On “Good Teaching”

Educators seem to view their practice as one of two evolutionary processes (here I am using evolution in the sense of change in a recognized direction). It is either:

  • Deteriorating from some ideal past practice. The ideal is usually what they experienced when they were a student. Every new technology or approach or change in curriculum is viewed as a change away from what students naturally need.
  • Progress towards some ideal. The ideal will be accomplished once the latest reform initiative is finally implemented.

Those who have been in the field for more than a few years, will point out that these two often happen in cycles. The same change is welcomed by one group as progress towards the ideal and rejected by another group as deterioration from best practices.

A more accurate perspective on teaching practices views changes as similar to adaptations in biology. Biologists recognize there is no “best practice” for organisms. Those individuals that thrive and leave more offspring are the one best adapted for the local environment. Move a very successful organisms to an environment to which they are not adapted, and they die.

Generations of educators have been working towards standards. Originally, they were promoted as “high-quality” for all, but it has become “the same” education for all. Generations of educators have also been taught there are some approaches to teaching that work for all students in all subjects.

The reality is that classrooms are very diverse local environments and the practices that “work” in one may be very inappropriate for others. The many factors that affect the local environment of the classroom include:

  • The curriculum—The subject for which the teacher is responsible affects the practices they should use. There are similarities between seemingly disparate courses, so the practices in art studios and chemistry labs where physical skills are part of the curriculum may be more similar than either is to philosophy where students read and discuss.
  • The students—The strategies we use when teaching student in the primary grades are different from those we use in graduate school. While this is ostensibly true, many educators know that some practices can be used for broad audiences, especially if the practices are grounded in nurturing positive relationships with students.
  • The goal—Students enroll in courses and programs for different purposes. Some are general education, some focus on specific topics, some are designed to train students to perform specific tasks.
  • The teacher—Educators are not technicians; they are not artists. They are craftspeople. They take existing materials, tools, and practices and design lessons that will lead to learning. Like all craftspeople, we have preferred methods that we have honed for our specific purposes.

All these factors (and we could add more) comprise diverse and variable environments. The approaches to education that work in one will not work in another (“work” here is ambiguous term as well); what works with a group on one day may not work on another. What works for one individual during a specific lesson many now work for another.

One of the most skilled educator I knew (she is enjoying her retirement) had jumped on every “teaching reading” bandwagon during her long career. She never abandoned any when it was inevitably replaced. She kept them all (yes, her classroom was filled). When she encountered a student who had difficulty reading (she taught first and second grades), she started trying the many programs she had. Eventually, she found one that worked. For this teacher, every student was a microenvironment and that adaptations needed to teach each varied.

She saw it as her job to find the combination of experiences that would lead that student to reading. If we all stopped complaining “the methods” are worse than we had before or are not as good as they could be and just worried about individuals and what they need, we would all be in a better place.