Education Opinion

Four Pillars of Great Teaching

By Justin Reich — August 28, 2015 7 min read
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As part of my work with the new MIT Teaching Systems Lab and our partners, the Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to prepare a teacher candidate for their first year teaching. The list of things that a new secondary teacher should know is vast- smatterings of adolescent development, pedagogy, content knowledge, college admission requirements, educational policy, assessment design, lesson planning, technology infrastructure, effective file naming conventions, study skills, cognitive science principles, cultural sensitivity, bureaucratic tendencies, statistical interpretation, and on and on and on. I’ve been thinking about what key principles might anchor and organize an approach to that impossibly long list. So here’s my list of the four pillars of great teachers:

  1. Guide Students to Compelling Questions and Puzzles
  2. Provide Devolving Scaffolding for Learning
  3. Evaluate Students in Performance
  4. Care

1) Guide Students to Compelling Questions and Puzzles

The first job of a teacher is not to explain things clearly, it’s to inspire students to want to learn. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Motivation, learning, classroom management, and classroom joy all start from the kinds of questions and puzzles that we ask students to pursue. When those questions and puzzles are distant, abstract, irrelevant, de-contextualized, and boring, students are unmotivated, slow, and prone to distraction and behavioral issues. In these contexts, teachers find themselves drawing on the carrots and sticks, or grades and stickers, of extrinsic incentives to get kids to learn. When questions and puzzles get underneath kids skin, when kids find themselves compelled to journey forward to understand something, teaching is much easier.

These questions can come from lots of places. Sometimes students are the best people to find these questions, but not always. Oftentimes teachers have the domain knowledge, understanding of child development, and experience to be better positioned to identify great questions. I think often of the work of Facing History and Ourselves, whose educators guide students to address fundamental questions about our humanity through deep investigations of the Holocaust and other genocides. Students, on their own, don’t typically find those topics super fun to pursue. Dan Meyer’s recent work on “finding the headaches where math is the aspirin,” is a wonderful example of an extended pursuit of teacher structured questions and puzzles.

Students are also not always sufficiently ambitious in their pursuits and questions. Paulo Blikstein has a wonderful story of students using a makerspace with a 3-D printer who find themselves in a “local minimum.” They start a keychain shop, and get into the rut of printing the same simple keychains over and over, rather than pursuing more complex projects.

But when possible and approaches, students should be our partners in finding great questions and puzzles, and much of the more important, meaningful, and lasting work in their academic careers will be in the pursuit of their own questions.

The very first education paper I published began with the epitaph from Ken Bain, “People learn best when they ask an important question that they care about answering or adopt a goal that they want to reach.” That is basically the North Star of my own teaching, and of my work as a teacher educator.

2) Provide Devolving Scaffolding for Learning

The goal of teaching is to guide students to increasingly levels of independence. For many topics and subjects, students do not initially learn well independently. They need specific instruction, guidance, tools, frameworks, and knowledge to be successful. In most of our work with students, we should be providing more scaffolding to students initially, and then gradually trying to remove (devolve) that scaffolding over time so that students can become increasingly independent as they work on increasingly challenging tasks.

Lev Vygotsky’s notion of the Zone of Proximal Development offers one theoretical lens to framing this challenge. Students should be exposed to learning experiences that stretch them. If these experiences are too easy students will get bored, and if they are too hard students will get frustrated. The sweet spot in between is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Finding this sweet spot is certainly challenging, and these challenges are amplified by the incredibly diversity of students, each of whom has a multi-dimensional range of aptitudes and dispositions towards learning. The first Department Chair I used to work with always said, of History instruction, that assigning an essay was really assigning 27 different essays, one for each student in the class. Differentiating instruction so that each student can engage in learning experiences at the appropriate level of difficulty is one of the signature jobs of the teacher. Each student, ideally at a pace tailored for him or her, should be guided on a pathway to increasing intellectual independence.

3) Evaluate Students in Performance

Much of what we value in learning is “understanding,” which means something like the ability to deploy skills and knowledge in appropriate contexts. The understandings that we tend to care most about generally are only revealed through performance. I started my career as a wilderness medicine instructor. I never much cared whether my students could pass the multiple choice test that we gave them at the end of a class; I cared that they would be able to help out when a friend breaks her ankle in the woods.

In most fields, evaluating students in performance is considerably more time-consuming and difficult then isolating specific dimensions of understanding. Giving a class of 40 wilderness first aid students a multiple choice quiz on fracture care in remote settings is easy. Huffing into the woods with 40 students to run a series of simulations testing student ability to stabilize, splint, and transport a patient with a lower leg fracture takes forever. But if you break your leg in the woods, you want the student who aced the simulation over the student who aced the quiz.

Great teachers use short tests and quizzes to gauge student progress towards important learning goals. But, the summative assessments and projects that shape the arc of a month or a semester should allow students to demonstrate their developing understanding through performance.

4) Care

Chris Lehman, principal of Science Leadership Academy, wrote in 2013, “I believe that the first and most powerful rule in teaching is: Care. Care. Care. Care. Care. And when you don’t know what else to do, care more.” These are wise words.

Teaching is a relational endeavor, and our students are more likely to succeed when they have clear evidence that we are personally, deeply invested in their development as human beings. In particular, we should allow our care and attention to shine especially bright for the students who need us most.

To me, one powerful instantiation of care is an imagination of what each student can become, an imagination that often exceeds the expectations of students themselves. I worked with a wrestling coach at a small school whose team was made, at least in parts, of misfits who probably wouldn’t have found their way into a wrestling room in other schools. But for every wrestler who walked through the door, Steve would size him (and sometimes her) up, start to understand their strengths, talents, and limits, and then help craft a skill set and strategy that would help them be successful. He has turned generations of gangly, awkward teenagers into wrestlers, in part through a belief that every student who walked through the door could find a way to be a great wrestler. Would that all our teachers would do the same!

As professionals, one of the best ways we can show care for our students is by committing to continuous improvement. We should believe that every day, every lesson, every semester, and every year that we can improve upon our past work. Our students should see that we as professionals are investing in our own learning and development so as to better serve them. They should see through our example that every day offers an opportunity to be a better version of ourselves.

What are your pillars of great teachers and great teaching?

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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