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That Elusive Spark

By Judith Lloyd Yero — May 22, 2002 7 min read
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Teacher quality has become a priority in both government-led and other education reform efforts. Proposals to improve the quality of teaching address some teachers’ lack of accredited training in subject matter, learning theory, and pedagogy. They urge the adoption of higher standards for teachers and stringent tests for teacher certification. Like other attempts to reform education by fiat, these proposals focus on testable and observable teacher characteristics and behaviors, rather than addressing more fundamental factors that may be more difficult to identify and assess.

Without examining the beliefs, values, assumptions, and other thinking processes behind an outstanding teacher's behaviors, the behaviors themselves are relatively meaningless measures of quality.

While it is true that some teachers have inadequate training, I would ask one question. If all teachers had Ph.D.s in their subject areas and master’s degrees in educational theory and pedagogy, would it follow that every teacher then would exhibit the quality and effectiveness reformers are seeking? Is there a direct correlation between accumulating knowledge about teaching and being an effective teacher?

An old Sufi tale tells of a man whose neighbors come upon him on his hands and knees under a street lamp. The man explains that he is searching for his lost keys. The neighbors immediately join in the search, but without success. When they ask the man if he’s sure this is where he lost the keys, he replies, “No. I lost them outside my door—but there’s more light here!”

The story has relevance for educators in their search for the keys to high-quality teaching. The present search takes place in the light of observation—documenting the external behaviors of effective teachers and the observable effects of those behaviors on students. Theorists categorize their observations, distilling them into a handful of “effective teaching” principles that are made available to other teachers through articles, books, Web sites, and professional-development workshops.

But simply telling people that outstanding teachers “demonstrate high expectations” or “exhibit flexibility” is about as effective as telling people they should exercise more and eat healthier meals. Cognitively, people may accept the information. They may even think they are incorporating those principles into their practice. Yet, ultimately, their behavior doesn’t change. Why?

A metaphor might make the failure of this “in the light” approach clear. If you were to teach 100 people to reproduce the exact brushstrokes and color composition used by Rembrandt, and if you provided them with the same quality of paints, brushes, and canvas as the master, would you really expect each of them to produce a masterpiece? What is missing in this approach is the “vision” of when and where to apply the techniques—the elusive spark that makes an artist unique. The talent and genius lie in the “mind of the maker.”

Certainly, having access to proven techniques and high-quality teaching materials can contribute to a teacher’s effectiveness. But the key to being an outstanding teacher lies elsewhere—outside the light of direct observation. It lies in the mind—in the largely unconscious thought processes that motivate and support a teacher’s external behaviors. Without examining the beliefs, values, assumptions, and other thinking processes behind an outstanding teacher’s behaviors, the behaviors themselves are relatively meaningless.

If all teachers had Ph.D.s in their subject areas and master's degrees in educational theory and pedagogy, would it follow that every teacher then would exhibit the quality and effectiveness reformers are seeking?

Teacher thinking falls outside the light of direct observation. It is subjective, requiring a very different approach from traditional “hard data” research. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of admitting that teacher thinking is at the heart of effective teaching is that every teacher is different. Given that level of variability, it is extremely difficult to categorize behaviors and create checklists. They don’t lend themselves to being quantified, listed, and “transmitted” to others. But continuing to search in the light for what can only be found in the hidden, but fascinating, world of teacher thinking is an exercise in futility. Reformers expend tremendous amounts of time and resources with only marginal returns because they don’t reach to the core of teacher quality—the minds of individual teachers.

Recently, we’ve seen a proliferation of programs “that work.” Discipline That Works. Education Reform That Works. Classroom Instruction That Works. I have no doubt that the programs touted by these titles do work—for the people who developed them. They work because those people began with a foundation of beliefs about learning, teaching, knowledge, students, and other factors in the educational process. The program will work for anyone who shares that foundation. However, those same programs may not work when transferred to a foundation of different beliefs and values. For example, a discipline program based on responsibility shared by teacher and students will not work if a teacher believes she must always be in control of a class.

While the effectiveness of outstanding teachers isn’t found by comparing their dispositions or listing their behaviors, research has discovered that they do share certain characteristics. These include:

  • A belief that all children can learn, but not all in the same way.
  • A belief that teachers are learners and that children are teachers.
  • A high level of respect for all students.
  • High expectations for all students, but not the same for all.
  • A humanistic rather than custodial approach to classroom control.

Notice that these characteristics all arise in the mind of the teachers— in their beliefs, values, and attitudes. The behaviors in which they engage are the result of those internal processes. Yet a glance at the professional- development calendar affirms that present workshops focus almost exclusively on the externals of teaching—subject matter, delivery methods, discipline, standards, and assessment.

Recently, we've seen a proliferation of programs ‘that work.’ No doubt that the programs touted by these titles do work—for the people who developed them, that is.

Rather than tell teachers what they should be doing, it’s time to begin examining what they are already doing—and more important, why they are doing it.

Looking for the key to teacher quality in the hidden corridors of teachers’ minds need not be frightening if theorists recognize that they don’t have to provide a set of pat answers that will apply to everyone. Their role will be to provide teachers with opportunities and incentives to reflect on and evaluate their own beliefs, values, and the metaphors they use to characterize their work.

Are the beliefs they hold about students, teaching, learning, and knowledge supported by research and experience? How do those beliefs influence their perceptions and decisions? What values are they unconsciously teaching? Does it matter if they describe their classrooms as zoos or beehives—see themselves as gardeners or police officers?

The call for a reflective body of teachers is not new. In 1933, John Dewey described reflective teaching as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it. ...” More recently, writers as disparate as Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Peter Senge have reminded us that teachers’ thinking, beliefs, and visions are at the heart of effective teaching and learning.

Albert Einstein, reminds us that ‘not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’

One of history’s greatest scientists, Albert Einstein, reminds us that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Teacher thinking does count. Those who continue to ignore it because it will require a major shift in the focus of reform are as doomed to failure as the man looking for his keys where there is more light. The keys to unlocking effective teaching can and will be found by recognizing and addressing the profound influence of teachers’ thinking on education.

“Telling” teachers to become more reflective is not sufficient. Creating a “standard” for self-reflection sets a goal, but provides no mechanism to reach that goal. The only ones who can make the fundamental changes necessary to increase their effectiveness are the teachers themselves, but they need both the support and encouragement of enlightened professional- development programs.

One can only hope that those interested in a true transformation of education will accept the challenge and seek the keys to teaching quality where they lie—in the minds of individual teachers.

Judith Lloyd Yero, a teacher and supervisor for 20 years, is now an educational consultant in Hamilton, Mont., and the director of Teachers’ Mind Resources (www.TeachersMind.com). She is the author of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education (MindFlight Publishing, 2002).

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as That Elusive Spark


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