Sunday, October 16, 2005

Quantifying instruction

What is good teaching? Can it be quantified as educational researchers are trying to do. I, for one, am glad I am nowhere near a coding sheet and instead rely on observation, common sense and intuition.

Good teaching is far more than directly observable and measurable behavior. Good teachers possess traits and qualities that either cannot be quantified or are hard to quantify. I would even go so far as to claim that trying to quantity these traits and qualities is a case of scientism, which I idiosyncratically define as an attempt to quantify qualities that are ill-suited for quantification.

How, for example, do you go about quantifying an inspiring, radiating personality? How do you quantify a sense of humor, wit, a capability for empathy, a developed sensitivity to the zone of proximal development? How do you quantify imagination, creativity and a capacity to teach for understanding? How do you distinguish numerically between genuine and phony sentiment and what numbers would you assign to a story-telling capability?

I think education would be much better served if we approached the question of what makes a good teacher from a humanistic-philosophical perspective. But then, of course, we would first have to have a notion of desirable educational goals because "good" does not exist in a vacuum.


Jenny D. said...

Here's why I worry about what you wrote:

If it's true, then being a good teacher is like being a movie star. It's something you're born with, not something you can learn. It means that the chance of us educating a complete corps of competent teachers is probably nonexistent.

I might think of this way: Like surgeons, there are good ones and better ones. But all have been taught how to do surgery competently. It's just that some are better able to do the task under fire, or in complex circumstances, than others.

Anonymous said...

The danger here is trying to quantify what I would call the intangibles, like personal traits. That doesn't, however, stop us from quantifying things like subjects knowledge and teaching technique, both of which can, and should, be tested.

Anonymous said...


That's one of our words!

We used to always talk about scientism when Jimmy & Andrew were in an ABA program, where they were constantly taking data.

These days, of course, I wish people would take a bit more data...

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's not clear that surgeons are as uniformly good as we believe.

The New Yorker had an amazing article on the bell curve and physicians.

You can find the Q & A here

Anonymous said...

I just noticed that they have the entire article online:

The Bell Curve by Atul Gawande.

fyi, the Soxblog blogger had a lot of problems with the piece, but I'm not sure what they were.

EdWonk said...

This is what I think:

Good Teachers are born.

Good Teachers can be made.

The Greatest Teachers are those who are born with at least some talent and who work extra-hard to hone their teaching skills while always being willing to engage in self-assessment for the purpose of improving their Mastery Of The Craft.

Anonymous said...

I'm in agreement with the basic idea here -- much of what we identify as good teaching does not come from easily quantifiable phenomena. In fact it seems like the easier the phenomenon is to quantify, the less related it is to good teaching.

But I am with JennyD on this too. Some of the personality traits you mentioned don't correlate strongly with good teaching, either -- for example, the "radiating personality" and basically anything having to do with "sentiment". I've got an advisee right now, who is an A student but is flunking one of his easier classes precisely because the professor has a "radiating personality" that "radiates" so much that my advisee's quiet, shy demeanor is simply overwhelmed. There isn't a positive correlation between extroversion and teaching ability!

In general I think there's a real danger in trying to tie personality into the quality of the teaching, because it leads to the idea that a good teacher is someone who possesses a certain personality -- when in fact people of all stripes and personality styles can and do make good teachers. In other words, it becomes just another way to quantify.

NYC Educator said...

I agree with you completely.

I think that some people are better teachers than other, by simple virtue of the way they intereact with kids. Some things can certainly be taught. I don't see enthusiasm as an optional extra, though.