What’s good teaching? How do we recognize it? Are good teachers the ones whose students score highest on standardized tests? Or might they be the ones whose students learn to love learning? What about those whose students learn to be amazing problem solvers? No simple answers here. It reminded me of a response I used to give teacher preparation students under a variety of circumstances. I told them that many (maybe most) questions in education all have the same answer, “It depends.”
Recently I read a paper by Blazar and Pollard (2022) that examined some of these questions. They found all the complexity you might expect, and perhaps even more. They had a data set that is unusual in education, in that students were randomly assigned to teachers, which allowed them to examine questions from more perspectives than an average study in education. You can read the details in their paper, but the overall conclusion was that upper elementary teachers who were most successful in raising students’ math test scores, were less successful at engaging students in class—and vice versa. Teachers who were highly successful at engaging students in class were not as successful in raising test scores. Oh dear. What’s a teacher to do?
Fortunately, the researchers were able to find some teachers who were successful in both key dimensions, raising test scores and also helping students be happy and engaged in math class. What were their secrets? The patterns were complex, but two areas stood out. The teachers who were successful in both raising achievement and engaging students used active teaching strategies. That is, students in these classes often used hands on activities, small groups and/or centers to practice key concepts. They did not simply listen to the teacher talking, however expert those explanations might be.
Teachers of high achieving engaged classes also used routines and procedures to organize the classroom environment. They were proactive about management, teaching procedures in advance rather than reacting to problem situations. This makes sense to me. Routines and procedures are important in maintaining a positive and productive classroom atmosphere under any circumstances, but they are particularly important when students are working independently or in small groups. The skills of working independently aren’t automatic; they must be taught with as much care as any other academic skills (see Starko, 2022). And this balance of organization and active learning is supportive of inquiry, risk taking, and creativity, as well!
As in so much in teaching, it seems all about balance. We must plan ahead enough to have routines in place yet be flexible enough to spot unplanned teaching moments when they occur. We must be clear in our goals and explanations yet step back enough to allow students to experience and build concepts personally. It reminds me of the plate spinners I used to watch on the old Ed Sullivan show, wonders of speed, concentration, and balance. Anyone who thinks teaching is easy should take a look!
Blazar, David, and Cynthia Pollard. (2022). Challenges and Tradeoffs of “Good” Teaching: The Pursuit of
Multiple Educational Outcomes. (EdWorkingPaper: 22-591). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/ajht-4d94
Starko, A. J. (2022) Creativity in the classroom: Schools of curious delight. Routledge.