Inspiring teachers: born or made?

Inspiring teachers: born or made?

Inspiring teachers: born or made?

The characteristics of an inspiring teacher often belie description. Excellent teachers who spur students to seek further and probe deeper are both rare and differ on various intangible parameters. The meticulous Chemistry teacher who seeks exactitude in all measurements expects her students to provide succinct answers and be prompt in their submissions. On the other hand, the English teacher who delights in Shakespearean prose may be more absent-minded about the exact date he set for the test. More laidback and informal in his interactions, he, nevertheless, motivates his students to cultivate an appreciation of anaphora and alliterations.

Yet, despite apparent differences in their personalities and teaching styles, do excellent teachers share any commonalities? Is inspiring teaching an art that cannot be reduced to simple prescriptions or is excellent teaching a craft that can be honed and mastered with the right kind of mentoring? As research by educationists tends to favour the latter view, we too, in India, need to revamp teacher education to make it more relevant and meaningful.

In his book, Teach Like A Champion, educationist Doug Lemov argues that behind every great artist lies a set of skills that have been bettered and honed with years of practice. By observing master teachers, Doug was able to extract 49 “specific, concrete and actionable” techniques that can be used by all teachers. Of course, he does not advocate that all teachers embrace every technique listed in the book. But he encourages teachers to introspect on how they handle the specifics and the nitty-gritty of teaching to become a more effective.

Relevant observations
Great teaching, as Doug points out, is not simply about abstractions like holding lofty standards and respecting every student. Of course, all teachers should have high expectations of their students and hold every child in high regard. But the actual mechanics of teaching also make a significant difference to the quality of instruction that is delivered in a classroom.

As part of his research for the book, Doug observed master teachers in action, in actual classrooms. The teachers Doug observed were true masters as they were able to beat the odds stacked against their disadvantaged kids. Unfortunately, world over, poor kids typically attend poor schools that are manned by uninspiring teachers. On state and national assessments, poor kids are definitely at a disadvantage when they compete with their more privileged peers who attend schools with more talented teachers and have educated parents who provide their child with umpteen resources to succeed academically. But Doug’s teachers were able to motivate and inspire kids attending low-income schools to shine on state assessments, outperforming the state average and often excelling. So what did these teachers do differently?

In a technique he calls Double Plan, Doug says that it is imperative for teachers to plan for both what the teacher and the students will be doing for each part of the lesson. Good teachers also make their presence felt, both physically and intellectually, by walking around the room rather unpredictably, making sure that they can survey the entire class at most times, while engaging students.

Cold calling
Further, to maximise participation and to keep all students alert, experienced teachers ‘cold call’ by asking any student to answer a question, not just those who raise their hands. Of course, the teacher has to be clear that the purpose of cold calling is to keep all students tuned into the lesson. It should not be used to humiliate a student. Further, great teaching acknowledges that all students needn’t know all the answers all the time.

In fact, when a student does not know the answer, a teacher can use a technique called ‘No Opt Out’ to promote learning and confidence. For example, when Mrs Pai cold calls Asma and asks her the formula for hydrochloric acid, the student hems and haws. Mrs Pai then proceeds to ask another student to give the answer. After Vinay chimes in with the right answer, Mrs Pai goes back to Asma asking her to give the formula for hydrochloric acid. Using this technique, Mrs Pai conveys many important pedagogical lessons. First, she does not chastise a child for not knowing an answer.

Second, she conveys that ignorance can be remedied and that every child is capable of answering. 

James Stigler and James Hiebert argue in The Teaching Gap that teaching is indeed a cultural phenomenon. By comparing 231 video-taped lessons of eighth-grade Mathematics in classrooms across Germany, Japan and the United States, the researchers were “amazed at how much teaching varied across culture and how little it varied within cultures.” The authors posit that the cultural nature of teaching possibly explains why it is difficult to change entrenched practices. The emphasis in German classrooms is on “developing advanced procedures,” whereas in Japan, children engage in “structured problem solving.” In contrast, in the US, children learn a lot of Math terminology and practice procedures. Interestingly, Japanese students do remarkably well in international Math assessments.

On further examining teaching practices, the authors found that Jugyou Kenkyuu or lesson study is an integral aspect of Japanese school culture.  Teachers meet regularly to plan and anticipate almost every aspect of a prospective lesson including materials to be used, the kind of problems posed, potential stumbling blocks for students etc. Further, it is not uncommon for teachers to observe each other teaching and sharing feedback with the group on what is most effective. All this information is often recorded as a report, which is then shared with others. Thus, teachers have a vast body of practical knowledge from which to draw on.

In Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green profiles individuals in the US who have improved their teaching by studying their practice and honing it. The author argues that the ‘myth of the natural-born teacher’ discourages individuals who want to be good teachers but don’t necessarily know how. Further, it is unfair to put the onus of becoming an expert teacher on the teacher alone. Instead, we need to analyse best practices across schools and curricula and create a framework that spells out how a teacher can become better. After surveying educational practices in four countries, Amanda Ripley writes in The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got There, “There is no better way to prepare for teaching than to actually teach — and get meaningful feedback on how to improve.”

We, too, in India need to evolve more structured, practical and teacher-friendly training programmes that continue to help teachers refine their skills right through their careers. Only if we unleash the potential of all our teachers, can we do the same for the millions of children under their care.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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