The Search For An Educational Holy Grail

The Search For An Educational Holy Grail

What is good teaching? Who is a good teacher? The search for the answers to these questions has become for teacher education a search for an educational Holy Grail. While appearing to be deceptively simple and seductively straightforward, these questions have instigated an enduring and ever-multiplying research tradition as well as a many sided international conversation involving practitioners, theorists, social scientists, teacher educators and faculty developers at all levels, administrators, and students. The answers, from what we can tell, remain elusive. For teacher educators and faculty developers especially, the questions have been of paramount importance. Such importance rests, it must be assumed, on the presumption that when we know the answers to these questions, all else will become clear.

The primary methodology used in research on teaching has followed the process-product paradigm. In this approach, researchers attempt to determine what relationship exists between teacher behaviors (process) and student achievement (product). The promise of this approach, based on behaviorist psychology, was seen to be the identification of knowable/learnable discrete teacher behaviors which would produce better student learning.

Student achievement is positively related to:

–    the quantity and pacing of instruction;

–    the opportunity to learn/ the content covered;

–   emphasis by the teacher on academic instruction as a major part of his/her own role, expectations of mastery for students, and allocation of time to curricular activities;

–   certain classroom management techniques such as creating engaged time, good preparation, “withitness”, smooth pacing, consistent accountability, and clarity about how to get help;

–    appropriate level of difficulty for the instruction, continuous progress at a high success rate, effective diagnosis of learning needs and prescription of learning activities, monitoring of progress and continuous practice, and integrating new learning with prior learning;

–    when giving information, structure the material to help facilitate memory and understanding of each part as related to a coherent whole;

–    some redundancy and review of material is helpful, as is a sequential structure;

–    clarity of presentation;

–    enthusiasm;

–    ask questions that elicit correct answers 75% of the time;

–    make sure questions are clear;

–    use wait time (3 seconds or more) after questions;

–    acknowledge correct responses with overt feedback; note wrong answers clearly.

A statistical tabulation of the conclusions of the reviews shows substantial and statistically significant agreement that five broad teaching constructs – cognitive stimulation, motivational incentives, pupil engagement in learning, reinforcement, and management and classroom climate – are positively associated with student learning outcomes.

Putting together ideas from a number of sources, we have developed a list of six fundamental instructional “functions” which appear below:

–    Review, check previous day’s work

–    Present new content/skills

–    Guided student practice

–    Feedback and correctives

–    Independent student practice

–    Weekly and monthly reviews.

A significant consideration in all manner of inquiry into teaching has been the influence of context. This consideration, given more or less prominence depending on the particular paradigm and on particular researchers, has “muddied” from the beginning the hope that teacher behaviors affecting student learning and accomplishment could be simply and uncomplicatedly defined.

The recognition of such a relativity exists to varying degrees in most research paradigms and has been viewed in a variety of ways. One of the least complex fits within the educational psychology tradition and is termed “attribute-treatment interactions” (ATI). Examples of research in this area include the study of differential effects of a particular approach with high ability vs. low ability students, different effects depending on teaching and reaming style differences and strengths, and different effects of a particular type of instruction for students with varying degrees of prior knowledge.

In contrast, some research traditions have recognized context as the primary object of concern. Thus, the classroom ecology approach sees the social and cultural context of the classroom as most influential and uses that “lens” in its inquiries into teaching and teaming. The implied and direct criticism of other approaches lies in the “decontextualization” of their inquiries and the lack of recognition of these primary influences.

Two new perspectives not only add to the conversation about teaching but also challenge the basic assumption of teacher-student roles. Although the research programs mentioned reflect important shifts in the characterization of variables and in the modes of inquiry, they often appear to have left out the close examination of assumptions about the basic teacher-student role paradigm. While they have quite different ancestry, in almost every way, the streams of feminist pedagogy and total quality management bring this role relationship into question as a central issue in their respective visions.

The concern of feminist perspectives and other influences which have worked to increase diversity and to moderate the white western male dominance in the curriculum has been widely discussed of late. Debates over “the canon”, “political correctness”, and the degree to which our education programs should be “multicultural” or “Afrocentric” or “Eurocentric”, etc. have raged across all levels of the education system in the U.S. Somewhat less notorious has been the concomitant struggle to reform traditional teaching in behalf of what has often been called feminist pedagogy. At the heart of this classroom-based focus is the issue of power and the way power has historically been used (both consciously and unconsciously) by teachers and privileged groups of students, e.g. white males, to perpetuate racist, sexist, and class-biased inequities in the classroom. Feminist pedagogy seeks to change the degree to which teachers, and their conventional approach to teaching, continue to discriminate and to silence certain voices while elevating the advantage of others.

The fervor with which U.S. business has recently embraced the principles and practices of total quality management (TQM) is sometimes astounding – especially in light of its historical rejection by U.S. interests, its embrace and success in Japan, and its newfound, almost religious devotion upon its return trip to the West. Many of the management principles appear to contradict conventional U.S. business practice, particularly in regard to hierarchical top-down decision making and quality control models. Nevertheless, the current acceptance of such contradictory notions is understandable in that these are the notions the Japanese used to wrest business supremacy from the U.S. over the last two decades.

Among the foremost principles of TQM is teamwork, the collaborative effort of all employees to reach common goals. Management’s job is to support the workers and to make them successful in their roles, not to inspect and oversee them from above. Applied to the classroom, this approach has fascinating implications. Rather than assuming all the planning, implementing, and evaluating roles for the students under his or her “tutelage”, the teacher may be seen as a partner in a collaborative (learning) venture.

The relationship change alluded to above is extended into new levels in the case of the Student Management Team. In this approach, a teacher identifies a volunteer team of students from a class to work with her/him during the term to improve the quality of the teaching and learning experience they are sharing. Thus, students and teachers work together in person to understand jointly the dynamics of their shared classroom, to collect data on the quality of the experience, and to define steps which will aid in the continuous improvement of that experience.

The importance of context to the original questions of this paper, i.e., “what is good teaching?” and “who is a good teacher?”, is extraordinary. By qualifying all “answers” and all relevant conceptions, the reality of contextual influences requires at the least a cautious response.

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.


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