What is a good teacher today [part 1]

This is the first part of a 2-part post – there is a link to part 2 at the end of this post.

Teachers, we are told, make or break an education system. McKinsey, in its 2007 report How the World’s Best Performing Schools Come out on Top, told us that three things should matter most to any education system that wants to be up there with the best:

  1. Getting the right people to become teachers;
  2. Developing them into effective instructors;
  3. Ensuring the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

In other words, the best teachers combined with a highly effective and efficient education system offers the best chance of providing a great education for a country’s young people.

It is a conclusion that, on the face of it, is hard to argue with. However, as a statement of the obvious it begs so many questions, and depends on so many assumptions, that in the end it is rather meaningless unless we can surface as many of those implicit assumptions as possible.

As it stands, it is merely a hollow truism. Defining, for example, who are the ‘right people’ to bring into teaching is not without difficulty: the person best suited to teaching physics to senior high school students is not the same kind of person best suited to teaching the youngest primary school pupils to read. How do we determine those differences so that the best people are recruited into every part of the teaching force? What does it mean to be an effective instructor? The language would seem to suggest an approach that is highly teacher-led, as opposed, perhaps, to a teacher who seeks to facilitate learning by a range of means that go far beyond mere ‘instruction’. Was this McKinsey’s intent, or should the terminology be more loosely interpreted? Who defines what is ‘effective instruction’, however interpreted, and by what criteria is such effectiveness measured?

Questioning the terminology also leads me to ask how ‘best possible instruction’ is recognized and measured. At the macro level, should our evaluation of these assertions be based on, for instance, the bi-annual PISA analysis of the relative quality of national schools’ systems, or should other measures be used, and if so, which ones?

At classroom and school level, who determines what good teaching looks like, and who assesses teachers and schools? Is it enough to measure examination passes, or are there other equally valid, or indeed better, measures to employ? Should the social mix of a school’s intake be taken into account in such assessments? Is a national school system that produces large numbers of university-ready students but that also has a high drop-out rate amongst young people of school age more or less effective than a system that produces fewer such higher-education bound students but whose young people are demonstrably less pressured?

Questions such as these, and so many more besides, should give us pause for thought about what a ‘good teacher’ is, not least because our answer simply cannot be universally applicable, whatever artless formula the vote-hunting politician or the career-minded administrator might seek to promote. The attributes that make a teacher good at their job are culturally defined, can shift over time, and depend entirely on how any one society, or even a subset of a society, defines a good education. A ‘good’ teacher in the USA will share some but not all the attributes of a ‘good’ teacher in Finland, or in South Africa, or in Vietnam. The same is true even for different parts of any one education system. The ‘good’ teacher in an English public school (which, by the tortured logic of the English middle and upper classes means in fact a fee-paying private school) will similarly share some but probably not many of the attributes of a ‘good’ teacher in a large comprehensive secondary school in the same country.

We should even question the supposition that the ‘best’ schools necessarily have the ‘best’ teachers, since the definition of what makes a school a ‘good’ school is itself highly contentious. Some of the best schools in the eyes of politicians and parents, for instance, might well be producing the results that please those same parents and politicians, but that do not necessarily do what is best for students from the students’ own perspectives. Teachers in such schools might simply be those who are most willing to be compliant with articles of educational faith imposed from above or from without, and least willing to innovate, taks risks, and permit serendipitous learning in their classrooms.

In any case, what it means to be a good teacher today is undoubtedly shifting. The world is changing rapidly and so what it means to be educated in the modern world is correspondingly changing. In this shifting environment, therefore, I believe there are (at least) four critical issues that the teaching profession faces today – and how the nations of the world opt to deal with those issues in the next few years will go a long way to determining the nature and quality of education happening in their schools. Those issues are:

  • What does it mean to be a teacher today? What does it mean to teach?
  • How do we re-empower the teacher for the 21st century?
  • What are the implications of current shifts in our understanding of learning in the modern world for subject-disciplines as we have known them for many generations, and for deep knowledge in the teaching/learning processes?
  • How do we bring about large-scale change in teaching practice?

Go to Part 2…