Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Reading: "Building A Better Teacher"

I heard Elizabeth Green speak about her book, Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), on an episode of American Radio Works this past fall, and she's been on my reading list ever since. While I was expecting the book to be a methodical description of what the research says about effective teaching, it turned out to be more of a comprehensive, historical look at our nation's thinking about teaching. Not that this was a bad thing. I learned a lot about the complexities of "good teaching" and why it's difficult to write a book that's a methodical description of effective teaching.

My first surprise was that researchers in the U.S. haven't been studying the "science of teaching" for very long. Green takes the reader through a history of this research, essentially starting with an educator named Nathaniel Gage. Gage was a professor at the University of Illinois and one of the first to employ experimentation as a tool to study teaching. Eventually, Green moves forward in history, through various researchers, until she reaches a Michigan teacher: Deborah Loewenberg Ball (currently the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan). Much of the book, in one way or another, is connected to Deborah and the style of teaching she developed for math classrooms. At the risk over-simplifying the methodology, Green describes the following differences in Loewenberg Ball's teaching:

  • Begin a lesson with a question to spur student curiosity and discussion (instead of direct instruction by the teacher).
  • Allow student discourse to drive the teaching and learning of the lesson (instead of pre-determined teacher questions and time commitments).
  • Plan for teaching a few big ideas in greater depth (instead of many topics superficially).
These ideas were further validated for Loewenberg Ball by a visit to Japan, where she was able to observe typical math classes in session. Green also writes quite a bit about the Japanese practice of lesson study and attempts in Michigan to model the process. Although many educators saw the value in Loewenberg Ball's methods, it was challenging to scale the system.

There are a few chapters in the book that discuss charter schools, such as the KIPP and Uncommon Schools networks. These schools typically focus on prescriptive teaching methods to raise test scores for struggling students. While they have had some success on standardized tests, Green describes questions within these communities about the depth of learning for their students, at which point she circles back to Loewenberg Ball's work.

Although this book does not encompass all the research on teaching that has taken place, it was a good introduction for me. I liked the historical lens, as it made Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching.  It was Loewenberg Ball's teaching philosophy that resonated with me the most. Even though she is focused on math instruction, many of her methods transfer well to science. Tools for Ambitious Science, in my opinion, applies Loewenberg Ball's work to science instruction.
trends in our national impressions about teaching more evident. Also, because of this book, I stumbled upon a terrific website for science teaching:

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