Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What makes a great science teacher?

Extensive research has shown that the number one factor influencing a student’s performance is the teacher. Great teachers can get students to grow on average a grade and half in one year while students in a weak teachers class may grow barely a half year. But what makes a great teacher? And for this blog, what makes a great a science teacher? Over my career I have read more and more on what makes a great teacher.

Coming from the classroom I thought that I had a handle on this. In my school we were encouraged to visit each others classrooms, I was a mentor teacher for our building, and a cooperating teacher for pre-service teachers. I enjoyed sharing my insights with others on what I thought made a good teacher. But the longer I was in the roles the more complex I realized the question really is. I thought I “knew” who the good teachers in my building were and who the “weaker” teachers were. But this was always a subjective analysis based on many factors such as did students from that teacher come prepared for my class, how did students talk about that teacher, how did admin treat that teacher, how those teachers behaved in staff meetings... But in reflection I had my biases and opinions of what made a great teacher, based a little on research, but mainly formed from my own anecdotal experiences.

You often hear teachers say “If you want to know what makes a great teacher, ask a teacher”. While there is some validity to this, not all teachers really know what makes a great teacher and all of them would have their own biases and anecdotal experiences. While asking teachers might be a good start to answering this question it is not the kind of sound scientific evidence that is really needed to inform policies, training programs, evaluations, and pay scales. Also, while a warm and gregarious personality might get a teacher’s colleagues and administration to like them and say great things about their teaching, if you don’t have a way of measuring the learning that is taking place in the class, how can really say if someone is a great teacher?

So what does science and research have to say about what makes a great science teacher? There seems to be two thoughts about great teachers. 1) They have an innate skill or ability that cannot be measured or taught. This to me is a depressing view because if great teaching is something that cannot be measured or taught, then there is nothing that can be done about weak teachers, other than convincing them to leave the profession. 2) Teaching is a science and with the right set of theoretical knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge anybody can teach.

As with most issue, the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes. In my career I have met first year teachers that I thought were great, right out of the gate and experienced teachers who I thought didn’t know how to teach despite their years doing it, as well as the reverse. I have witnessed new teachers who struggle their first couple of years grow to become incredible teachers and others that didn’t seem to grow at all. Recently the New York Times came out with an article Building a Better Teacher the article quotes Bill Gates as saying “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching” after a gates foundation initiative into what makes a great teacher. I disagree with this assessment.

Robert Marzano really got it right in his title The Art and Science of Teaching there is both an art and a science to it. If you take the insights of research from Marzano, along with the cognitive aspects of teaching from researchers such as Marcia Tate and Eric Jensen, sprinkle in the research that went into the “Classroom Instruction that Works” series, along with school district’s that have put research into what should go into a good teacher evaluation such as St Vrain Valley School District and Eagle County School District, a picture of what makes a great teacher starts to emerge.

To start with research shows the most important factor for a great science teacher is having a deep understanding of the content they are are going to teach. Dan Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer concluded in their 1996 study Evaluating the Effects of Teacher Degree Level on Education Performance “in mathematics and science, it is the teacher subject-specific knowledge that is the important factor in determining tenth-grade achievement.”

Beyond content knowledge what emerges from research is that good and great teachers engage students in a minds on way that goes far beyond just having manipulative and hands on experiences. Students in our best classrooms are following sets of strategies that engage the brain, many of which are described by Marzano in Classroom Instruction that Works and Tate in Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.

More than that research also shows great teachers ask themselves great questions about their students. One of the great contributions of the standards based teaching movement is the standards based teaching and learning cycle. In this cycle teachers are constantly asking the questions: What do students need to know, understand, and be able to do? How will we teach effectively to ensure that students learn? How we will know that students have learned? And what do we do when students don’t learn or reach proficiency before expectations?

The Building a Better Teacher article in the Times investigates Doug Lemov’s research into techniques of good teachers. Many of these techniques seem to stem from Marzano’s category of withitness. What makes Lemov’s research compelling to me is that withitness always seemed a little nebulous and Lemov’s taxonomy in Teach Like a Champion makes withitness something more concrete and something that can be taught.

In the coming weeks I will be expanding on this subject. Fortunately research is taking much of the mystery out of great teaching. While there will always be an art to teaching, science has much to tell us about what makes a great teacher, what techniques we should be looking for in doing teacher evaluation, and how to teach teachers to get better.