Today I happened to have lunch with Russ Roberts, so we discussed his talk with Elizabeth Green. Some notes:
1. I like his analogy between the task of teaching and the task of hitting a baseball. In both cases, there is a limit on what you can learn by studying books or videos. At some point, you have to learn by trial and error. In baseball, a coach can do a lot to make a hitter’s practice more productive. Green, influenced by Doug Lemov and others, argues that a coach can do a lot to help a teacher.
2. This helps to bring out the difference between a science and a craft. You can learn a lot about science, such as chemistry, without trial and error. You can learn a lot through reading and through ordinary instruction in the classroom and in the lab. But you cannot learn much about hitting a baseball that way. Or you cannot absorb much of what you learn. Instead, you learn best by trying to hit and by being coached on how to hit.
3. My experience as a high school teacher have convinced me that these issues of “craft” are important. I think of most pedagogical theory as something that you could apply to writing a textbook or creating a MOOC. But actually getting a classroom to function takes a lot of skills that one can acquire only through practice and by responding to feedback. Green’s point is that American education methods tend to minimize teachers’ opportunities to receive coaching and feedback.
4. Coaching itself is very much a craft. In the case of hitting, how many people really know how to teach hitting really well? And can any of those people convey their knowledge of coaching well to others, so that other people can learn to coach hitting really well? The analogous problem exists in education. If “building a better teacher” is a scalable solution in education, then you need to find people who can teach teacher-coaching in a scalable way, so that there are enough good coaches of teachers to build lots of better teachers. I am skeptical that this is the case.
5. Coaching can improve any hitter. But it cannot make just anybody into a really good hitter. So I am also skeptical that you can make almost anyone into a really good teacher.
6. For me, the hardest things for a teacher include:
–understanding how students get things wrong, so that you can steer them from wrong to right.
–dealing with the trade-off between introducing new concepts and trying to solidify the concepts you taught last week, particularly when you have students who are at different levels of mastery
–trying to engage in cognitive instruction and deal with behavioral issues at the same time
–motivating students to reveal to themselves what they do not know and to work on those deficiencies