Published Online: October 9, 2012

First Person

Pedagogy Whiplash: When 'Best Practices' Conflict

"The only way to be sure that students are learning is through varied and frequent assessment." At least that's what we were told at a teaching conference we attended in February 2011. If we continually assessed student learning, the conference speakers emphasized, then we would know that we were being effective teachers, and it would help us remain current with cutting-edge education policies.

One year later, we went to a conference that focused on project-based learning. Here, the instructor said that frequent assessment is unnecessary and actually hinders learning. According to the tenets of this conference, our main instructional objective should be to "get out of the way of student learning." If we did that, we would know that we were teaching effectively and staying current with cutting-edge education policies.

Disparate Teaching Approaches

Each of these contradictory ideas was being presented as the "right way." Needless to say, we felt confused about the best way to ensure that we were being "good teachers."

In articles and conversations about education reform, the phrase "ineffective teachers" inevitably arises. What to do about these "bad teachers"? How are we to make progress and keep up with the rest of the world if these bad teachers continue to teach our students? However, one would be hard pressed to find a solid explanation of what makes a teacher bad or ineffective. This is not surprising: How can we judge what bad teaching is, if we can't agree on what good teaching is?

So, if we need to "fix our schools" by eradicating bad teaching, then how do we define an ineffective teacher? Is it one who requires students to memorize a lot of information, or one who requires students to memorize a small amount of information? One who runs a strict classroom, or one who facilitates a democratic classroom? One who changes instruction based on the needs of the students, or one who holds all students to the same standards? One who covers every state-mandated learning standard, or one who decides which to teach for the sake of depth?

Quality Control

Most teachers enter the profession with the best of intentions. Going into teaching requires advanced degrees, a huge time commitment, and a salary that does not usually reflect the necessary preparation. It is not the type of profession that tends to attract people who are in it for the money, are lazy, dislike children, or are ill-meaning. However, it would be naive to say that all teachers belong in a leadership role with children; teachers who use their power in irresponsible or inappropriate ways, or who do not take the best interests of their students to heart, clearly do not belong in a classroom. We want to clarify that when we talk about defining bad teaching, we are not talking about these bad teachers. We are discussing well-meaning professionals who want to be good at their jobs.

We're also not suggesting that there is no such a thing as an ineffective teacher; rather, the problem is that the terms of how teachers' performances are assessed are subjective and inconsistent. Often, teacher performance is assessed by administrators who have their own opinions on which pedagogy or technique or methodology is the most effective. These administrators have the power to label a teacher ineffective if that teacher does not adhere to the optimal form of teaching—in the administrator’s opinion. As Tony Wagner points out in The Global Achievement Gap, "even veteran groups of educators have widely differing views on the quality of a lesson." Over a period of 10 years, a teacher who remains at the same school could work under a number of administrators, each with their own "go-to" pedagogy, requiring teachers to continually reinvent themselves. It can lead to pedagogy whiplash.

This brings us back to our contradictory professional development experiences. It is unnerving to sit at a conference and hear that what you have been doing is no longer considered educational best practice. It's true that, as teachers, we must be reflective practitioners, open to new suggestions and evaluating our teaching methodologies in light of the most cutting-edge educational research. But it is quite another experience to sit in a professional development conference and be told the exact opposite of what you just learned in a prior professional development conference. The world of education cannot have changed that much in one year.

Individualized Strategies

It's hard not to notice that, during these pedagogy workshops, presenters tend to overgeneralize and vilify other teaching practices in an effort to justify the efficacy of their particular method. It becomes an "us vs. them" battle—the other side is wrong and is resulting in students not learning "right." While it is often wonderfully refreshing for both students and teachers to try out new methodologies in the classroom, it is when these new pedagogies claim exclusivity for positive student learning outcomes that teachers begin to feel as if they cannot win.

There is obviously not a clear measure of the qualities of a good teacher. Teachers who inspire students to learn, who encourage them to reach and exceed their potential, and who teach students to think independently and critically would be, in our book, considered to be good at what they do. Those characteristics are difficult to measure, though, and efforts to do so can have a stultifying effect. Each teacher is his or her own person, has his or her own strengths, and can (and should) have individualized strategies to teach effectively. We are lucky enough to work in an independent school where educator creativity, collaboration, and innovation are encouraged. However, we know that many teachers feel hampered by the pedagogy restrictions imposed upon them for the sake of streamlined, "teacher-proof" results.

As teachers, we have to be educated consumers at the shopping counter of pedagogy, simultaneously remembering our own teaching voice while remaining open to new ideas. It is a timeless truth that teaching should be dictated by the needs of the students and their futures, not the latest hyped educational technique. Changing student needs should be dictating best practices; as the world that helps shape student growth evolves, the tools that we will need to use will evolve as well.

So when we talk about bad teachers, it is important to remember that in this ever-changing and subjective field, there never has been—and most likely never will be—a universal definition. As we work toward a better understanding of the dynamics of student learning, good teachers will continue to reflect on their own practices and build their own optimal pedagogy.

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