We’ve all had great teachers who opened new worlds, maybe even changed our lives. What made them so great? Everyone agrees that a great teacher can have an enormous impact. Yet we still don't know what, precisely, makes a teacher great. Is it a matter of natural-born charisma? Or does exceptional teaching require something more? Building a Better Teacher introduces a new generation of educators, exploring the intricate science underlying their art. A former principal studies the country’s star teachers and discovers a set of common techniques that help children pay attention. Two math teachers videotape a year of lessons and develop an approach that has nine-year-olds writing sophisticated mathematical proofs. A former high school teacher works with a top English instructor to pinpoint the key interactions a teacher must foster to initiate a rich classroom discussion. Through their stories, and the hilarious and heartbreaking theater that unfolds in the classroom every day, Elizabeth Green takes us on a journey into the heart of a profession that impacts every child in America.
“We romanticize teachers, and we vilify them, but we don't do much to help. This beautifully written, defiantly hopeful book points the way to a better future for American teachers and the children they teach.” (Paul Tough, bestselling author of How Children Succeed)
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You know the story of the blind men and the elephant: one feels the trunk and says it's a tree branch, another feels the ear and says it's a fan... Green seems strangely determined to cast the various reform movements in education in this spirit, as all essentially striving for the same thing, even as they differ in their particulars. Having listened to the book, I see this as fundamentally wrongheaded. Various reform agendas are clearly at odds, and for any one to be right, many of the others must be wrong. Ironically, good teaching confronts students' incorrect beliefs about a subject rather than trying to synthesize them into an incoherent whole (check out the classic teaching video "A Private Universe" if you haven't seen it). It may feel good to say we're all in this together and playing for the same team, but if that's not true, pretending it's so will only lead to muddled thinking and bad policy.
I'm guessing Green's credulity stems in large part from her proximity to her subjects. She's not a teacher or a social scientist, but a journalist, and the book has the feel of a string of irreconcilable magazine pieces, each about the latest fad or reformer, strung together. The splits probably come through more clearly in the print version, but from listening I'd pick out the following key ideas/sections: 1) the key to good teaching is to get inside your students' heads and understand what lead them to the wrong answers; 2) the key to good teaching is for teachers to observe one another and talk about tiny details of teaching (to me, this was the most compelling case in the book by far); 3) the key to good teaching is scalability/training since it's easy to improve one classroom or even school, but there's millions of teachers out there; 4) the key to good teaching is for "entrepreneurs" to bring business skills into the education sector; 5) relatedly, the key is to instill discipline in students (to me, these two points were by far the weakest, and Green presents plenty of evidence for their failure, but refuses to come out and say clearly that they're wrongheaded, again I think because she's too close to her subjects and found the education entrepreneurs so personable); 6) the key to good teaching is "rigor", although what this means is unclear--it's the missing element when discipline produces students who know their multiplication tables but still suck at math; 7) the key to good teaching is "infrastructure", i.e. providing resources (curriculum, test banks, etc.) to teachers, but this is tricky because it sounds like she's supporting the worst elements of test-based standards, which leads to a long and seemingly misplaced discussion of federalism in US education policy; 8) the key to good teaching is to love your students.
It's worth noting the few cross-cutting themes, and the ideas that Green does reject. While she makes frequent reference to studies by economists showing the value of good teachers, she argues strongly that teaching skill is not (always) innate, and thus that teachers shouldn't be dropped for bad results, but retrained instead. Perhaps, but surely there's some degree of aptitude, and willingness. She discusses, for example, how New Math failed in the classrooms of many well-intentioned teachers who simply didn't understand it. But surely there are also teachers who weren't/aren't well-intentioned, who will insist on doing things their way even if the research shows it's ineffective. What should we do with these teachers?
Ending the book with "all you need is love" really makes it clear that Green, after years of research, has no coherent thesis or plan for what needs to be done. That's fine, plenty of others have spent longer in the field and don't have all the answers either. But I would like to see her own up to this a little more, and be a bit more critical of the teaching professionals she profiles. This is probably the best book on teaching and education reform out there (the other obvious contender being "How Children Succeed") and it's a worthwhile listen. Just approach it with some criticality. You know, like you should have learned in school.