Should we aim for better teachers or for better teaching?

When you read the title of this blog post, you may have wondered what’s the difference. Well, one could argue it’s the difference between Japan and the US as described in this new article by James Hiebert and James W. Stigler published in Educational Researcher (H/T Dan Willingham). The authors describe teaching as a system, and the teacher is only one component of the system. The authors than argue that improving systems requires a different approach than improving individual. And while the US aims at improving the individual, Japan aims at improving the system. But what is best? Read this excerpt from the conclusion of this comparative study:

The distinction between teachers and teaching is not new with us (see Bell et al., 2012; Cohen, 2010; Hiebert & Morris, 2012; Kennedy, 2006, 2010). The particular contribution of this article was to examine the different systems for improving teaching that emanate from this distinction. In our view, the distinction does not just offer two different views of the classroom but rather is at the heart of a constellation of interacting and reinforcing features that create entire systems of teaching improvement.

What can U.S. educators learn from systems, like Japanese lesson study, that enable the continuous improvement of teaching? First, simply discovering a better way to teach to a particular learning goal does not ensure improvements in teaching. It is necessary, also, to create a system that can spread the method so it becomes common practice. Second, improving teaching at scale is difficult work that takes years, not months. Third, in our opinion, key elements of the context of education in the United States (learning goals, curricula, assessments, and professional development) actually work against large-scale and continuous improvement of teaching.

Is it possible for the United States to develop a system for improving teaching? It would require a cultural change to do so, and changing cultural activities is difficult. Cultural activities change only if all people affected by the change want it to happen. This means teachers, school district leaders, school boards, parents, and state departments of education would all need to work together to change features that support improvement, including the four identified here. The United States also would need to rid itself of its addiction to quick fixes. Improving teaching on a large scale requires years of continuous, hard work. Payoffs do not come immediately. But, the reward is that when they do come, they last.

I have to chew on this one a bit more, my first thoughts are that you need to improve both the teachers and the teaching, still… do you need to make a choice? In our own institute we aim at doing both. Improving the teachers but also making sure that the team in itself improves making it possible to have better teaching conditions.

Abstract of the study:

We examine the distinction between teaching and teachers as it relates to instructional improvement. Drawing from work outside of education on improvement systems and from analyzing the Japanese system of lesson study, we contend that a focus on teaching can shape a coordinated system for improvement whereas a focus on teachers, common in the United States, leads to elements that are uncoordinated and often work against the continuous, steady improvement of classroom teaching. We propose that the concept of systems for improvement and its instantiation in Japanese K–8 education offer opportunities to reexamine U.S. efforts to improve teaching and shift these efforts toward a more promising direction.

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