Assessment, Engagement, Promising Practices, Teaching

The Hard Work of Learning and the Challenges of “Good” Teaching

Everyone knows what ‘good’ teaching is. Or do they?

We confront this issue regularly at the university level, where most courses end with detailed student evaluations of the instructor. As might be expected, based on student ratings, university professors are distributed along the scale from abysmal to awesome. But there’s a problem. When student ratings of “good teaching” are compared to instructors’ effectiveness in supporting learning (measured through common examinations, for example), we rarely see a strong correlation. The instructors who have walls covered with teaching awards fare no better than their scorned colleagues. How can this be?

The answer seems to be that students are more occupied with immediate experiences, such as atmosphere and personality (whereby good teaching is assessed in terms of feelings of comfort, security, feedback, being valued, etc.), and instructors are more focused on the longer-term benefits of actually learning something (whereby good teaching is assessed in terms of achievement, retention, life success, etc.). As educators ourselves, we confess to leaning more toward the latter conception. Unfortunately, even when this distinction is made clear, the results and claims of the research on good teaching have been ambiguous at best.

Perhaps the most commonly cited studies into the matter fall into the category of “value-added” research. Investigators using this approach look for statistical relationships among such variables as student achievement, teachers, class size, and school funding – a strategy that is not without its problems. For example, a frequent criticism is that this research casts effective teaching strictly in terms of student achievement on standardized performance evaluations. We suspect that readers are well aware of the issues around this construct.

Nevertheless, there are some compelling aspects to this research, thanks in large part to the wealth of data that has been collected through the No Child Left Behind initiative in the United States. In particular, some researchers have shown that, regardless of school demographics and related factors, some teachers seem to inspire their students to outstanding results – year after year. And, of course, the students of other teachers (often in the same school and teaching the same grade) have consistently poor results. As Green summed up this body of inquiry, “When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to.”[1] Why this is the case has been illuminated by Hattie in his synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. He listed 138 key influences on students’ learning, categorized into the domains of student, teacher/teaching, school, curricula, and home. Variables relating to what teachers do in their classrooms account for 19 of the top 30.[2]

Perhaps the most intriguing result generated so far was reported by Hanushek and Rivkin. Gauging effective teaching according to student progress, the “top” 5 percent of teachers in their data set managed to encourage their students through an average of about 1.5 grade levels in a single year. At the other end of the spectrum, the “bottom” 5 percent of teachers consistently moved their students through only half a grade level, on average.[3] Even though we have a problem with the fact this research is based on standardized test results, the statistics give us pause. The differences are just too great, especially when they can be disentangled from social background, class size, and other distracters.

Values-added research – and most educational research for that matter – seems to assume that everyone agrees on what a teacher is supposed to do. That’s simply not a tenable assumption.

Unfortunately, these sorts of statistics may only be confirming what everybody already knew: there are some really great teachers out there. As for practical advice on how to distinguish among effective and ineffective teaching practices, the situation is not nearly as clear. For example, in a value-added study of high school teachers, Aronson and colleagues were unable to identify specific teacher characteristics or practices that could account for differences in student achievement – summing up with the statement that “the vast majority of the total variation in teacher quality is unexplained by observable teacher characteristics.”[4] To make matters worse, the list of qualities that do not predict effective teaching might be a little unsettling to many readers, including such factors as a graduate-school degree, deep background in a discipline, high SAT or IQ scores, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, and enthusiasm. These seem to be precisely the qualities that students name and that schools of education identify when pressed to distinguish what’s important.

How to proceed with the question of effective teaching, then?

We want to suggest here that what makes this question a difficult one is not the word effective but the word teaching. Values-added research – and most educational research for that matter – seems to assume that everyone agrees on what a teacher is supposed to do. That’s simply not a tenable assumption.

Changes in “Management”

Elsewhere we’ve offered one account of how the notion of teaching has evolved over recent centuries as prevailing sensibilities shifted and societal needs unfolded.[5] We won’t try to summarize here the evolution of the social role or the word’s meaning, but will mention that a conflicted history and contested usages are evidenced in the hundreds of metaphors and synonyms for teaching that are commonly heard today. A case in point is the obvious contrast between the recent teaching-as-facilitation metaphor that is familiar from constructivist-based writings and the more entrenched teaching-as-instruction interpretation that arose in the early stages of the Scientific Revolution. The two notions couldn’t be further apart in terms of the beliefs about learning that propelled them into common usage, or in terms of their entailments for classroom practice. But it’s not uncommon to encounter them in the same policy statement or teachers’ guide – sometimes in the same sentence.

Because teaching is too big a concept for us to deal with here, let us instead look at the evolution of the notion of management within teaching over the last century. We recently came across a history of teacher education in Calgary and were a little surprised to read about a heavy emphasis on management in Alberta normal schools at the turn of the 20th century. More specifically, the concern was with “management defects”, which included “faulty questioning, unrestrained calling out, too much teaching, too little seatwork, lack of method in teaching …, and inappropriate classification of pupils.” [6] Moving through this list, it almost seems as though management was used as a descriptor of everything the professional educator was expected to do within a classroom environment. Perhaps this is to be expected, given the backdrop of school organization around the model of a factory, and curricula structured after tasks on an assembly line.

But a significant shift in meaning occurred in the 1950s, when the broad notion of management was rather suddenly narrowed and conflated with the notion of control, which in turn was seen as the hallmark of good teaching. As behaviourism ascended to the dominant discourse in educational policy and research, discussions of management shifted from a breadth of concerns associated with the efficient functioning of a classroom to focused references to controlling students – their behaviours, their measureable learning outcomes, and so on. Even the group-based notion of “classroom management” was recast in terms of controlling individual actions. Needless to say, there was a concomitant change in understandings of teaching. As revealed in the practicum evaluation forms of the era, good teaching was recast in terms of effective control of what each student was doing.

This behaviourism-inspired conflation of management and control still lingers, illustrated in the fact that the phrases “classroom management” and “classroom control” are used interchangeably in many contexts. A more recent evolution has been to attempt to separate them once again, discard references to control, and soften conceptions of management. Within learner-centered discussions of classroom life, management tends to be recast not as the principal work of the educator, but as a necessary backdrop to teaching. That is, most commentators still agree it’s important to be able to manage a classroom, but that’s not the same as running a little factory or controlling the actions of each individual in a group. Rather, the current concept of management seems to be more about such specifics as efficient procedures and established routines. As might be expected, with this change comes a further revision in popular understandings of effective teaching. As reflected in the value-added studies, effective teaching is not framed in terms of the actual moment of engagement or the specific actions of the teacher, but in terms of the where students progress relative to where they began. Not surprisingly, as noted, researchers have been unable to reverse engineer this conception of the consequences of good teaching into the qualities and practices of good teaching.

Challenging Changes

It’s strangely easy to reconcile the different phases in the recent evolution of notion of management – that is, from the early 20th century usage as an overarching descriptor of the educator’s responsibilities, to its mid 20th century usage as a synonym for control, to the late 20thcentury usage in reference to a teacher’s background competencies. In fact, it’s so easy to see a harmony in these conflicting constructs that we are compelled to suggest that – while understandings of “management” and “effective teaching” have changed – the popular conception of the core notion of teaching has remained relatively stable.

Indeed, a constant across the evolutions noted above is that teaching has been conceived in terms of effecting change. That is, teachers have consistently and persistently been seen as responsible for ensuring that the persons who exit their classrooms are different from the persons who entered, and this responsibility for changing learners is most often interpreted in terms of causing things to happen.

No matter how you slice it, the evidence shows the teacher really, really matters.

We suspect that this entrenched and pervasive belief is at the heart of difficulties associated with specifying what it is that good teachers do that “not-so-good” teachers don’t do, and a reason that researchers can’t seem to find qualities or practices that are common to good teachers. It’s because, simply put, teachers don’t cause learners to change.

To contextualize this point, the past half century of research into learning – conducted across domains that include genomics, neurology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and ecology – has underscored that learners are complex, self-determining beings. How a student responds to whatever a teacher does is determined by that student’s complex history – genetic, experiential, social, cultural, and so on. True, the student’s learning is dependent on the teacher’s teaching. No matter how you slice it, the evidence shows the teacher really, really matters. But the student’s learning is not determined by the teacher’s teaching. And that’s a game changer that should prod us to rethink and redefine what teaching is all about.

To this end, our title is intended to be a little ironic. If we were forced to collect the consequences of emergent research into learning for the pragmatics of teaching, it would be that good teaching isn’t at all about changing students; it’s about challenging them.

This suggestion isn’t mere wordplay, and the trans-disciplinary conceptual shifts that sit underneath it are anything but subtle. It does more than present a further challenge to the thoroughly critiqued transmission-oriented, delivery-mode conceptions of teaching. It also renders problematic contemporary notions of teaching as facilitating and guiding. It is an assertion that teaching is not so much about easing people toward knowing something they don’t know, but about challenging them to notice in ways they might not have noticed. There are no specifiable ends to education here, only ever-expanding horizons of possibility.

We have no hard evidence for it, but our strong suspicion is that, if researchers were to reframe their analyses of what’s going on in the classrooms of those 5 percent of teachers whose students are excelling – regardless of where those students start and irrespective of social demographics – they would find that, in fact, what those teachers are up to isn’t all over the map. With regard to practices, they are doubtlessly challenging their students, refusing to make things easy and constantly expecting more than of learners than learners might imagine themselves capable. And with regard to qualities, they are undoubtedly curious – about where ideas come from, how students might have arrived at particular constructs, possibilities that arise when different people and different traditions are juxtaposed, and so on.

What does this look like? A simple example:

One of us (Brent) recently dropped into two mathematics lessons, taught by different teachers whose classrooms were adjacent to one another. The school’s policy was for all classes at the same grade level to stay more-or-less in sync, and so the topics of both lessons was adding single digit numbers for sums up to 18.

Before going any further, we should mention that both classes were exceedingly well managed. Each teacher was warm, approachable, attentive, and clearly adored by the students. The principal reported proudly that parents are thrilled to have their children assigned to either classroom. For some reason, however, one didn’t seem to sponsor the same sort of enthusiasm for mathematics, nor the same levels of mathematical insight, as the other.

The reason was obvious to us when Brent stepped from one room into the other. The first was organized around a carefully structured and rehearsed explanation, brief guided discussion, and then focused individual work on well-sequenced practice exercises drawn from a textbook. The other lesson seemed to be little more than a question printed tidily on the whiteboard: “How many different ways can you add two numbers together to get 15?”

The first of these lessons was about changing students – that is, about manipulating understandings by engineering learning experiences to fine-grained detail. It was a teaching about molding, shaping, instructing, informing, guiding, facilitating – about everyone achieving the same sort of functional competence. And, for the most part, the students performed. The outcomes were anticipated and achieved.

The other lesson was about challenging students. If we had been compelled to rate what was happening according to the management-based rubrics – regardless of which of the 20th century interpretations of the word management might be used – this lesson would not have fared as well. Students talked out of turn and over one another, some meandered off task and worked with a sum other than 15, some were using more than two addends to get to 15, some strayed even further afield and included numbers with fractions. One quiet pair in a corner even slipped into integers, hoarding their delight at the realization that the possibilities were endless when you allowed yourself to use “minus numbers”. Although the teacher attempted to anticipate such happenings, she confessed afterward that she really didn’t “do a good job of predicting” where things would go.

There were many things at work here, but none of them fall into the category of observable and measurable qualities. Our guess is that, had we the time and expertise to unpack what was going on, we would have found that the second teacher had a “growth mindset”,[7] believing intelligence to be more a matter of focused and demanding practice than genetic endowment. She likely had deeper pedagogical content knowledge, suggested by a prompt that invited multiple interpretations of number, addition, equality, and so on. We do know that she perceived herself more as a participant than an overseer, noting that she always learned new things about addition through this sort of prompt and confessing that she too found it “a little challenging.”

“Telling a kid a secret he [sic] can find out himself is not only bad teaching, it is a crime.”[8] To our ears, this statement by Freudenthal identifies a vital distinction between good and bad teaching. In a culture of education that is focused on changing students, it makes sense to tell, to show how, to lead, to facilitate discovery, to guide toward insight. A teaching that is focused on challenging learners is organized around the much more demanding tasks of setting situations that allow students to negotiate the level of difficulty, of trusting they will choose the tougher route when they are able, of really listening to where they’re coming from and what they know. It is our hope that, as teaching refashions itself in this rapidly evolving world, it finds its excellence in its challenges.

EN BREF – « Bien » enseigner, tout le monde sait ce que c’est. Vraiment? Quoique la définition d’une bon enseignant ait évolué, les enseignants ont toujours été jugés responsables d’apporter le changement. Selon le modèle à valeur ajoutée en vigueur, un enseignement efficace n’est pas décrit en fonction d’actions spécifiques, mais plutôt en fonction des progrès des élèves par rapport à leur point de départ. Cependant, selon les nouvelles recherches, un bon enseignement ne vise pas à changer les élèves, mais plutôt à les stimuler. Voilà qui transforme la dynamique et qui devrait nous inciter à repenser et à redéfinir la nature de l’enseignement. Un enseignement destiné à stimuler les apprenants est organisé en fonction des tâches beaucoup plus exigeantes d’établir des situations permettant aux élèves de négocier le niveau de difficulté, de s’en remettre à eux pour choisir la voie la plus difficile lorsqu’ils le peuvent, ainsi que de vraiment écouter ce qu’ils ont à dire et ce qu’ils savent.

[1] E. Green, “Building a Better Teacher: Can Educators be Educated About How to Educate?” New York Times Magazine, 2 March 2010. Accessed online, 1 June 2010, at www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html?pagewanted=1.

[2] J. A. C. Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement (Abington, UK: Routledge, 2009).

[3] E. A. Hanushek and S. G. Rivkin, “Generalizations About Using Value-added Measures of Teacher Quality,” American Economic Review 100, no. 2 (2010), 267–271.

[4] D. Aaronson, L. Barrow, and W. Sander, “Teachers and Student Achievement in the Chicago Public High Schools,” Journal of Labor Economics 25, no. 1 (2007): 95–135.

[5] B. Davis, D. Sumara, and R. Luce-Kapler, Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[6] R. M. Stamp, Becoming a Teacher in 20th Century Calgary (Calgary, AB: Detselig, 2004): 17.

[7] C. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine, 2006).

[8] H. Freudenthal, “Geometry Between the Devil and the Deep Sea,” Educational Studies in Mathematics 3, no. 3/4 (1971): 413–435.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dennis Sumara

Dennis Sumara is Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. His areas of research include curriculum theory, teacher education, and literacy education, as oriented by conceptual interests in hermeneutic phenomenology
, literary response theory
, and complexity science.

Read More

Brent Davis

Brent Davis is Professor and Distinguished Research Chair in Mathematics Education at the University of Calgary. His research is developed around the educational relevance of developments in the cognitive and complexity sciences.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network