Learning to Teach

I have mentioned my friend H, diagnosed in childhood as a borderline “moron,” who went on to a distinguished education and a career as a doctor. But H had another surprise up his sleeve. As a college freshman I discussed learning math, telling him that I was not terribly successful at it. He flatly promised that if he tutored me, I would improve. He then described his way of approaching math instruction.

I remember enough of his description to be able to recognize something like it in a system of math teaching now commonly used to great effect in Japan, whose PISA math results are among the world’s best. By contrast, U.S. math teaching tends to be rather less successful.

Attention is now focused on the incipient failure of American teachers to be able to use the kind of math instruction called for in the Common Core, which includes an attempt to imitate Japanese success. The irony is that Japan’s successful method of math instruction was pioneered by—Americans. Not that it matters: American teachers, according to The New York Times, are not learning how to teach effectively.

Unlike many pieces that locate the problem in teachers, this Times piece notes that the whole structure of teacher education in the U.S. is radically defective, and bound to leave teachers badly equipped to do their job. Though the defectiveness starts in schools of education, it continues during a teacher’s professional life. While Japanese and Finnish teachers spend only 600 hours a year in the classroom, using other time to plan and improve their teaching and to observe their colleagues, American teachers spend 1100 hours in the classroom but have very little pointed and helpful peer review. I was fortunate enough to be a part of an exception to this rule, but none of my professional acquaintances in American schools report having had anything like this experience.

Instead, the usual pattern is to call in a silky consultant with shining incisors to give a brief workshop on the “new methodology.” It ends up unpersuasive, and the teachers don’t actually get practice in what they are “taught.” Instead, they participate in Rube Goldberg workshop “activities” where they clap and smile a lot and learn to give answers that mimic understanding. And then it’s over, the pedagogical equivalent of anonymous sex.

And what about those three older guys slouching in the back, their arms folded across their chests? Their look says, “I dare you to teach me something.” It’s tempting to blame them for their lack of receptivity, but for how many years have they been going to these charades for one or two days per year and learning nothing they could use? The Times article mentions “active resistance” rather than passive aggression, but both these responses imply a teacher training that was incomplete and unpersuasive. Unfortunately, when there is a kind of follow-up, it is the wrong kind. After the first wave of glossy consultants comes the second wave of gimlet-eyed commissars to enforce adherence to questionable methods badly taught. It inculcates bitterness, not compliance.

The Times article notes the importance of patience, which is regrettably not usually an attribute of education administrators in the U.S. It will also be important to stress the need for thoroughness. And no plan can work if the teachers being told to implement it do not have the time they need to think about how to make it work, or to consult with their colleagues.

Finally—and this was not a part of the Times discussion at all—American students who have not yet done so will have to learn, as Adèle did from Jane Eyre, how to become obedient and teachable.

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