Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Different Can The Best Teaching Look?

"Is teaching an art or a science?" 
Well, that's a muddled question. For one, "science" and "art" are terribly abstract terms, and it's not clear what we mean by them. So we ought to stop asking this question. Instead, I'd suggest a better formulation of that question is
"Does the best teaching always look the same?"
You can tell that this is getting closer to what we mean to ask since the answer to this question has real consequences. If all teaching looks the same, then we might be able to (1) discover the recipe and (2) prescribe it or at least attempt to (3) convince people to follow the recipe.

What we're talking about here is convergence. We're wondering whether all good teaching converges, whether it all ends up being congruent.

But this question isn't quite right either, because of course all great teaching won't look the same. It's not going to have the same homework collection routines, and sometimes it's going to be in Japanese and sometimes it's going to be in Spanish. It'll almost never be in English har har har har.

We're not actually wondering whether great teaching always looks the same. What we're really wondering is
"How different can the best teaching look?"
Does great teaching always have the same core? Are kids always learning how to multiply via the Whatever Method? Can you learn the same amount in a classroom regardless of whether homework is assigned? Is note-taking always helpful?

I don't know the answer to this question. You don't either. Nobody knows the answer to this question.

But here are a bunch of arguments in support of the answer, "The best teaching can look very different."

  • Technique A works great in my classroom. But kids in someone else's classroom find Technique A infantalizing and they aren't willing to give it a shot. It's an interesting theoretical question to ask, "If those kids were more like Michael's, would Technique A be most effective?" but ultimately a meaningless one. You can't abstract the kids out of teaching.
  • To make that last argument a bit more explicit: different kids will end up needing different teaching.
  • There are no agreed upon goals for a math class. Some people think that the purpose of math class is to prepare kids for a career that uses math. Some people think that the purpose of class is to help kids get through math class and into college. Others want to prepare kids for a life of asking and answering interesting questions. Before we can converge on a definition of the best teaching, we need to converge on a shared purpose for math class. That aint going to happen, so we can't expect any sort of convergence on what best teaching is.
  • Let's talk directly here: Can we expect better results if we give kids lots of chances to problem solve in class, rather than use class for lecture? I would say, maybe. Even probably. But I can imagine a uniquely inspiring lecturer, combined with some very hard-working students who are dutiful on their homework. They get help from parents when they need it. They come in with questions, and the whole thing is a productive endeavor. An extremely productive endeavor.
  • "But for most teachers, with most kids, lecture won't work." Well, fine. But that's not quite what we're talking about. Instead, that's a pivot to a different question, "What should we be telling teachers to do?"
Like I said, I don't know the answer to this question. But I suspect that things can look very different and still be operating at peak awesomeness for kids. 


In case you're curious, here's the bit of writing that sparked this post. It's from an interview with George Saunders.
First, let me say that all of the above is true for me – I have no idea that those ideas are more widely applicable. A writer has to figure out what works for him/her and sometimes that bag of tricks is just that: a small bag, full of specially developed tricks that, even as he/she pronounces them (as one is called upon to do when teaching, in interviews, etc) seem crazy or overspecialized or dictatorial. That said...
You can go read the rest here

The post was also inspired by this twitter conversation, so I know that Ilana Horn thinks that the answer is "not so very different."


  1. I agree entirely, there is no one size fits all method. Teaching is about finding the appropriate lesson for a class. My lessons can be very different with different classes, even if the topic is the same.

    I've written about this here: http://cavmaths.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/progress-til-theres-nothing-left-to-gain/

    And here:


  2. The second link doesn't look to have worked: here; http://cavmaths.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/observations-ofsted-and-the-trial-of-alfred-wegener/

  3. I think you're mostly right. I think that it's really valuable for teachers (that's us, not politicians/policy wonks/admin/etc who think they know better than teachers) to share what works for them and try to adopt what works, and every piece of common language and common knowledge that we create advances the profession. For instance, I've found that sending messages about a growth mindset has made a big flip in effort and knowledge in a bunch of my students. I have a few tools that have been successful, several of which come from the mathtwitterblogosphere, because I read similarly-minded teachers and use their ideas.
    I agree that great teaching is divergent, but emphasizing the places where it is divergent takes away from the value we all gain from sharing resources, practices, etc. Two pieces here:
    1. We should validate all different kinds of teaching, because teachers and students are different around the country and around the world, and include them in conversations to
    2. Share what works, why we think it works, and how we think we can make it even better.

    I'm rambling a bit. Basically I agree, but I think it's valuable and important to focus on what we have in common.