Sunday, March 07, 2010

Parallel Sets of Knowledge

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

We teachers 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? The good ones--those who have "parallel" sets of knowledge 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, according to current thinking, is what takes a teacher from adequate to spectacular. And that is the challenge for us all. I often wonder why we teachers 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 have felt like there's something more. Something that's missing in that discussion of standards, learning objectives, etc.

From the NYTimes 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.

*SLO: Student Learning Objective. A sample is *here.*

1 comment:

Judy said...

Certainly HOW to teach is much more difficult than WHAT to teach for most of us. My mother, a master teacher, always said "A good teacher is born, not made." I don't completely agree with that, but I do think some teachers have an innate ability in the HOW to teach department.