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Assessment, Curriculum, Teaching

Starting Point for Dialogue

A review of On Excellence in Teaching by Robert J. Marzano, ed. Solution Tree Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-934009-58-1

“The purpose of On Excellence in Teaching was to gather the opinions and recommendations of the world’s best educational researchers, theorists, and professional developers regarding the topic of effective instruction” (p. 1). The contributing authors, however, are all North American – American, actually, except for one – so it is presumptuous to claim they are the “world’s best”, and since the collection is invited, not juried, they may not even be North America’s best. But the authors are all well-known and worth reading, so the anthology is worthwhile nonetheless.

This book is one of five in a series that also addresses designing and teaching learning goals, assessment, professional leaning communities, and change. Its particular focus on instruction includes chapters by Grant Wiggins on the real job of a teacher; Thomas Good on the research on teacher effectiveness; Barrie Bennett on the art and science of instruction; Richard Meyer on the science of learning; David Berliner on the effects of high-stakes testing; Debra Pickering on recommendations for schools committed to excellence; Lynn Erickson on teacher education, conceptually-based curriculum, and teaching for thinking; Heidi Hayes Jacobs on Curriculum Mapping; Robert Marzano on developing expert teachers; Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiated instruction; Jay McTighe on Understanding by Design (UbD); Jere Brophy on motivating students to be autonomous learners; Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini on student engagement; and Robert and Jana Marzano on how metacognitive awareness and control can make teachers more effective.

The chapters vary in depth and quality. Some are rather casual restatements of previous work that touch lightly on the topic while others are reasonably substantial syntheses, but all are merely overviews that serve best as reminders or introductions and are insufficient for fully understanding the ideas they present, let alone applying them. Each, however, includes an extensive list of references that would allow the interested reader to delve more deeply.

There is no connecting thread and no dialogue between ideas in this book, no critique of their strengths and shortcomings, and little identification of lingering questions. They are simply compiled under a very broad thematic umbrella. Thus, it is up to the reader to consume the contents with a healthy degree of skepticism and interrogate the tidy presentations, which contain a mixture of research results, confidently known insights, suggestions, personal perspectives, and opinions that should not be treated equally.

Since no synthesis is attempted and no overarching model of instruction is provided, the anthology amounts to a sampler of educational ideas that may pique interest and prompt further inquiry, but it is insufficient on its own to fulfill the editor’s claim that, “A careful reading of the chapters should provide a rich source of ideas and strategies with which K-12 practitioners can examine and enhance their practice.” The advice contained within the book itself makes it clear that practitioners will need guidance, scaffolding, and assistance much beyond the mere reading of it to effect substantial learning or enhance their practice.

In the hands of a committed study group that is willing to follow the leads provided and engage in the sustained effort required to digest, debate, explore more deeply, apply, reflect upon, and learn from the current and important ideas that this book introduces, it could be a very useful topical tour and starting point for dialogue. However, the reader who has already been introduced to the work of the included authors will not learn more from reading it, and those who are meeting these ideas for the first time should be aware that they are seeing a set of trailers, not the movies themselves.

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Bruce Beairsto

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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