What is “good” teaching? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. Hollywood appreciates teachers who believe in their students and help them achieve their dreams. Influential education economist Eric Hanuszek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that good teachers improve the performance of their students. Teachers are expected to teach many things, from how to study and take notes, to how to share and take turns. Deciding what constitutes good teaching is a messy business.
Two researchers from the University of Maryland and Harvard University got into this mess. They analyzed 53 elementary school teachers who were randomly assigned to classrooms in their schools located in four different areas along the East Coast. Focusing on math learning, the researchers compared the students’ math scores to questionnaires that fourth- and fifth-grade students completed as part of the experiment. Students were asked to rate their math class in the same way that consumers fill out customer satisfaction surveys: “This math class is a happy place for me.” “I feel sad or angry in this math lesson;” “What we have done this year is very interesting”; “Thanks to this teacher, I am learning to love mathematics”; and “I like math lessons this year.”
Academics have found that there is often a trade-off between “good teaching” when children learn and “good teaching” that children enjoy. Teachers who were able to raise test scores tended to get lower student grades. Teachers with excellent student evaluations tended not to increase test scores.
“Teachers and teaching methods that can increase test scores are often not the same as those that improve student engagement,” said David Blazar, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Maryland. College Park.
Blazer Research, “Challenges and trade-offs of “good” teaching: The pursuit of multiple educational outcomes,” was co-authored with Cynthia Pollard, a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. It was publicly released in June 2022 as a working paper by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
It is difficult to understand exactly why there is a trade-off between student achievement and engagement. One theory is that drill-and-pound learning can be effective at helping students do well on tests, but make the class terribly boring. The researchers looked at hours of video recordings of these teachers’ classroom lessons, but they found no statistical evidence that teachers who spent more time preparing for the test produced higher test scores. The high performance did not appear to be due to rote memorization.
Instead, teachers who taught more cognitively challenging lessons, going beyond procedural computation to complex understanding, tended to produce higher math scores. The researchers acknowledged that it is “concerning” that the kind of cognitively demanding instruction we want to see “may simultaneously lead to reduced student engagement.”
Other researchers and educators have noted that teaching is hard work. It is often frustrating for students to make mistakes and try to figure things out. This can be frustrating at times when students are learning the most.
It was rare, but the researchers managed to find six teachers among 53 teachers who could teach both well at the same time. Teachers who included lots of hands-on, hands-on activities got high marks from students and increased test scores. These teachers often had students work together in pairs or groups using tactile objects to solve problems or play games. For example, one teacher asked students to use egg cartons and counters to find equivalent fractions.
These doubly “good” teachers had another thing in common: they maintained order in classrooms filled with routine. Although strict discipline and punishment of children for misbehavior have fallen out of fashion, the researchers observed that these teachers actively set clear rules for behavior at the beginning of each class. “Teachers appeared to be quite thoughtful and proficient in using procedures to maintain efficiency and order in the classroom,” the researchers wrote. “The time teachers spent on student behavior usually involved brief diversions that did not interrupt the flow of the lesson.”
These teachers also had a good sense of pacing and an understanding of children’s attention spans. Some used timers. One teacher measured time with songs. “Teachers seemed to be intentional about the amount of time spent on the activity,” the researchers noted.
Given that getting students interested and motivated to learn math isn’t easy or common, Blazar was interested in learning which teachers are ultimately better for students in the long run. This experiment actually took place ten years ago, in 2012, and the students were followed after that. Blazer is currently looking at how those students fared five and six years later. In his preliminary calculations, he found that students whose elementary school teachers were more attractive later had higher math and reading scores and fewer middle school failures. Students whose teachers were more effective at boosting academic achievement also generally did better in high school, but the long-term benefits faded somewhat. While we all want kids to learn multiplication and division, it may be that engaging instruction is ultimately more rewarding.
Researchers like Blazar dream of developing a “science of teaching” so that schools of education and school coaches can better prepare teachers to teach well. But first we need to agree what we want teachers to do and what we want students to achieve.
This story is about good teaching was written by Jill Barsha and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to Hechinger Newsletter.