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What Is Good Teaching?

Posted on Saturday, Jan 30th 2010

By Guest Author Joshua Fisher

How is the Internet changing the way you think? This is the Edge annual question for 2010—a question answered in various ways at Edge.org by a cadre of leading contributor-thinkers in fields such as neuroscience, philosophy, evolutionary biology, and computer science, among many others.

My favorite answer there, and one that I think obliquely addresses the subject of technology in education, was provided by author and researcher Clay Shirky, who wrote the following:

    This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages. So it falls to us to make sure that isn’t all that happens.

This reads like predictable, fearful snobbery in the face of what most of us call “progress”: telephones will make quality face-to-face interaction obsolete, e-mail and instant messaging will destroy quality writing, and the greater Internet, unchecked, will now melt away the “quality of public thought” and throw us back to the thirteenth century.

Yet, I think Shirky is right, in a way. Despite the past, present, and no doubt future, hyperbole peddled by those who stand to make a nickel or two off the Internet (and their ideological foes), inclusion is, thus far, the only fundamental social change it has brought. Yes, today you can chat with friends, collaborate on projects, read the news, play games, or share videos of your kids, all online. But you could do all that stuff offline before 1991. It’s just much easier and faster now. What’s different—what’s fundamentally different—is the size of your social space, and of course the size of everyone else’s. The Internet has made these spaces much, much bigger.

The same, I think, can be said for what counts as education technology today. There is nothing fundamentally different about the material produced by Apex Learning or K12 or Revolution Prep—or, for that matter, the material produced by Houghton Mifflin–Harcourt or Pearson or any of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of supplemental education publishers in the United States. Students who take advantage of the services these companies offer are still learning how to count, how to add, what a preposition is, and how to solve equations, and they are doing so in ways that are certainly not new. The fundamental change brought by publishers, dot-coms, and any other entities that provide education technology (let’s not forget that textbooks are technology also) is and has been greater inclusion, which primarily benefits students who are not being served by the status quo or those who are falling through the cracks.

Opportunity to Learn

Obviously, inclusion is nothing to sneer at. But I am in general agreement with Shirky that it is not enough. If all we ever get from education technology (or methodology) is the ability to reach more students with more problems, then it certainly is not enough.

Consider, for example, an important construct related to the idea of inclusion in education called opportunity to learn (OTL), which is pretty much what it sounds like, though there are countless ways it has been defined. The classic definition comes from (Husen, 1967), where OTL is described as “whether or not students have had the opportunity to study a particular topic or learn how to solve a particular type of problem presented by the test.” (1) Other, broader, and more recent definitions of OTL focus on specific academic opportunities only peripherally, if at all, and what one might describe as access factors more centrally—factors like student and teacher absenteeism, number of textbooks per child, teacher-to-student ratio, cleanliness and safety of school facilities, the number of books a child’s primary caregivers have at home, and of course, access to technology.

The problem with these definitions is that neither of them even hints at what is most important in education—quality instruction—and, to the extent that they do, they hint, only. The former definition, from Husen, outlines what I call an “exposure ethic”: we have done our jobs if we have exposed students to the appropriate material. And the latter set of definitions describes what might be called an “environment ethic”: we have done our jobs if we have made students’ environments optimal for learning.

But surely Corinne has a greater opportunity to learn when her teacher correctly defines multiplication as a fundamental operation rather than as repeated addition. (2) And Lisa certainly has a greater opportunity to learn when her teacher tries out a new algorithm to make calculating slope a little clearer. (3) And Ryan has a greater opportunity to learn when his teacher explains parallel lines before teaching him about parallelograms so that she can make the presentation more powerful. And Vicki has a greater opportunity to learn when her teacher wisely chooses to incorporate improper fractions into her introductory lessons rather than wait so that students will understand that they are not fundamentally different from proper fractions.

Yet these kinds of decisions are hardly ever discussed and are very rarely, if ever, actually made. (And those that even think to try to make them—both companies and classroom teachers—are often punished in advance by a customer base that is, through no fault of their own, generally poorly informed and risk-averse.)

What’s missing, then, from our “inclusion ethic” in education today are clear, specific, acceptable principles of instructional quality. The principles that motivated our hypothetical teachers’ decisions above (precision, clarity, order, and cohesion) are among a handful that interest me, but there are no doubt others—though not an infinite amount—that can be taken up also by content experts, curriculum professionals, classroom teachers, researchers, and many others—principles that we can all agree to and use to guide our present and future decision-making regarding instruction; principles we can employ in a better framework for debate.

1.  Husen, Torsten (1967). International Study of Achievement in Mathematics, a Comparison of Twelve Countries, Vol. 1. International Project for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

2. http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_09_08.html

3. http://rationalmathed.blogspot.com/2009/01/lisas-method-new-arrangement-for.html

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Persuasive but difficult politically and otherwise to implement, because quality of instruction is non-quantifiable and seemingly unrelated to issues like teacher compensation.

Todd Helmus Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8:30 AM PT

I write about using the law as an analogy here: (http://www.textsavvyblog.net/2009/07/precision-clarity-order-cohesion.html).

Joshua Fisher Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 10:19 AM PT