The Curricular Dimension of Effective Teaching

Thomas Kane, director of the MET Project at the Gates Foundation, penned a recent piece on Education Next (Capturing the Dimensions of Effective Teaching) in which he discusses the viability of   using multiple measures in the evaluation of teachers. It’s a thorough introduction to the topic, well worth reading through if you are interested in this highly contentious area of education policy and research.

I’m a believer in the necessity for feedback from classroom observations and student surveys, in addition to curriculum based assessments and progress monitoring. I want to know what it is I need to do to improve my teaching practices and better serve my students. After finishing Kane’s piece, however, something struck me as astoundingly absent from his account, especially given that he chose to title it “Capturing the Dimensions of Effective Teaching.” He is in fact calling for capturing mostly one dimension, while ignoring an absolutely essential dimension of effective teaching.

That dimension is the content that is taught.

When we subtract out the curriculum, we are left with a mechanistic series of causes and effects. Such information is highly valuable. Mechanistic processes can be observed, replicated, and taught. Doug Lemov, in How to Teach Like a Champion, for example, recognizes this mechanistic power and attempts to catalog and perpetuate effective practices. I am not someone who is hysterically opposed to such efforts at classifying best practices, nor will I make dubious claims that teaching is a high art that relies solely on intuition and spontaneous creativity. A strategic, scientific approach to effective pedagogical practice is a powerful way to improve (as you can witness in the success of Greg Jackson, trainer of cage fighters, as one tangential example).

But beyond pedagogical practice, at the heart of effective teaching is the content that is taught. You can teach shallow drivel to great effect with pedagogical savvy, in the same manner that Hollywood transforms shallow drivel into blockbuster fare. Unfortunately, the converse also holds true; you can cheapen deep and enriching content, leaching it of relevance and engagement. An effective teacher, therefore, is someone who can do justice to challenging content, drawing out its beauty in a coherent and structured manner, knowing when to support learners with explicit guidance and scaffolding, and when to step back and allow the experience of wondrous terror from venturing out into the deep water on their own occur. Such teachers are both pedagogically skilled, and deeply knowledgeable of the content they teach.

It’s strange that we would subtract out something so fundamental to the act of great teaching — the curriculum that the teacher wields — and elect to focus blindly upon only one aspect of it. Curriculum, like pedagogical strategies, can be researched and replicated. It seems to me like what is most worth knowing is not simply that a teacher was effective because of how he taught, but that he was effective because of how he taught what he taught when he taught it where he taught it. Yeah, that last sentence sounded funny, but you can see what I mean. The multiple measures that Thomas Kane is advocating are focused upon only one dimension of teaching. We need multiple measures of multiple dimensions to get a truer gauge of what an effective teacher is doing.

In closing, I’d like to note that my addition still only gives us two dimensions of effective teaching. There are more, such as the personal style of the teacher, and the type of learning environment that she creates both in the physical space and in social/emotional/intellectual space of the classroom (which I will acknowledge Kane’s recommendation of student surveys captures some of). But if we can at least begin to talk about effective teaching as a combination of both pedagogical mastery and content expertise, we are well on the way to defining something complex yet concrete that can be replicated in a diversity of contexts by a diversity of individuals.

One thought on “The Curricular Dimension of Effective Teaching

  1. Interesting and relevant. I'd love to see you say some more about how focusing on WHAT is taught might play out in the real world, and how what you're saying fits with efforts like the Common Core.

    Some might say that WHAT is taught is mostly dictated by the state or the district or the College Board (for AP courses). If teachers have to cover certain material or teach certain skills, is that the WHAT? If you have to cover the Prohibition era, is that the WHAT, or are the particular readings you choose the WHAT?

    Anyway, thanks–this is interesting stuff.


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