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Who Are (And Should Be) The Teaching Experts?

Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

How do we fix teaching?  This question is on the mind of many reformers, researchers, politicians, and parents.  Every expert has their own view of the problem, their own perspective on what success should look like, and their own solutions to offer.  The plethora of op-eds, reports, articles, and memoranda, can be mindboggling.  It is important to take a step back and see whether we all even consider teaching expertise to be the same thing.  Just as importantly, where does, and should, it reside?

In a New York Times op-ed, “Teachers Aren’t Dumb”, Dr. Daniel Willingham explains that teachers aren’t the problem – it’s just how they are trained. As a teacher, I appreciate a respected person from outside of the profession coming to our defense, and I do agree that we need to take a hard look at teacher preparation programs.  I worry, though, that a call to focus more on the “nuts and bolts” of teaching – in contrast to the current emphasis on educational philosophy and theories of development – could create an alarming pendulum swing.

This recommendation is a common message, promoted both by those in academic research as well as fast-tracked teacher preparation programs.  It sees academics and researchers as the generators and holders of the most important expertise and asks them to then give direction to teachers.  By mistaking different kinds of expertise, it inadvertently lays a path towards teachers as technicians, rather than true professionals.

In medicine, there are important fields of biochemistry, microbiology, bioengineering, and genetics that contribute invaluable research used by doctors and hospitals to improve the practice of medicine.  These range from “basic research,” which creates theoretical knowledge that may lead to applications far in the future, to highly “applied research” that results in new medicines and procedures.  Researchers in all those fields are respected for their expertise, and typically have far greater technical knowledge than an average physician, but we do not confuse their role with that of doctors.  Research results in knowledge of average effects, common side effects, and how diseases typically present.  Doctors use that knowledge and combine it with an understanding of practice, the complex systems involved with human health, and details of their individual patients’ past and present health to create a clinical knowledge.  This is what makes them the medical experts.

Psychologists, neuroscientists, economists and sociologists are among the important contributors to our knowledge of teaching and learning – but we should not confuse their expertise with the expertise of teaching.  Like medicine-related research, their studies give us statistical averages of how a “typical” student learns, average responses to highly controlled laboratory tests, and the average effect of a particular intervention within a limited sample of students.   Teaching expertise does utilize this research-based knowledge, but testing teachers on this (a common, but misguided, proposal) provides a very shallow and misleading indication of their true ability.  Teaching expertise comes from uniting this knowledge with practitioner insights, the complex systems involved in human development, and a deep understanding of individual students’ needs and context.

A recent report from The New Teacher Project, “The Mirage – Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development”, concludes that experts do not yet know what kind of professional development and preparation leads to improved teaching.  Having conducted research for two years, including thousands of teachers and hundreds of school leaders, they found virtually no connection between the teachers who improved and the kinds of professional development in which they participated.  They offer a variety of insights and out-of-the-box innovations for restructuring schools and the job of teachers – a breath of fresh air in the current climate of recycled bad ideas.  However, we see the ramifications of that “nuts and bolts” pendulum swing in their proposal to shift teacher preparation away from universities towards on-the-job apprenticeships. 

It is quite true that theory-based courses at universities too commonly may be taught in ways that do not help teachers with their practice.  It is also true that too many first year teachers have not been prepared with practical strategies to manage their classrooms.  It is shortsighted, though, to see learning theory as unnecessary, and to suggest that the solution is vocational training of teachers.   This once again reflects misunderstanding of the nature of teaching expertise.  It prepares teachers to do the things that “experts” currently believe works, but without the foundational knowledge that empowers them to understand how to make the complex decisions that good teaching requires – I have previously written about this difference, here.

This false dichotomy of theoretical knowledge versus practical skills leaves us with only bad choices.  Successful education systems like Finland and Singapore require that their teachers master both, and learn to unite them.  The Melbourne Graduate School of Education, regarded as an international leader in teacher preparation, prepares their graduates for “Clinical Teaching”, interweaving theory and practice.  Their program puts its students into real classrooms from day one, but makes no compromises in learning fundamental and theoretical knowledge.  The result is graduates who can think about learning and teaching the way doctors think about health and medicine, as a true and clinical expert. 

This approach is no quick fix, but it is far superior.  While fast-tracked programs may initially attract highly ambitious and high-achieving individuals, they ironically are also the very same population that is ultimately unsatisfied with being in a job that requires so little training and just follows scripts or utilizes a handful of techniques.  In contrast, by insisting that teachers complete university-based training and earn advanced degrees, we can rightfully elevate the profession beyond being a technician.  More importantly, teachers who have this clinical expertise will both be able to understand their students’ needs, and become genuine leaders in their field.  Ultimately, teachers are where teaching expertise does, and must, reside.

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