Teaching Profession Opinion

What Does Great Teaching Look Like, Exactly?

By Contributing Blogger — June 09, 2016 3 min read
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This post is by Carol Gerwin, writer and editor for Jobs for the Future

For all the talk of transforming high schools to meet the demands of the 21st century, surprisingly little focuses on what many people call the most important factor: teaching.

So school leaders, researchers, and foundation folks got right to the point when they led a “Reimagining High Schools” discussion with education reporters in early May. In order to prepare every young person with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to succeed in college, careers, and civic life, we cannot aim merely to make everyone a good teacher, they said. We must rethink what it means to teach.

“It’s not about fixing and tweaking,” as Andrew Frishman of Big Picture Learning told the crowd at the Education Writers Association national seminar in Boston. “It only happens by fundamentally changing the role of the teacher.”

But what does that “look like?” asked reporter after reporter. Precisely what is it that effective teachers do in the classroom?

For one thing, several speakers said, teachers can step back from their traditional role as “expert,” or “sage on the stage,” to become more of a facilitator, coach, and counselor, with students taking more of a central role in their learning. After setting up meaningful opportunities for students to apply what they learn, teachers can fade in and out of the background as needed, providing “scaffolding” to guide, support, and encourage.

But those descriptions are still pretty vague, the reporters pointed out. Can you be more specific as to what it looks like to teach in this new way?

There is certainly no magic spell or scientific formula that teachers can use to create student-centered learning experiences, acknowledged Rebecca Wolfe, who directs the Students at the Center initiative at Jobs for the Future (JFF). But there are specific practices that teachers can try--practices that research has shown to lead to deeper learning outcomes for students regardless of family income, native language, race, ethnicity, or disability.

JFF and our colleagues in the field have spent a great deal of time talking, thinking, and writing about student-centered approaches to teaching over the past few years. As part of our Deeper Learning Research Series, the well-known scholar of teaching practice Magdalene Lampert helps readers “see” the difference between conventional instruction and teaching for deeper learning. After decades of efforts to study teaching and capture its subtleties, she explains, researchers have begun to pinpoint the specific teaching strategies that matter most--and can be replicated.

Lampert, who now advises the Boston Plan for Excellence and other organizations on teacher development, provides a moment-by-moment comparison of how a piece of core high school content (the mathematical concept of slope) is taught in two very different classrooms.

“Deeper teaching is enormously complicated,” Lampert writes, “and it is and always has been rare in U.S. classrooms.” But it is possible. And as in most challenging endeavors, it takes practice to master it.

For Lampert’s full analysis, you can read Deeper Teaching (free to download from the JFF web site). Here’s a preview of her observations on how teachers can make a deliberate effort to support deeper learning:

  • Create opportunities for collaboration and communication--Require every student to communicate and collaborate with classmates about clearly defined tasks. In pairs or small groups, they can hash out answers and explain their reasoning to each other, then present their thinking to the class. The act of explaining, especially publicly, can be a powerful way to consolidate understanding.

  • Encourage students to embrace struggle--Motivate students to tackle complex problems by providing a carefully calibrated degree of challenge; build on what they know rather than faulting them for what they don’t know. Demonstrate the practical value of making mistakes and how to persist when things get thorny.

  • Advance a sense of autonomy and agency--Provide feedback that is carefully formulated to communicate to all students that they are capable of becoming competent, that they can build a scholarly identity, that they can “do school.” Offer frequent opportunities for students to exercise choice; promote confidence that students can become active agents in their own learning.

And there’s a lot more to it. We hope you’ll read the paper and join us in conversations about teaching in the coming year.

Meanwhile, for a more detailed exploration of what it looks like when teachers cultivate deeper learning, check out Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching, created by JFF and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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