Letter to the Editor: What makes a good teacher?

To the editor:

Prof. Lucien Ellington’s refrain that kids taught by badly-trained teachers don’t learn their 3 Rs is as old as public education in the USA, yet neither he nor any others of his outlook have explained the coincidental rise in literacy rates since 1800. In some respects, literacy education defies what happens in schools because people learn to read through various channels and institutions, like the military, newspapers, churches, and workplaces. The normal schools themselves were a romantic revolution against untrained, part-time teachers who resorted to drill, recitation, and the beech switch. Early teacher academies Ellington is nostalgic over were devoted practitioners of student-centered instruction and whole-word literacy. By the 1890s, criticisms of such teaching, already satirized in Dickens’s Hard Times, reached a crescendo, and have a familiar ring. Joseph Mayer Rice’s expose, “The Public School System of the United States” (1893) described dozens of urban schools across the country, packed to the windows with kids reciting dull drill and practice routines offered by teachers who were steeped in the Oswego normal school’s Pestalozzian and Spencerian “object teaching”, which stressed hands-on training of the senses through examination and classification of everyday objects brought into the classroom. Kids learned all the scientific properties of salt, but had no idea what to do with it so, like Sherlock Holmes’s reaction to hearing Copernican theory, they proceeded to forget it.

Whether Dewey’s solution to these ills was right is worth debating, but let’s not romanticize a system that suffered from manifest failures stemming, in part, from its segregation from the content disciplines. Far more productive than venting at ed schools, which are not going away, is to follow the advice offered in a landmark series of articles in the 1980s by Lee Shulman, who recognized the fundamental problem caused by the physical separation of content from method—that neither having a PhD nor being steeped in the latest ed psych theories alone guarantees effective teaching. He argued that teaching requires “pedagogical content knowledge,” a special kind of expertise combining formal disciplinary training, appropriate knowledge of the educational capacities of the audience, and knowledge of successful practices built up by veteran educators. Good teachers never emerge from their training ready to create a generation of geniuses; like any craft, success comes from practice, and every teacher really learns the subject by teaching it. Programs like Sam Wineburg’s history education group at Stanford, plus the reclaiming of teacher education by disciplinary departments at places like Illinois State and Iowa State (former normal schools) are reintegrating discipline, theory, and practice. And many effective methods have germinated in, well, ed schools. A strong example is Neumann et al.’s field-tested authentic intellectual framework, which connects disciplinary knowledge, elaborated communication skills, assessments that connect work to daily experience, and lessons that include elements applicable outside the classroom. Students educated this way become smarter than Sherlock Holmes, because they would see the everyday value in astronomy that he didn’t.

Peter Knupfer
East Lansing, Michigan