March 7, 2010

Parallel Sets of Knowledge

Like many of you, I spent a few minutes reading the New York Times article "Building a Better Teacher," by Elizabeth Green (March 2, 2010).

We all know that what we know is only part of the classroom experience, whether you teach kindergarten or freshmen in college. I wrote earlier about watching the series taught by Harvard's Professor Sandel and while I was interested in the content, I was also interested in watching how he pulled student comment out, used it to springboard onto other ideas, putting these ideas together, as my father, a long-time university professor, would say, in a "string of pearls."

So what makes a good teacher? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many of those who are participating in this challenge have got to be some of the good ones--those who have "parallel" sets of knowledge. That is, not only do we (I'm hoping to include myself in that set) know what it is that the students need to know (one set of knowledge), such as those items listed in a course outline or in an SLO, but we also know the language--the lingo--on how to bring our students to that knowledge.

Many teachers have one set. Or they have the other (think "classroom management skills," for example). But to have both is, according to current thinking, what takes a teacher from adequate to spectacular. And that is the challenge for us all. I often wonder why we flounder in the SLO swamp (can you tell I hate them?), trying to define and talk about and cram pedagogy down throats when some of us (especially we readers of Two Writing Teachers) have felt like there's something more. Something that's missing in that discussion of standards, learning objectives, etc.

From the article:
"Inspired by Ball [a teacher who has put together these two sets of knowledge in a system she's titled Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or MKT], other researchers have been busily excavating parallel sets of knowledge for other subject areas. A Stanford professor named Pam Grossman is now trying to articulate a similar body of knowledge for English teachers, discerning what kinds of questions to ask about literature and how to lead a group discussion about a book."

This has made me think about how well I combine the two in my own teaching. I know what I want them to know. But do I know how to describe it to my students? If I took last week's attempt to help them figure out how to write a thesis for an essay on a short novel we just read, I'd have to say in some areas I don't--especially if the looks on their faces were any indication. My mailbox is filling up with 'Is this what you mean?' sort of emails.

I do believe that some sort of struggling to gain mastery over a concept is okay. I just don't want to be the teacher who doesn't have the language to help her students gain that mastery.

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  1. The article was a good one for getting all who read it to think. I sent it to the staff in my school.
    I agree with you that knowing content is not enough. You have to know how to deliver it. I never thought about the two being parallel before but I am now! I have seen many brilliant people who know their content inside out, unable to teach.

  2. An old philosophy lecturer of mine used to look at my bemused and puzzled face and ask the question- 'Confused?' and I would answer 'Yes' and he would say, 'Good,because out of confusion you will seek an answer.'
    The fact that you are searching for answers is a most encouraging sign for your students.

  3. That "language" concept is most critical for those students on the "outside" of the culture and who can't access what needs to be accessed because they are left out of the conversation. I agree with you - as teachers, we need to not only know the language, but know it in a way that translates to our students.

  4. I am so in need of the true community of educators. Good to be here this month to share the slings and arrows. Deep thinking and powerful writing Elizabeth.

  5. I think that any teacher who takes the time to think about, evaluate and alter their teaching (content or methods) is probably a good one! I enjoyed reading your piece today...

  6. I've only skimmed the article, but it's boomarked and I'm looking forward to reading it soon.

    What makes a good teacher? I like the KASH Model: Knowledge, Attitude, Skills, and Habits. These characteristics often overlap and although some are definitely harder to teach than others, all are learnable.

    I'm loving your blog and SO glad that I found it through the challenge!

  7. Mastery in a subject doesn't equal quality instruction. That is constantly on my mind. Did the students understand my instruction? How can I make this comprehensible for my students?

    Thank you for a very insightful post today!

  8. Hi Elizabeth,

    Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

    I think learning is a transaction between the student, the material (or knowledge or skills), and the teacher. Our job is to create the conditions for the students to learn.

  9. Ironically, for the first time in my relatively short (9 years) teaching career, this year I started giving myself credit for being "good" at my work. I reflect and adjust constantly, I know the content I need to know, and when students push me further than that, we search together to gain more knowledge, I collaborate, I dig into my data, I communicate with my colleagues, my students, and my families... and yet, because I am new to my state, I am the one without a job for next fall... and then, because I have worked as a coach for the last year-and-a-half, I can honestly say, that the wrong teacher is being let go, burned out, and frustrated out of the profession because of the system that so often makes decisions while overlooking the center of our work... the students. I am so thankful for blogs like this, so that I can be reassured that I am not the alone in my quest for constantly becoming better, in spite of what the system might tell me I can get away with.

    Thanks for the post!