15 October 2016

Why students need experienced teachers

As a tutor, I observed a striking phenomenon: despite the pressure to boost students’ confidence levels, I noticed that the amount of confidence my students exhibited often had an inverse relationship to their amount of knowledge.

My highest scorers were moderately confident but also very aware of their weaknesses, whereas my persistently low scorers tended to overestimate their abilities, sometimes dramatically so. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right on the SAT was scoring in the high 300s-400s.)

As for students who started off lower and raised their scores significantly, they almost always experienced a watershed moment in which they realized that the test was actually hard and that they were going to have to put more in to get the results they wanted. As their knowledge increased and they were able to more effectively self-assess – that is, to more accurately recognize what they didn’t know – their confidence was shaken. But notably, their performance continued to improve.  

It turns out that all this is actually an established phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; and as I’ve come to realize, it applies to teaching as well. Regardless of how well novice teachers know their subject, they don’t know what they don’t know about teaching.

Novice teachers, for example, do not know what stumbling blocks their students will likely encounter. This is a particularly acute problem for people who are naturally good at a subject. Having never struggled themselves, they often do not realize how much knowledge they take for granted. Indeed, the Dunning-Kruger effect also accounts for the tendency of knowledgeable people to assume that tasks they find easy are also easy for other people.

Because most new teachers cannot anticipate where the difficulties will most probably arise, they cannot take steps to address those potential pitfalls as they teach. As a result, they may inadvertently confuse their students, or end up having to spend time backtracking to clear things up. In some cases, they might not even become aware of the misunderstandings until much later, if at all, because they consistently overestimate the amount of knowledge their students possess. If something seems evident to them, why wouldn’t it seem obvious to their students as well?

I’ve come to hesitate about using the word “efficiency” because I think it has a somewhat dangerous connotation in today’s educational climate – behaviorism and canned, scripted lessons, trained pigeons, and the like – but I nevertheless think there is something to be said for it.

Some basic things can genuinely be taught quickly and easily, and when that is the case, there is absolutely no reason to waste students’ time and energy overcomplicating them. The most experienced (good) teachers know how to get the point across by making things seem simple and intuitive; they’re secure enough that they don’t need to show off by making concepts seem more sophisticated than they actually are. 

However, when teachers are pressured to turn everything into a “high level critical thinking skill” – and to continually demonstrate to administrators that they are doing so – the result is that simple, straightforward concepts are presented tortuously, leaving students confused about the basics and unable to apply more genuinely sophisticated ideas in anything resembling a competent manner. (See: Common Core.)

I think these issues also hearken back to the false dichotomy between “rote learning” and “critical thinking.” As I’ve written about before, I think it’s more apt to think of these concepts as part of a spectrum. Despite all the rhetoric, I suspect that there are exceedingly few – if any – classrooms anywhere in the United States where students are simply required to memorize names and facts and formulas and dates without any consideration of their larger context.

The real question is not whether concepts are investigated in any depth, but rather what quality of depth they are investigated in, whether that type of depth is appropriate, and how effectively new information is linked to the rest of the curriculum.

Ideally, teachers should understand not only how what they are teaching builds on what students have done before, but also how it builds a further foundation for what students will be doing a year or two down the line. But in order to accomplish that, teachers must have a solid understanding of their subject as a whole, not just their own little piece of it. 

In addition, “high-level critical thinking” is not always the best goal initially; sometimes shallow thinking has to occur first. But it really depends. So much of teaching new information and concepts involves negotiating and re-negotiating just how much depth is appropriate for a student, or group of students, at a given time. What’s true today might not be the case a month or six months down the line.

I was unaware of how much time I spent walking that line myself until I started training tutors and inevitably found myself confronted with the question of how to know the amount of depth to go into, and when.

How do you tell when to give a student the “hard” version of a rule as opposed to the easier “trick” that will get them the right answer 80% of the time?

How do know you when it’s time for a student who’s learned the easier version to make the jump to the harder version? How do you know when going into depth is more likely to cause more problems than it solves?

When I thought about it, I realized that so much of what had become intuitive to me was the result of having worked with dozens of students; of having observed patterns in their thinking; of having learned which questions to ask in order to accurately gauge their level of understanding; and of having seen which types of students responded best to which types of approaches. As a result, there was really no way for me to lay it all out in a set of rules.

And that, I realized, is part of what makes good teaching so challenging. It’s the constant monitoring of whether what you’re saying is really getting across, and knowing how to adjust your approach if things aren’t working. Those are things that come only with experience. Indeed, they are things most teachers do not really even start to think about until what they’re doing doesn’t work.

The crux of the issue is that teaching is something that happens between people. It does not matter how many education courses one has taken or how much developmental or pedagogical theory one has studied. It does not even matter how well one knows one’s subject.

One of the most important parts of learning to teach involves developing the ability to perceive the distance between oneself and others, and learning how to bridge that gap. This demands the ability to stop taking one’s own knowledge as a norm or point of reference, and to try to adopt the perspective of someone who knows much less.

Teaching is not just a matter of explaining xyz, but also of recognizing what parts of x are likely to require clarification to a particular group of students, or what parts of y students may be missing some of the foundation for – and of learning to work those issues into the lessons themselves so that the misunderstandings don’t even have a chance to occur. That is what I mean by “efficiency.”

I confess that I was a terrible know-it-all about some things when I started tutoring. I had my strategies, and since they worked best for me (and were pretty much all I knew), I tried to foist them on everyone I tutored. Sometimes it worked spectacularly well, and other times it, well, didn’t.

After working with enough students, however, I started to loosen up. I realized is that I needed to meet people where they actually were instead of where I thought they should be. Some relatively high-scoring kids, for example, had a terrible time with “big picture” reading questions on the SAT. They simply could not consistently identify main ideas, usually because they lacked sufficient context to make the leap from the literal words to what the passages were actually saying.

The more I learned about how what is called “reading” works, the less doctrinaire I became. Once I really clued into the fact that a lot of reading problems are actually knowledge problems, I stopped trying to insist that kids use strategies that were too sophisticated for them at that point. Understanding that sometimes there was no way to translate formal skills into concrete knowledge was in a way liberating for me. If students had already improved so dramatically reading passages in sections and diligently marking line references, who was I to insist that they throw that strategy away and approach the passages in a manner better suited to adult readers? That really wasn’t fair to them. Instead, I started building on what they had, in ways that worked for them.

But it took me years get to that point. Years. And some of that time was after I had written an entire book about reading!

To be clear, I should point out that I am not implying every veteran teacher is superior to every novice teacher – I think most people remember at least one teacher who had taught for decades and still managed to be an absolute disaster.

I am, however, suggesting that between the best veteran teachers and the best novice teachers, the former will pretty much always outshine the latter, hands down. This goes for tutors, classroom teachers, and pretty much anyone else responsible for teaching anything to anyone.

As is common knowledge by now, however, classroom teachers are currently leaving their profession in droves. Despite an occasional halfhearted gesture such as merit pay (whose effectiveness has been thoroughly debunked), most of the discussions about education now center on how to “build” a better teacher – as if great teachers could simply be churned out according to a formula.

One of the biggest problems (among many) with this line of thinking is that it completely overlooks the role of experience itself in making good teachers. There is absolutely no way to speed up the professional maturation process. What you end up with is a group of overconfident twenty-something ed school grads who can spout buzzwords like there’s no tomorrow but are utterly incapable of imagining just what it is they don’t yet know. And if there’s no one left to school them in those things – if the novices are the ones in charge – then the result is a very sorry state of affairs indeed.

1 Response

  1. Thank you for the insightful article. I learned a lot, and I can tell that you truly take the time to ponder our jobs as tutors, applying a great deal of wisdom.

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