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Monday, March 08, 2010

"Building a Better Teacher" in the NYT

Even though "Building a Better Teacher" is focused on pre-collegiate teachers, I think there's a lot of advice that translates for law school profs as well.  The article focuses in part on the debate at education schools over their curriculum, and that debate sounded fairly familiar. 

Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. . . . A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently. . . . [A] 2006 report written by Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, the esteemed institution at Columbia University, assessed the state of teacher education this way: “Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.” By emphasizing broad theories of learning rather than the particular work of the teacher, methods classes and the rest of the future teacher’s coursework often become what the historian Diane Ravitch called “the contentless curriculum.”

The article comes down on the side of more "skills-based" training, personified by Doug Lemov, a one-time principal and now education consultant with Uncommon Schools.  Lemov has a new book coming out called "Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College," and the NYT article does a nice job in selling its core principles.  Among them are "Cold Call," described this way:

In Cold Call, [Technique] No. 22, stolen from Harvard Business School, which Lemov attended, the students don’t raise their hands — the teacher picks the one who will answer the question. Lemov’s favorite variety has the teacher ask the question first, and then say the student’s name, forcing every single student to do the work of figuring out an answer.

To illustrate cold-calling . . . , [Lemov] showed clips of four very different teachers: Mr. Rector, whose seventh graders stand up next to their chairs as he paces among them, lobbing increasingly difficult geometry problems; Ms. Lofthus, who leans back in a chair, supercasual, and smiles warmly when she surprises one second grader by calling on him twice in a row; Ms. Payne, whose kindergartners jump in their seats, clap and sing along when she introduces “in-di-vid-u-al tuu-urrns, listen for your na-aame”; and Ms. Driggs, a petite blonde with a high voice who calls the process “hot calling” and tells her fifth graders that the hardest part will be that they are not allowed to raise their hands.

Apparently, cold-calling has become fairly common in primary and secondary education.  Even the Socratic method appears to be in use.  Here's an example the article provides of an exemplary teacher:

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, an assistant professor who also taught math part time at an East Lansing elementary school . . . started her day by calling on a boy known to the researchers as Sean.

“I was just thinking about six,” Sean began. “I’m just thinking, it can be an odd number, too.” Ball did not shake her head no. Sean went on, speaking faster. “Cause there could be two, four, six, and two — three twos, that’d make six!”

“Uh-huh,” Ball said.

“And two threes,” Sean said, gaining steam. “It could be an odd and an even number. Both!”

He looked up at Ball, who was sitting in a chair among the students, wearing a black-and-red jumper and oversize eyeglasses. She continued not to contradict him, and he went on not making sense. Then Ball looked to the class. “Other people’s comments?” she asked calmly.

. . . Ball had a goal for that day’s lesson, and it was not to investigate the special properties of the number six. Yet by entertaining Sean’s odd idea, Ball was able to teach the class far more than if she had stuck to her lesson plan. By the end of the day, a girl from Nigeria had led the class in deriving precise definitions of even and odd; everyone — even Sean — had agreed that a number could not be both odd and even; and the class had coined a new, special type of number, one that happens to be the product of an odd number and two. They called them Sean numbers.

The article got me thinking that there's a lot more crossover between teaching math and teaching law than I expected.  Perhaps if we want law professors to be better teachers, maybe they need to study . . . teaching.  Any ed school folks out there with thoughts on this?

Posted by Matt Bodie on March 8, 2010 at 10:50 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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If we were to combine the Lemov and Hall approaches for law teachers, could we come up with a program like this?

(1) Content-based learning based on subject area (the Ball approach). Law school profs would have to demonstrate proficiency in the subjects they teach -- something like comps. So, if you're teaching Contracts, for example, you'd get instruction on "contracts knowledge for teaching."


(2) Skills-based training (the Lemov approach). Law professors would get instruction on the best techniques to use in teaching law, along the lines of what Lemov talks about in his 49 techniques.

It seems to me you could combine these two facets into a one-year program for aspiring law professors that would make law profs much more prepared for their teaching. And you could create CLE-type programs for experienced profs as well. Does this make sense? Or is the audience (law profs) and the potential payoff (some amount of teaching improvement) too small to make a program like this possible?

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Mar 8, 2010 5:07:56 PM

As a person with a JD and PhD in Ed Policy who currently teaches in an ed school, I have a couple immediate responses to this:

First, traditional ed school curricula and classes are really quite bad at preparing future teachers. There's little empirical basis for much of what we do (much like in law schools). The example with Deborah Ball (the teacher in the article) is an interesting one but very atypical. I know her and her work, and my wife has worked closely with her (fyi Dr. Ball is now a full prof. and the dean of the ed school at University of Michigan).

Second, even if we consider this type of atypical work to be an example that we should follow in law schools, we still run into serious problems. Good teaching looks differently depending on the kind of content at play. I'm not just talking here about the difference between math and law (though, there certainly are important differences). I'm talking more about the knowledge needed to be a good teacher vs. the knowledge needed to be a good lawyer. At least one important hallmark of being a lawyer (and being a professional in general) is being able to take abstract knowledge and apply it flexibly in a range of different and often novel cases. IMO teaching is more of a weirdly situated quasi-profession. While teachers do engage in this sort of activity to a certain extent, it's generally not to the same level or in the same way as lawyers.

That said, there are many ways that reformers are trying to professionalize teaching, and focusing on this type of knowledge is one of them. Deborah Ball has done much for developing the concept of "math knowledge for teaching" and using it to guide teacher ed classes. The concept is complicated and steeped in both the research and politics of the field, but part of it involves a deep knowledge of math and pushing students to provide evidence for their mathematical claims. Still, I'd be hard pressed to say that this strange amalgamation of content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge rises to the professional knowledge of a lawyer.

All of this is to say that I'm not sure there's much to borrow from ed schools along pedagogical lines. I tend to use the omnipresent "modified Socratic method" in my ed school classes, and students generally react favorably to it (perhaps because they see so little of this kind of teaching, and often aren't sufficiently focused on argument and evidence in other classes).

What I think we really need in law schools is an honest assessment of the knowledge and skills particularly needed to be a good lawyer and an openness to conducting research on different methods of teaching to support the appropriate kind of legal learning. This requires serious funding, psychometricians, program evaluators, and ultimately a willingness to change and experiment with classroom techniques (which have proven pretty resistant to change for a variety of reasons in the K-12 setting). But if we're serious about making better lawyers and law schools for the changing times, it's worth it in the end.

Posted by: Ben S. | Mar 8, 2010 4:44:23 PM

Matt, thanks for flagging this really well-done, interesting article. I don't think the carry-over to law teaching works though. To be sure, actually training law profs to teach would be a great idea -- if we cared about teaching. But let's get real: we don't. After all, where would the time and effort for actually learning to teach law students come from? From scholarly time and effort? Think again.

Teaching defies quantification and assessing it is, at best, resource intensive. Teaching doesn't sell, and law schools are caught in a big, competitive marketing game, to please their U.S. News masters. To be sure, good teaching is lovely if you can do it effortlessly, and many law profs I know feel better about themselves if they're good teachers. But it's by no means a priority, and is probably contrary to one's best interest. Good teaching is not something that will get you, say, a lateral offer (and bad or lazy teaching in my experience won't prevent you from getting one). No matter: the students will get what they need in bar review anyway.

Posted by: Cynical | Mar 8, 2010 2:21:48 PM

Wait, you mean we're not going to learn how to teach by osmosis?

Leading a good discussion is really hard, and takes a lot of time to prepare. The most difficult part, for me anyway, is doing what the teacher does in the last excerpt, having a free-form discussion that nevertheless produces some clear answers. I've benefited from reading about some good techniques 20 or so years ago -- when I was a history T.A. -- but I've been meaning for a while now to go in search of some materials for a refresher course/new ideas. Or maybe I'll just read this article, thanks Matt.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 8, 2010 12:16:03 PM

Matt -

Thanks for posting this. I think it's pretty clear (at least via my second-hand information from my ed school spouse) that teacher training programs can be improved in a lot of ways. But what strikes me about this article, and about the discussion regarding teacher training, is how similar the tension is between "theory" and "practice". My view in the practical aspect is the same as it is in law school - practical skills are great, but the students have to know the purpose for which they're using the skills. In the teacher training context, some teaching methods work better to teach certain things, so the practical skills need to be directed towards a goal. That goal has to come from theory/empirical study, and the prospective teachers need to know why they're doing what they're trained to do. That's the only way they'll be able to adapt when some new theory comes along.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | Mar 8, 2010 11:26:51 AM

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