPRI, ISEL, and so on). These tests all provide quick information so that adjustments to practice can be made. But the analogy breaks down, too, since those tests give multiple scores, and don’t involve much in the way of professional judgment. In other words, DIBLERS may be onto something that could allow for more successful practice, but maybe it’s not quite the right something, since trying to keep track of 2 to 4 scores for each of 30 kids simultaneously is overwhelming and would not foster the kind of intense focus that the Apgar score seems to provide.

Oh well. Questioning conventional wisdom is not for the feint of heart. Deflating overblown claims risks the anger of one’s friends, but it also threatens the comfort of one’s own beliefs. However, that’s the way it should be in a field that is seriously trying to improve measurable outcomes for students.

If what I have written here about teacher expertise is unsettling to you, don’t get angry, just remember, it may not be your turn.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Teacher Education and Reading Achievement

IES released what will be a highly influential report, “An Evaluation of Teachers Trained Through Different Routes to Certification Final Report.” You can get a copy through this link:

The report is important because it tests the impact of young teachers who complete traditional teacher preparation programs and those who complete alternative certification programs that require a lot fewer hours of training. Sadly, it finds that the “alt-cert” teachers do as well as the traditional certification teachers in terms of children’s learning. That finding represents a serious challenge to Colleges of Education.

As with any study, this one has problems, but it appears to be the most rigorous look at this issue so far and its findings are troubling and won’t be easy to explain away. One minor concern is that the programs considered were so diverse: some traditional certification programs had fewer hours than the alternative programs, though usually the traditional programs required a lot more. Lumping all programs together no matter how much they required may be misleading, and yet, overall, they found the extensive of the requirements were not correlated to kids’ learning.

Another serious issue, that could not be addressed in this analysis, has to do with whether there might be longer-term differences: I wonder if alternative certification teachers will be less likely to stay more than two or three years (many alt-cert teachers are seeking an experience, not a career). This is an issue of kids’ learning, since more experienced teachers typically outperform our beginners. If the traditional certification teachers eventually outperform the alt-cert teachers, then traditional certification eventually should win out. It will take future study to determine if that is true.

Or, perhaps, the study is revealing what beginning teachers face in the schools. If teaching is so constrained or pressured in various ways, perhaps it becomes impossible for a new teacher to show what he or she knows. Maybe primary teachers learn to teach phonics thoroughly in one preparation program and not the other, but this might not matter if these teachers go to schools that either don’t teach phonics or that have such comprehensive phonics programs that little knowledge is needed to deliver the program. Either way, it would seem like there were no differences, when there were really large ones that just turned out not to matter in a particular context.

I fear the response from college’s of education will be to denounce this study and go blithely on, instead of rolling up their sleeves and trying to get more selective in their recruitments, more research-based in their course content, and more rigorous in their delivery of programs. This study can be considered evidence that we don’t need colleges of education or that teacher preparation can be slimmed down dramatically with no loss. However, another possibility would be to conclude that neither approach to teaching teachers is doing what we want it to, and we need to upgrade dramatically if we want kids to do well. Traditional certification programs are better positioned to make such changes, but they also have a greater commitment to the status quo and to teaching lots of stuff that apparently matters little in teacher effectiveness.

With regard to reading, my question is how well prepared were either group of teachers to teach phonological awareness, oral language, writing, phonics, reading comprehension, vocabulary, or oral reading fluency? Perhaps neither group of teachers is doing well enough by our children. Making teacher preparation programs more rigorous in terms of teaching how to teach essential skills and abilities is the best way to proceed, though I wonder if the Obama administration will give colleges a chance to experiment with such approaches as the president and secretary of education are fans of alternative certification.