You could be forgiven if you have gotten the impression that we are still trying to figure out exactly what great teaching looks like. In recent years, the teaching profession has been under assault by those who have sought to deprofessionalize it, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on various projects and studies to find out the so-called “secret sauce” of great teaching.
Actually, we do know — and as this post explains, we also know that the education system doesn’t support it.
It was written by James Nehring, who taught middle and high school for two decades and is now an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Nehring has co-written a book coming out in June that looks at the complexities that go into great teaching and how to create a system that supports it. The book, written with Stacy Szczesiul and Megin Charner-Laird, is titled “Bridging the Progressive-Traditional Divide in Education Reform: A Unifying Vision for Teaching, Learning, and System Level Supports.” (Yes, it’s a mouthful.)
In 2013, he won a Fulbright award to work with and learn from schools in the United States and Britain that are doing great work with students in marginalized communities, particularly deeply sectarian neighborhoods in Northern Ireland.
Here is his piece, which tackles an issue as central as any to our great education debate: teaching.
By James Nehring
Good teaching is really complex. Anybody who’s been impacted by a special teacher will likely agree. The problem is that, in the sausage-making of regulatory policy, we act like teaching is simple. The result is a system that makes it just about impossible for good teachers to teach.
I’ve long suspected this was true, but it wasn’t until I teamed up with two other former teachers — Stacy Szczesiul and Megin Charner-Laird, who, like me, are now academics — that we were able to put the puzzle together.
We started by watching the best teachers we could find and were amazed by what we saw. We wondered if their artistry was captured by others who write about teaching, so we reviewed what the academic world has to say. Then we read influential reports on teaching from the last 20 years out of think tanks and policy groups. Finally, we examined the wisdom of practice from two great teaching traditions that have defined the field for generations — the progressive tradition (think inquiry, whole-child, project-based) and the academic tradition (think of the best math, history, science course, etc. you ever took).
Each of our sources painted a picture of teaching as an enormously complex enterprise. Not only that, there was surprising agreement on the core principles that define good teaching, confirming what we observed in exemplary classrooms. Here’s what we saw when we pulled back the curtain and watched excellence in action:
Teachers focused on disciplinary knowledge and skills woven together.
Teachers wove instruction for complex thinking and collaboration with the development of disciplinary knowledge. In these classes, students were learning fundamental disciplinary understanding for math, English, social studies, science, and so on; however, they were simultaneously benefiting from instruction in important skills like teamwork, planning, and overcoming obstacles.
Teachers were attuned to the psychological safety of their students, especially in diverse classrooms.
Teachers persistently addressed group dynamics and strove to create a harmonious environment, demonstrating an understanding that doing so is a prerequisite to academic learning. Researchers have found that school connectedness is crucial to academic achievement and that relationships matter to student success. What these teachers showed us is that the foundation of connectedness is not a program, class, or counselor. Rather, teachers weave it into the everyday fabric of classroom life. Excellent teachers pay attention not only to students’ academic qualities but also to their psychological needs in a fluid, continuous process. Particularly in classes of students who are culturally and linguistically diverse, and, often, members of groups marginalized by a white, mainstream culture, this attribute is crucial to student success.
Teachers adapted their teaching to the moment.
Teachers consistently matched teaching moves to the dynamic moment in the classroom in ways that fostered harmony and advanced the academic lesson. These teachers showed that having good radar for social-emotional dynamics is not enough. These teachers continuously adjusted their teaching in subtle ways as they sensed changes in tone and climate. One November morning, we watched a student arrive to class looking upset and cold. While continuing to lead instruction, the teacher gestured for the student to sit at an available desk, removed her own scarf and wrapped it affectionately around the student’s neck as the student took her seat — all while continuing the lesson.
Teachers had a wide repertoire of effective moves.
Teachers deployed a variety of moves with stunning fluency and density. It was nearly impossible during the analysis to link a single move to a single purpose. One move dissolved into the next as multiple purposes were served from moment to moment. The expert work of these teachers demonstrates that to teach well — that is, to teach a deep and broad range of skills while also addressing disciplinary knowledge — requires intelligence and practice. It also requires an ability to pay attention to many subtle variables in a complex environment (what we call radar) and an ability to call on a deep repertoire of instructional moves (what we call improvisation).
Instruction was tied to complex assessments, often performative in nature.
Assessments in these classes were often designed by the teacher and included some type of performance or demonstration. They stood in contrast to the more routine test-based assessments or occasional undemanding “projects” in other classrooms.
Teachers built strong relationships with students.
Teachers exhibited a powerful desire to connect relationally with students, both individually and collectively, and displayed a palpable joy in doing so. The sort of connectedness displayed by these teachers goes well beyond clinical description. There was genuine affection. These relationships benefited teachers as well as students. They clearly felt they had a stake in the successful growth of their students — not just as learners, but as people.
What these students were learning is the stuff behind the catchphrases: 21st century skills, college and career readiness, deeper learning, the new basics.
These terms, so common today, were coined by the reports we read, and those reports all said the same thing: teach disciplines and skills together, teach for transfer of learning to places outside the classroom, and build in the teacherly moves that draw on progressive and academic pedagogy. It’s what excellent teachers have always done. And it’s not simple stuff.
But here’s the thing: though we have sweeping agreement on what constitutes great teaching, we have a system that utterly fails to support it.
A quarter century ago, two education historians, David Tyack and William Tobin, said that we suffer from a durable, simplistic view of school consisting of desks-in-rows, teacher-at-the-front, facts and formulas, tests and grades, subjects, course credits, and more.
They called it the “grammar of schooling” because, like grammar, it’s universal and very hard to change as it is so deeply embedded in the culture. And it’s based on a very simple, unrealistic view of teaching.
For example, we box teachers in with narrowly defined subjects, when we know good teaching connects academic disciplines. We assume all students advance at the same pace in every subject all the time, when good teachers recognize people grow in fits and spurts. We need to start putting different images of school in the public eye based on a different grammar, a grammar that honors the complexity of good teaching — and the subtleties of learning. The book I’ve written with my colleagues, above, has a list of schools that are doing this.
Second, we need to change the way schools are managed. Our current bureaucratic system says people at the top decide what must happen and people at the bottom carry it out. This isn’t just out of date — it was never a good idea because it runs counter to the way people think and act. The excellent teachers we observed need room to exercise judgment within a system that is responsive to their expertise while building a community of learning.
Third, accountability. Let’s just all take a deep breath and step back from the testing obsession that has gripped our political and economic culture. In the last 30 years, we’ve managed to create a system with nearly perfect psychometrics that has almost nothing to do with school quality.
There is a principle at work: The more watertight our accountability metrics, the lower the level of academic demand in our schools. If we accept even slightly messy metrics., i.e., the exercise of human judgment in tandem with evidence, then we will open a path to excellent teaching and learning.
If we subjected gymnasts and divers to our accountability system, the Olympics would be a really boring 10 days as we watched world-class athletes at desks marking bubble sheets. In the end, we’d be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt who knows the fundamental rules of their sport. But nobody wants that. Instead, divers dive and expert judges use a combination of evidence and judgment guided by rubrics to rate performance. The scores vary, there are arguments, it’s messy. And divers astound us with incredible dives.
We need a system that supports great teaching, redesigned from the ground up. This is the reform that will improve outcomes for young people. And it all begins by asking our best teachers what they need to do their job.