20 January 2016

Are good teachers ‘born’ or ‘made’?

There’s a strong argument for “made” from Elizabeth Green.

"Russ: But there is a view out there, and you talk about it at some length in the book, that some people believe great teachers are just born and not made. And that there is a certain 'it' quality that teachers have that make them more effective in the classroom in all kinds of dimensions. What do you think of that argument, and why is it an important argument in the debate? 

 I think that that argument is embedded in the way we talk about education policy, teacher policy. We say, there are good teachers and then there are bad teachers, and then what we need to do is either find more of the good teachers, people who are destined to become good, by doing a better job of recruiting good teachers. Or, we need to incentivize good teachers to stay, or we need to create better, easier, more effective ways to remove bad teachers from the classroom. And I think that what that construct is built on is, as you say, this assumption that teaching quality is something that's natural born in people--that it's about personality traits or character traits. But in fact every research study that's tried to connect character traits and personality traits to who becomes an effective teacher fails to find that any of them make any difference. So, an extrovert or an introvert doesn't matter for how effective you'll be in the classroom. So, I think that what instead is more convincing to me for what matters is what teachers do, and what they know. And that's very different from a natural born trait, something that you need to learn. 

 So, we're going to talk about Doug Lemov, who was a guest here on EconTalk. He plays a large role in your book. But one of the things he emphasizes, of course, is practice. So, one view says the reason we don't have better teachers is they don't practice. What do you think of that argument? 

 Yeah. So, Doug is obviously, for people who listen to your show, they know that he's a former teacher who became the leader of a group of schools called the Uncommon Schools network. And he encountered the same realization, that what he called the 'Build it, Buy it' problem. So, at first, early on, he tried to improve the quality of teaching in schools by buying teachers who are already good. But over time that became unsustainable, and he realized he had to help build good teachers from all of--any person that he could recruit. So, he couldn't just recruit his way to excellence; he had to build it"