Do we really need excellent teachers? This is the primary focus of education reform at the moment. It is said that great teachers make us learn, and not-so-great teachers prevent us from learning. Is this an accurate statement? Who determines what a good teacher is? Do we qualify teacher effectiveness based on test scores? student opinions? classroom observations? What is the criteria, and is it objective?
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but I believe that this all encompassing emphasis on teacher quality is being done for only one reason. It is that we don’t really have anything else at the moment to focus on. Unfortunately, every new approach taken to improve education outcomes have largely failed. That’s right. Nothing has really worked to vastly improve student achievement. It is a real problem, and especially to those whose job it is to improve achievement (i.e. the massive think tanks and the Department of Education).
We could throw vast amounts of money into improving teaching. We could recruit the best students to go into education, and then pay them very high salaries to keep them there. Would this work? Would large numbers of poor and underachieving students suddenly blossom into highly effective and enlightened students? I would vote no. It may marginally improve achievement, and test scores may rise — especially if those highly paid teachers become experts at teaching to the test. But students will largely remain how they are now — some very high achieving and some less achieving.
The problem is that learning is a highly personal process. What makes one student want to achieve and another not to achieve is a variable process. While we need good teachers (but not excellent) in the lower grades, it becomes less necessary in the higher grades. Young children need a lot of guidance. They can’t learn reading, writing and mathematics without the assistance of a competent and dedicated teacher. But as students grow older, their learning and achievement is mostly dependent on their motivation. They have to want to learn. I’ve mentioned this change in learning style — from childhood style learning to adult style learning — throughout this blog.
What older students need are choices in learning. They need to be able to choose what is appealing to them for their own reasons. This will improve their motivation, and computerized learning can provide many options. They also need to clearly understand the incentives (such as what providing an apprenticeship can do) because learning the skills for a job translates directly into receiving that job along with its associated salary. As a person proceeds through life, their need for an effective teachers grows less and less. An effective teacher’s job is actually similar to a dentist’s job. It is to work themselves out of a job. A dentist tries to prevent cavities, so he/she is effectively trying to work himself or herself out of a job. A teacher’s job is to provide more and more autonomy and self-direction in learning, so students can recognize the love of learning on their own, and not need a teacher anymore. And that, I think, is what the Think Tanks and the Department of Education should focus their emphasize on for the best teachers to do.