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February 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 5

Perspectives / What Your Master Teacher Knows

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School Culture
"Teaching is the most difficult profession of them all," educator Lee Shulman recently told a group of teachers and psychologists. The only time a physician comes close to doing what a teacher does is when the doctor faces an emergency room of multiple patients with multiple conditions, all of whom need immediate attention. That's what a teacher deals with every day in a class of 30, he noted.
Shulman described a few of the basics required of the expert teacher: cognitive understanding of how students learn; emotional preparation to relate to many students whose varied needs are not always evident; content knowledge from which to draw different ways to present a concept; and, finally, the ability to make teaching decisions quickly and act on them.
"And they are expected to do all this constantly, with a 20-minute break for lunch," he added.
In his book Why Don't Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2008), cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham also upholds the complexity of teaching, explaining that teaching must be an "act of persuasion" if teachers are to convince students that learning is worth the effort. Although principles from cognitive science such as "Know your students" sometimes sound like bubbe psychology—that is, commonsense wisdom that your grandmother has always known—that doesn't make these principles easy to master, he writes. Both learning and teaching require practice.
Willingham goes on to say that ignoring research-based principles of learning—for example, that "factual knowledge precedes skills" or that "proficiency requires practice"—can have negative effects on student learning. He also critiques many familiar principles that he regards as lacking a research base, for example, learning styles theory. "Knowledge of students' learning style is not necessary," he says. "Think of lesson content driving decisions about how to teach, not student differences."
This issue of Educational Leadership offers many hard-earned insights from leading educators and researchers about how effective teachers "meet students where they are."
Robyn Jackson (p. 6), author of the intriguing Never Work Harder Than Your Students (ASCD, 2009), proposes new vocabulary for what teachers need to understand about students. Students become more willing to acquire new knowledge and skills when their teacher acknowledges their currency, she explains. A student's currency might be recognition from classmates, a graceful way to redeem himself, or informality in the classroom. Robyn describes how various teachers recognize their students' currencies without undervaluing their own, such as a quiet, organized classroom or hard-working students.
In "One Kid at a Time," Carol Ann Tomlinson (p. 12) recalls the students who challenged her "certainties" about teaching and started her thinking about the principles that underlie differentiated instruction. Scott taught her how to connect with a student's interests. Golden taught her how important it is to allow a student to enter the curriculum at a place that makes sense for him. Geoff taught her how to give students permission to pursue their passions and work at their own pace. Figuring out how to make learning work for one student left her better prepared to address the needs of all.
In "Snapshots of Students' Misunderstandings," Marilyn Burns (p. 18) recommends probing student thinking in one-on-one interviews not only when their answers are wrong but also when they are right. All students need the experience of communicating how they reason, she writes, and all teachers need to learn how students think.
In her comprehensive analysis of effective interventions for Latino students, Patricia Gándara (p. 24) writes with the urgency of someone trying to avert a crisis. We must not only meet Latino students where they are but also provide them with opportunities they have never had before. Often, promising reforms—like early childhood education, college-going programs, and parenting programs—are discarded too early. She writes: "Our key to successfully meeting Latino students' needs is to conceptualize our efforts as a continuum of interventions rather than discrete interventions."
From reminding us not to take for granted what students know (p. 50) to reviewing the qualities of an effective grading system (p. 31), our authors take us far beyond slogans as they probe the complex art and science of teaching and learning. The more we know about how the mind works, the more we need to know. That's what we hope our students will learn, too.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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