Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Teacher out of the box 

A colleague's wife sends this to me, and it makes a great deal of sense. It discusses how we are behind in international comparisons of student achievement. But since I am not a teacher in the usual sense of the word, I suppose I should ask those who are. What do you think of this passage?

Lurking behind these test scores, however, are two profoundly important and closely intertwined topics that the United States has yet to even approach: how teachers are trained and how they teach what they teach. These issues get a great deal of attention in high-performing systems abroad - especially in Japan, which stands light years ahead of us in international comparisons.

...The book has spawned growing interest in the Japanese teacher-development strategy in which teachers work cooperatively and intensively to improve their methods. This process, known as "lesson study," allows teachers to revise and refine lessons that are then shared with others, sometimes through video and sometimes at conventions. In addition to helping novices, this system builds a publicly accessible body of knowledge about what works in the classroom.

The lesson-study groups focus on refining methods that improve student understanding. In doing so, the groups go step by step, laying out successful strategies for teaching specific lessons. This reflects the Japanese view that successful teaching is the product of intensive teacher development and self-scrutiny. In America, by contrast, novice teachers are often presumed competent on Day One. They have few opportunities in their careers to watch successful colleagues in action. We also tend to believe that educational change would happen overnight - if only we could find the right formula. This often leaves us prey to fads that put schools on the wrong track.

There are two other things that set this country apart from its high-performing peers abroad. One is the American sense that teaching is a skill that people come by naturally.

I'm leaving the rest out because it deals more specifically with NCLB, which I'm not as interested in here. (If you want to comment on it, feel free.) The reason I ask is that this may be a place where higher education has an advantage, insofar as we take mentoring of other faculty's teaching more seriously and that the rules to reach tenure are perhaps more stringent (including longer in most cases) than those in K-12 education. Many young professors have spent years as teaching assistants, coached by an advisor at their graduate university. Those faculty tend to be focused on teaching more than research (as I recall, for instance, Paul Heyne was the advisor to all the TAs at the University of Washington for many years.) So mentoring may happen.

Second, we know that some faculty are better off not in the classroom. Those who can sort themselves into research institutions through excellent publication do so; those that can't may find themselves either at lesser institutions or in a non-academic position. My general observation is that the sorting process works more voluntarily: Faculty who find teaching tiring and dull (and receive feedback to that effect from their students) often choose to leave for the business or government worlds.

Also, because textbook and curriculum adoption tend to be more under individual faculty control -- for example, we might not even use the same textbook between the sections of the same course in the same department at the same school -- it may be that these faculty are less prone to fads.

Possible? Likely? Let me know.

Categories: ,