A couple of years ago, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert explored the negative side of our unrealistically high expectations for artists and, more generally, for those who rely on their creativity to make a living. In ancient Rome, Gilbert recounts, creativity was associated with a sort of divine spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unfathomable reasons. The Romans referred to this intangible spirit as a genius. An individual was not a genius, but rather had a genius - a magical entity who was believed to live in the walls of an artist's studio and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with his/her work. The lesson Gilbert draws is one of humility (i.e., successes are not entirely ours – don’t be such a narcissist) and emancipatory relief (i.e., failures are not completely our fault either – can’t hurt to try).
What does all this have to do with education and teachers? It seems to me that our expectations for both teachers and artists are sometimes unrealistic and unproductive, if not detrimental. Great teachers are often portrayed as superheroes, unencumbered by anything that might distract them from their teaching crusade – "refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls." As a recent article in The Atlantic explained, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about how they have overcome the challenges in their lives and uses these answers to rate their perseverance.
Yet the meaning of "Great Teacher" rarely gets analyzed. Instead, our definition of greatness – or even competence – remains a convenient black box, leading some to suggest that the question of what makes a teacher great is less important than separating the wheat from the chaff. In turn, this reveals a simplistic and, in my view, negative assumption that greatness, unlike Gilbert’s genius, is a stable, static, innate, and independent attribute. You either have it or you don’t.
But really, how central is "greatness" in education? A recent New York Times article, "Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning," draws attention to recent research suggesting that participation and involvement improve learning among college undergraduates. Although these findings are hardly novel, the study (led by Nobel Prize winner, physicist, and now science adviser to President Obama, Carl Wieman) has attracted considerable attention. Specifically, Wieman found that students learned better from inexperienced teachers using an interactive method than a veteran professor giving a traditional lecture.
The research, which suggests that how you teach is more important than who does the teaching, has received quite a bit of criticism, much of it warranted. (In many respects, Weiman’s research design violates the 101 of sound experimental methods – notably, lack of sufficient controls, non-random group assignment, and the fact that confederates were aware of the study’s hypotheses.) Even so, the work served to focus new interest on an important issue that fascinates many: namely, how do people really learn?
There are many interesting, complex, and often conflicting answers to this question, of course. For example, in opposition to the innate greatness of teachers theory, some have hypothesized that the curiosity of the learner is what’s really important – even going so far as to investigate forms of spontaneous, unsupervised learning. If you really want to challenge your thinking about the role of teachers, read up on Sugata Mitra’s "Hole in the Wall" experiment. Mitra put a stand-alone, Internet-enabled computer, keyboard and mouse facing inward into a walled-off Delhi slum, and demonstrated that poor children who knew nothing about computers, English, or the topic being taught could self-organize to learn on their own without adult supervision.
My point is that the notion of "Great Teacher" is not only a black box, but is potentially a distraction which focuses on a set of unrealistic and unhelpful expectations: (a) great teachers are naturals, (b) as such, great teachers can only be told (not "torn") apart, but (c) what a wonderful world it would be if all teachers were great. If it is method that matters, why not concentrate our efforts on improving the practice of teaching – rather than trying to devise financial incentives to attract the elusive "Great Teacher" (the carrot) and teacher evaluations designed to hunt down the omnipresent "Bad Teacher" (the stick)?
At a recent event, Professor Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of Organizing Schools for Improvement, pointed out that "when efficacy entails heroic action, it is likely to be in short supply" and "even if it [heroic action] happens, it may not persist." We can’t fix a dysfunctional system, which employs about four million teachers, by adding even a few thousand heros.
Perhaps our view of greatness and heroism should resemble that of Gilbert’s genius: external, situational, contextual. Maybe greatness should be viewed as what can emerge from the complex, harmonic, and cooperative interaction of teachers and students. As such, greatness is not an innate attribute of individuals, but rather the organizational goal and emergent attribute of the system as whole.
- Esther Quintero