US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to the National Education Association today, calling on its members to work with him toward the goal of ensuring that “every child in America is learning from an effective teacher—no matter what it takes.”
That’s a noble goal. In my view, it requires that educators shed their allegiance to theory and adopt effective teaching practices. That’s what it takes.
To be sure, there is a lot of emphasis on high-stakes testing. Mr. Duncan even discussed it as one of the four features of his plan for reforming education. The effective teacher idea is another of the four. High-stakes tests (which need reform of their own, in my view—that’s another post) are only part of the game. Another is using evidence to guide instruction.
But even in the absence of results on high-stakes tests and from pristine research projects, educators can ascertain whether they’re using effective methods. That is, we can devise our own means of ascertaining whether teaching practices are effective at a more micro level. In a lot of ways, the process is relatively simple:
- Identify goals and objectives in objectively measurable terms. How will we know if the students have learned X?
- Identify the skills and knowledge that students will need to demonstrate mastery of those goals and objectives. What is required to show that a student can competently and independently do X?
- Devise teaching algorithms for leading students to acquire the skills and knowledge identified in (ii).
- Model: Demonstrate the skills for the students or tell them the knowledge;
- Test: Have the students perform the skill or state the knowledge;
- Coach: Reinforce and correct their performance;
- Practice to mastery: Have them perform the skill or repeat the knowledge until they are facile with it and can do it under different, increasingly more challenging conditions.
- Assess students’ competence according to the goals and objectives specified in (i).
Sure, I’ve simplified it here. Sure, the goals and objectives would need to be integrated in a fashion consistent with an epistemology of various subject areas. And, you’ll have to cut me a little slack about my use of words such as “tell” and “correct”; telling would need to include providing materials to read, for example. But the idea is just about as simple as I’ve sketched it here.
The area of early reading has been mapped according to this perspective on teaching. We can say how we would recognize a competent reader (i), what the component skills are (ii), and how to teach those skills. But the to-be-learned material doesn’t have to be elementary level reading. If the area is chemistry and the objectives were conducting an experiment using electrophoresis, I think we could perform a similar analysis.
Of course, the real trick will be to get people on board with such thinking. Mr. Duncan seems to want to do something like that, but he’s talking about things at a much grander scale.
Remarks of Arne Duncan to the National Education Association—Partners in Reform