Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What does effective teaching look like?

This coming weekend is Michigan Reading Association’s annual conference. Yes, I am a mathematics educator, but I always find this conference interesting. It’s probably because the presentations are outside of my expertise and require me to consider how to apply the ideas presented to my area of focus that I find it so engaging. I enjoy the challenge.

It was at this conference in 2008 that I heard Peter Johnston speak on his research on word choice. He described how using words like “good” and “bad” to describe readers is detrimental to their development of effective reading strategies. Attaching these descriptors to readers suggests that reading is an innate ability that some learners are good at and some are not. There is nothing they can do to improve whether they are “good” or “bad” – they are stuck in a fixed position.

Here’s where I apply my learning from Dr. Johnston. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding “good” and “bad” teachers. I cringe when I hear this because it sounds as though we are dealing with individuals possessing fixed abilities. Consequently, our only alternative is to replace “bad” teachers with “good” ones. There is no possibility for “bad” teachers to get better. This perspective results from word choice, however, and not from reality.

That is why I prefer to consider what effective teaching looks like. Effective teaching focuses on learning. Effective teaching uses formative assessment to evaluate learning, plan lessons, and inform instructional decisions. Effective teaching embraces a growth mindset toward teaching and learning.

When teachers struggle in using effective teaching strategies in their classrooms, it is not because they are “bad” or hopeless. It is usually because they lack adequate experience or support. These shortcomings can often be addressed through professional development programs such as Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Project.

Are there teachers who are resistant to seeking out support in order to become more effective? Certainly, but they are few in number and do not reflect the entire profession. Individuals maintaining a fixed mindset should be counseled to seek another profession. Effective teaching requires a willingness to grow. That’s why I will be attending this year’s MRA Conference – I still have plenty left to learn.

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