What is Good Teaching? A Reflection

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What is Good Teaching? A Reflection

It is through such Good Teaching that students develop not just potent academic or vocational competencies but unshakable conviction of their fundamental worthiness for whatever great challenges they ultimately choose to take up in life.

It is through such Good Teaching that students develop not just potent academic or vocational competencies but unshakable conviction of their fundamental worthiness for whatever great challenges they ultimately choose to take up in life.

Last week in this space I wrote about how business was trying to take over public education so it could cash in on the $1 trillion the U.S. spends on it every year. I criticized charter schools — the preferred takeover mechanism — for pushing low-cost, uncredentialed “teachers” and shallow, downloaded curriculum. Charters are an ideal business model for making profits, but terrible for producing high quality education. Given charter schools’ own dismal record and the stated motives of charter chain operators, this criticism is valid.

But many people wrote and asked what was it that I regarded as good teaching. If the make-money-off-the-children charter model is bad, how would we recognize and promote better education? It’s a fair question, and one that every parent, indeed every person who has a stake in this country, ought to be asking.

That said, it’s an easier question to ask than to answer. It recalls Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s comment on obscenity: “I can’t define obscenity, but I know it when I see it.” But that’s not good enough. If it’s fair to decry the vapidity of most charter models, we must be held to account for showing how it can be done better through public education. It’s not enough to simply tear down. We must have the wisdom and the courage to build up as well.

As a public school teacher, I've come to believe that good teaching comes down to six essential practices. I call them Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application. Just as when all eight amino acids must be present for a protein to form, all six of these activities must be present for Good Teaching (and Good Learning) to occur.

Let's look at what each of these tasks entails and how they add up to Good Teaching.

The Inducement is the teacher's solicitation to the student, the seduction to come and learn. It can take a thousand forms, from asking the student what she's interested in to showing her what you're interested in. The first art of good teaching lies in knowing the student well enough to know which form of Inducement will entice her to want to learn. For, until this occurs, there is simply talking and resistance.

And Inducement doesn't end once the student shows interest and begins to learn. Far from it. Inducement is needed for even the highest performing students — to push them to still greater heights, to stretch themselves to do things they had never believed they might be able to do. And it is needed for every new lesson and for every new assignment until the student becomes self-starting.

After Inducement comes Conveyance. An impoverished version of Conveyance is what passes for most teaching today. Seven times five equals thirty-five. Sentences must begin with a capital letter. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Artful Conveyance is, in fact, much more challenging than this admitted caricature might suggest. Few people learn by simply listening or reading and reciting.

Good Conveyance means devising a hundred different ways for the students to engage the material. They need multi-sensory stimuli — pictures, songs, poems, riddles, models, posters, dances, skits, debates, lectures, and more. They need emotional connections with the materials, connections to past learnings, associations with other knowledge they're developing. And they need all of this for all of their subjects!

By engaging the whole student, good Conveyance not only develops solid understanding of individual subjects, it brings out the deep connections between subjects. How proportion in math is related to harmony in music. How science, by reducing dependence on authority, gave rise to individualism. How cadence and rhyme and symbols serve not only poetry but demagoguery. Good conveyance makes learning come alive by helping the student make new connections — find relevance — as he encounters his learning.

After Conveyance comes Meta-Learning. This means teaching the student to be aware of how he is learning and to develop specific learning strategies for different learning situations. This sounds abstract but all of us do this as adults, whether we know it or not. When I encounter a difficult passage in reading I say, "OK, let's take this one step at a time. What is the subject of this sentence? What is the verb? Ok, now what's the object?" And eventually, I decipher the complex (or more likely, poorly written) passage. This is Meta-Learning: using explicit strategies to learn how to learn. It is indispensable if life-long learning is to develop.

Teaching Meta-Learning requires not only a deep understanding of the subject itself, but of the learning process as well, and how the student can apply one to master the other. Once started, the meta-enabled student can begin bootstrapping himself to higher and higher levels of knowledge and mastery. The best readers are skilled meta-readers. The best math students are skilled meta-mathematicians. Those students who enjoy learning the most, who stay with it longest, and go with it farthest are good Meta-Learners.

After Meta-Learning comes Empowerment. Empowerment means constructing the environment where the student can successfully affirm to herself her competence with what she's learned. A first grader might paint recognizable human figures and then clean up the finger paints afterwards. An eighth grader might write a book review analyzing plot, character, and theme while using the proper form of an essay, grammar, and spelling. A twelfth grader might describe the reversal between America's role in its Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War, and then use this understanding to explain our failure in Vietnam and our enduring perplexity and angst about it.

By providing the venue for demonstrating competence, Empowerment allows for the coming of maturity as a learner and, ultimately, as a person. Such maturity flows from “ownership" in the outcome of one's efforts, responsibility for one's fruits. Done well, Empowerment is the midwifeing into autonomy for each stage of accomplishment that the student has mastered.

Next, there is Modeling. Through all of the prior stages, the teacher acts as a model of the desired outcome. She is the incarnation of the curiosity, composure, persistence, intelligence, integrity and patience and all the other deep character virtues which are the true ends — and the true evidence — of a good education.

Of all of the six practices, Modeling is perhaps the most demanding. Every minute, the student senses in the teacher whether she is authentic to her words, whether she walks her talk or whether she is simply mouthing facts and containing the chaos. The students cannot articulate what they are sensing in this process but, as with the Judge and obscenity, they know it when they see it. And when it's there, more than anything else, they want to be like it.

If we want a humane future, it is this that we must pursue as a nation, deepening our educational enterprise, not hollowing it out so that fast buck artists can make a profit off of our children.They want to be like it. The attraction to authenticity is inescapable. Surely, it is one of the most powerful compulsions in all of human development. Authenticity comes when teachers are true to their own natures and embody their own highest standards — both as teachers and as human beings. It comes when we treat with profound respect the uniqueness and the dignity of every student. For surely, each of them are as unique and worthy of respect as we are.

When students see that their teachers are like this, no matter what the grade or subject, they will perform heroically for them (which calls back Inducement). For they want to be acknowledged, they want to be esteemed by that which they know as true. It is the first step to becoming true once again themselves.

The final practice in Good Teaching is Application. Up until now, everything has occurred in the classroom. But here, students take what they have learned and put it into practice in the real world. Only there do they learn whether what they’ve done in the classroom has real-world value. As the old Chinese adage says, “Knowledge that comes from a book stays in the book.” But if it works, if what the students have learned makes a difference, they become bigger people, right in front of your eyes.

A practical example is illustrative. Five years ago, my students were studying poverty in the developing world. They were frustrated at their own impotence to address it. So we decided to ask every student in our school to give just one dollar so we could build a school in the developing world. Well, it took more dollars than our school had, but with the help of four other schools we raised $9,000 and built a classroom in a remote Kenyan village.

Since then, with 70 other schools joining us, we’ve built 12 classrooms, in Kenya, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Nepal. In the process, the students have learned not only the academics of world poverty, but the character traits of compassion, cooperation, and creativity. And they feel a competence, an efficacy in the world, unlike anything they will ever learn in the classroom.

The genius of Good Teaching is when all six of these practices — Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application — all occur at precisely the right time, over and over again throughout the lesson, throughout the day, throughout the year, throughout the student's educational career. Every student is addressed with exactly the right touch they need at exactly the right moment in time, and all at the same time!

It is this right-touch, right-timing, inclusion-for-all, and engagement-with-the-world challenge that makes Good Teaching the incomparable art form that it really is. It is what makes Good Teaching so difficult to master but such an ennobling act (for both the student and the teacher) when it actually does occur. And it doesn’t come from shallow experience, superficial commitment, or a focus on profits.

To be sure, every good teacher will have a different name for these acts. Each will perform them differently, with different emphases at different times. But as with Shakespeare's rose, by any other name they are just as sweet.

It is through such Good Teaching that students develop not just potent academic or vocational competencies but unshakable conviction of their fundamental worthiness for whatever great challenges they ultimately choose to take up in life. That is the true objective, the true proof, and the true reward of Good Teaching.

If we want a humane future, it is this that we must pursue as a nation, deepening our educational enterprise, not hollowing it out so that fast buck artists can make a profit off of our children.


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Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman writes about economics and education. He is the author of The Best One-Hour History series which includes World War I, The Vietnam War, The Cold War, and other titles.

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