A Better Idea for Improving Teaching

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One of the most common suggestions for making teaching better is patently absurd, counter-productive and dangerous. It is the one proposing studying, recording and analyzing excellent teaching so that it can be replicated.

Proposals to replicate excellent teaching are counter-productive and dangerous because they distract us from thinking about ways to improve teaching that will actually accomplish that goal.

That the replication proposal exists at all is testimony to the pervasiveness of industrial models of and ideas about education. Xeroxing excellent teaching is absurd because teachers are not assembly line robots that can be programmed to perform the same task the same way every time, precisely the way every other robot does it.

Teachers are not robots and educated students are not mass-produced uniform quality-controlled products. Teachers and students are human; whatever education occurs in a classroom is the result of human, not human-like, interactions. If you need proof of this, think of your favorite teacher.

Is your favorite teacher your favorite because of her teaching precision? Do you even remember particular lessons she taught? Or is what you remember fondly your interactions with her, or the way that teacher made you feel about yourself?

I could go on and on about my junior high school English teacher for two years,
Elizabeth Novad, who I credit for showing me my intelligence, helping me learn to think, to express myself clearly (despite the evidence before you) and to feel confident about having a different view of things than the current popular opinion.

Mrs. Novad was a very different teacher than any I had before or after her, but the way to better teaching is not by trying to get all teachers to do what she or any other great teacher does. In fact, I have absolutely no doubt that were Mrs,.Novad teaching today she would be vilified for half the stuff that she had the students in my class doing.

Lets ditch the industrial manufacturing model of schooling that assumes that while good things occasionally occur, for the most part teachers are incompetents who need to be scripted so they deliver identically excellent lessons.

Lets adopt the medical model instead.

The medical model assumes that doctors are competent people who are expected to capably assess patients and deliver specifically targeted treatments to improve the patients’ health.

Everyone agrees that doctors need the flexibility to make diagnoses, try treatments, and adjust or radically change the treatments if necessary to better ensure patient health.

Even though doctors are generally capable undesirable outcomes occur; the wrong medicine or dose might be prescribed, the wrong leg amputated or, in the worst case, someone dies.

When things go badly, instead of looking for the easiest person to blame for the failure there is an open-minded inquiry, in which all the patient’s doctors and others physicians participate, that examines all the factors that influence a patients outcome.

There is understanding that even with the administration of the best care available at the time, unexpected and undesirable outcomes occasionally occur. There is acknowledgment that each patient is unique person with their own quirks, physiologies and willingness to comply with medical advice, and that those patient individualities can sabotage even the most careful medical plan. There is also awareness that doctors are human, that humans are not perfect and sometimes make mistakes.

Because everyone involved realizes that identical symptoms might indicate a variety of medical needs, that not every condition can be treated with the same medicine or procedure, no one calls for analyzing good doctoring so that it can be replicated and every patient treated exactly the same way all the time.

No one makes rash or brash assumptions. Instead, there is a conscious reflective, inquiry-led effort to refine diagnostic techniques, to reconfigure error-prone procedures, to develop new medicines and methods and remove doctors who do not have the skills or knowledge to be effective.

In other words, the focus is not on finding good work and multiplying it, but on finding out what doesn’t work and eliminating it.

Isn’t that a better way to improve schools and help teachers become more effective.

11 Responses to A Better Idea for Improving Teaching

  1. Excellent post. I hear two points loud and clear. 1.Teaching is both an art AND a science. 2. Teachers are professional practitioners who need to apply a variety of best practices due to many variables!

  2. Hadass Eviatar says:

    Excellent post, as always, Deven. I really like your analogy with the medical profession, no matter what Gary thinks ;-). Of course, if teachers were also paid like physicians, there might be a lot less disrespect and people like Sarah Fine quitting.

  3. Michael J says:

    The vision and approach sounds just right to me. I particularly like “In other words, the focus is not on finding good work and multiplying it, but on finding out what doesn’t work and eliminating it.”

    But how many teachers have been trained in this approach? Can you point me to any Teaching Colleges that use this philosophy. My experience tells me that we are at a very early stage of making this a reality. If we look a the evolution of medicine from an art to an evidence based professional practice, my sense is that we are at the stage of barbers. I have faith that we don’t have to take as long as medicine. Given what we have already learned. Also among the personnel on the ground we have many experts whose instincts and passion have gotten them to a place that works.

    The task at hand is to make explicit what is implicit with the great teachers. It’s not so much about what they do. It’s more about why what they do works.

  4. Deven Black says:

    I don’t know that this approach is being taught in any teacher colleges, Michael, but it wouldn’t work even if it were being taught unless administrators, politicians, the media and others start to create an atmosphere in which this kind of dispassionate inquiry could occur. I see some signs of this kind of system in my school, but we haven’t yet made the time for this type of inquiry to occur on a regular basis.

  5. Michael J says:


    Maybe it would work if it started being used with drop outs. If results in attendance could be connected to that type of intervention, maybe the admins would notice it. The opportunity I think is that since so many people are watching attendance numbers and almost nothing works very consistently even a small successful intervention might get noticed and then supported.

    I try to keep top of mind how long it took Lister to get everyone to wash their hands. I think we can learn a lot from the history of medical improvements. When it finally hits the authorities in the field it’s usually had a long struggle of demonstrated improvement on the ground. Consider that only now are the benefits of low intervention and preventative medicine being taught at the prestigious medical schools.

  6. Ira Socol says:

    People who seek to maintain or increase the industrialization of education – those who favor “replicable practice,” “scripted instruction,” minimally trained teachers, etc, do so in order to preserve the socio-cultural status quo – preserving their own wealth and power (see Klein, Joel; Bloomberg, Michael). So it takes a revolutionary state of mind to take on these issues.

    I sat in a seminar a couple of years ago, surrounded by veteran Special Ed teachers, and I realized what you are saying here. These were great teachers, and they knew their students, and they often knew the solutions, but they were barely allowed to prescribe – to treat – to engage in that combination of art and science. Instead, they were being treated as unskilled assembly line workers. No wonder they and the students were frustrated.

    We treat teaching schizophrenically. We insist the school can somehow cure every ill in society – from poverty to obesity. Yet we treat teachers like crap, we claim that “anyone” can do it, and we refuse to give educational professionals actual power to transform.

    Then we sit around and complain about the failure.

  7. Michael J says:

    We agree. But again I need to ask. How many of our teachers are these practitioners of art and science. I have very limited experience in high school education. But what I’ve seen is about 15% of any population of teachers get it and do it.

    On the one side are the lifers in the sense of waiting for the days to pass until pension time. On the other are the kid evangelists. Wanting to change the world but then leaving after a few years.

    I’m suggesting that this is the situation in every school. But it is what I have seen in almost every school and most organizations I’ve seen. If this is as prevalent as I think it is it has to be faced squarely by teachers and the unions that represent them.

    To be clear, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just regular people earning a living within the constraints of the job.

  8. Todd Finley says:

    The first part of your post is excellent. All contexts are different. Therefore, you can’t mass-produce “good teachers” to improve/standardize teaching.

    The problem I have with the medical model is that the metaphor assumes a problem or disease. It’s about fixing, rather than enhancing. I would suggest an “art studio” as a more useful metaphor. Excellent post!

    • Deven Black says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not very familiar with art studios. Could you pleae explain how one works and how it would relate to education.

  9. Brad Woolley says:

    Deven, you have very ably and succinctly stated what I have believed for a long time. If the current model worked everyone would be competent teachers because we have be inundated with the best practice model for years; our evaluations are based on it; our funding is tied to it; and yet I continue to see truly outstanding teachers and mediocre teachers in-serviced the same, evaluated the same, and paid the same. Thanks for articulating what needs to be said over and over again.

  10. Michael J says:

    This morning I thought of something that might be helpful. Turns out there is a well developed discipline of project management.

    So the idea is that if project based learning works, couldn’t professional development that helped teachers learn the best practice of managing projects be useful?

    If you are interested you can find a post at my blog that has a link. http://bit.ly/Bucef

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