Can You Teach Teaching?

What distinguishes a great teacher from the ordinary has always been a mystery. How to improve teaching has also long been a thorny question.

Our universities claim to train teachers, but in reality many people find themselves overwhelmed by reality once inside a K-12 classroom. Nearly half of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting. Meanwhile, our schools still leave a lot to be desired.

One answer to all this, being pushed by education innovators, is to take teaching out of the theoretical realm and make the training a lot more hands-on. An article by Jonathan Schorr in the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review explains that the aim is to have more people “emerge not from universities, but from autonomous, typically nonprofit organizations” in which the locus of their training is the school building itself.

No one yet knows whether this new approach will translate into dramatic improvements in student performance or teacher retention, but Schorr is hopeful. “For our school systems, it would mean, for the first time, the ability to hire teachers on the basis of their demonstrated skill—from programs based on their record,” he writes. “For training programs, a feedback loop from the classroom would allow new understanding of what it means to teach well, and of how to help early-career teachers attain those skills.”

Teaching was a topic to which Peter Drucker returned often, in part because, without quite saying as much, he found it to be so complex and vexing. Drucker addressed himself to the subject at length in The Age of Discontinuity, published in 1968. “Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance,” he lamented. “In teaching we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach. Nobody seems to know, however, what it is the ‘naturals’ do that the rest of us do not do.”

Image credit: Marine Connan
Image credit: Marine Connan

Ultimately, Drucker felt that “better teachers” could not be created. Teacher-training institutes he considered to be of little use. “It is hard to see what the graduate of one of these institutions knows or can do that the 17-year-old high school girl of yesterday did not know or do when she started to teach elementary school in the rural Midwest,” Drucker wrote.

And yet, said Drucker, we do know more about learning than we used to know. Of particular importance: We know that learning is both behavioral and cognitive, drilling and thinking—and not just one. We know differences between smart and dumb may be narrowed by attention to different styles of learning. We know teachers spend a lot of time babysitting rather than teaching.

So, despite his skepticism of teaching teachers to teach—a practice he later dismissed as a product of wishful thinking by “Sophists”—Drucker still felt comfortable enough to predict that “teaching and learning are bound to undergo tremendous change in the next few decades,” and that by the turn of the 21st century “at least we should know enough to enable children to learn and teachers to teach.”

Whether we’ve gotten even close to that point is another matter.

What do you think? Can better teaching be taught—and, if so, is it the answer to what ails us in education?