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What Makes an Effective Teacher? Here are the Right and Wrong Roles

Bill Gates spent $45 million trying to find out what makes a school teacher effective — and failed.

Bill Gates spent$45 million trying to find out what makes a school teacher effective. I’ve studied his Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, and think it ignores a matter of fundamental importance.

Consider: What makes an effective lawyer, carpenter, baseball player, surgeon?

The answer is that it depends—depends on what they’re being asked to do. An effective divorce lawyer isn’t necessarily an effective criminal defense lawyer. A good framing carpenter isn’t necessarily a good finish carpenter. A good baseball catcher isn’t necessarily a good third baseman. A good heart surgeon isn’t necessarily a good hip-replacement surgeon.

Put lawyers, carpenters, baseball players, and surgeons in wrong roles, test them, and a likely conclusion will be that they’re not particularly effective. So it is with teachers. Put them in wrong roles, and they probably won’t be particularly effective.

Gates’ faith in test scores as indicators of effectiveness makes it clear that he buys the conventional wisdom that the teacher’s role is to “deliver information.” But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Here’s an American history teacher playing the “delivering information” role:

“What were the Puritans like? Many of the things they did—and didn’t do—grew out of their religion. For example, they thought that all people were basically evil, and that the only way to keep this evil under control was to follow God’s laws given in the Bible. Anyone who didn’t follow those laws would spend eternity in Hell.”

Later—a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks—it’s the learners’ turn to play their role. They take a test to show how much of the delivered information they remember. If it’s a lot, the teacher is labeled “effective.” If most of it has been forgotten, he or she is “ineffective.”

Let’s call this “Teacher Role X.”

Now, suppose the teacher doesn’t play that role—delivers no information at all about Puritan beliefs and values or anything else—instead says, “I’m handing you copies of several pages from The New England Primer , the little book the Puritans used to teach the alphabet. Get with your team, and for the next couple of days try to think like a little Puritan kid studying the pages. What do you think you’d grow up believing or feeling that’s like or not like your present beliefs and values?”

That’s it. The teacher may be an expert on Puritan worldview, but offers no opinion, just wanders around the room listening to kids argue their assumptions, defend their hypotheses, elaborate their theories and generalizations, getting ready to later make their case to the other teams.

Let’s call this “Teacher Role Y.”

Which teacher —the one delivering information (X), or the one requiring kids to construct information for themselves (Y)—is more effective?

Here’s Bill Gates, chief architect of the present education reform movement, giving his answer to that question: “ If you look at something like class sizes going from 22 to 27, and paying that teacher a third of the savings, and you make sure it’s the effective teachers you’re retaining, by any measure, you’re raising the quality of education.”

Clearly, when Gates says it’s just as easy to deliver information to 27 kids as it is to deliver it to 22, he’s taking the teacher-as-deliverer-of-information role for granted. Just by talking a little louder, Role X teachers can deliver information to the additional five students. Give them bullhorns, and they can deliver to 127. Give them television transmitters or the Internet, and class size is irrelevant. Salman Khan’s online math tutorials reach millions.

For Role Y teachers, however, every additional learner after the first makes the job harder. They’re trying to gauge the nature and quality of learners’ thought processes; assess depth of understanding; set and maintain a proper pace; decide whether to move on, go back, or go around a learning difficulty; determine learner attitudes toward and appreciation of the subject; trace the evolution of communication, collaboration, and other skills; and note honesty, tenacity, and other character traits that a good education is expected to develop.