This year’s annual Kappan survey of the American public on their views about schools and education is out. Once again, people like their local schools but have bad things to say about all those other schools. (This year Kappan finally asked them – uh, you know that since everyone says this, it doesn’t quite add up, so why do you think it? The Kappan wryly notes that “Interestingly, a relatively large percentage of Americans (15%) either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the question.” Uh huh. And many blame the media. Duh.)
But what caught my eye in the survey was a new question about teaching: In your opinion, is the ability to teach or instruct students more the result of natural talent or more the result of college training about how to teach?
As you might guess, the results were one-sided in favor of the view that ability to teach is a natural talent – 70% said so. Predictable but discouraging. Would they say the same thing about doctors or engineers? What about ball players? Bill Russell famously viewed such comments when applied to black ball players as racist since to call the ability “natural” is to ignore and dismiss the 10,000 hours of work that preceded the ability.
Now, it’s possible that the way the question was worded – “the result of college training” – highlighted deservedly negative views about pre-service teacher education. I don’t think so. Most laypersons don’t know enough about pre-service training to grasp its weaknesses. More to the point, I have often heard this broader claim myself – from educators! Indeed, I long ago had this very argument with an old friend and former colleague. He was adamant that teaching is an art; that you either “have it” or you don’t “have it.” He dismissed with snide sarcasm the naïve views of those who claim that teaching can be made “scientific.”
We might as well shut down schools, then. Really: stop and think about what the “native talent” argument is really saying. Education makes little difference.
Keep in mind that the Kappan question doesn’t ask about “great” teachers, only “good” ones. How can an educator deride education as the source of excellence? Dewey famously asked of a teacher rhetorically: has he taught for 20 years? Or has he taught the same year 20 times? Every good teacher becomes good the same way all performers become good: by comparing the results against the goals, getting feedback, and using it to improve; by learning about their craft and deliberately improving at it.
And yet, cynical teachers say this about adolescent learners all the time! They “can’t” learn, they will “never” make it. Such a claim defies common sense, in addition to being unprofessional: a good education improves your ability to do anything that has been formalized into a craft/discipline/job. Indeed, think about the phrase “academic discipline” and its true meaning: you learn a “disciplined” way of acting and thinking in science or history; it’s a set of habits of mind – “second” nature – not a native talent.
Never mind, too, that such views defy the research over the past 20 years into talent development via books like Talent is Overrated. For whatever reason, many people just want to cling to this romantic myth that expertise just somehow is. How you can be an educator and think this is beyond me, I confess: you should quit teaching and go into sales. In John Hattie’s amazingly thorough meta-analysis of what is effective in education in Visible Learning, we learn that more than a dozen instructional practices have a greater effect than socio-economic status. Qualtiy feedback and self-assessment are at the top of the list.
As many readers know, it is just this rigid view of ours (fixed ability) that is challenged in the Asian countries that now outperform us. The deep belief in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore is that hard work wins the game. And as Carol Dweck’s vital research has shown for decades, the view that one’s ability is fixed is a huge liability moving forward, as challenges mount and failures increase. Such “smart” but fixed-ability- belief learners wilt in response to failure or poor performance. Learners who believe in their ability to constantly improve and learn from failure ultimately outperform their “smarter” peers.
Surely, the same logic applies to teaching, especially when you throw into the mix the inherent isolation of teaching and the lack of feedback in most schools – conditions that make it highly unlikely that most teachers will improve over time on the job (hence, Dewey’s 20-year line). If we want more good teachers we are going to have to educate them to be good – i.e. give them lots of examples of model teaching and ensure that they get lots of feedback about their current teaching. That, of course, rarely happens enough now in both pre-service and in-service training, for longstanding cultural and union-related reasons in schools. But to throw up our hands and say it’s a gift you either have or lack is fatalistic and myopic.
I have personally been described as a “gifted” teacher of teachers in the last few years, in feedback from participants in workshops. Hogwash. I got deservedly lousy reviews when I started working with adults, and I have spent the last 25 years working hard and purposefully to improve my teaching.
Recall the facts highlighted about the Beatles in Talent is Overrated. The Beatles played 7 nights a week in Hamburg, often for 5 or 6 hours at a stretch, for two years – the famous 10,000 hours formula. Further, listen to their demo for Decca in which they were famously turned down; you would have to. Listen to their first British album: a lot of forgettable originals and lame covers (Till There Was You?). But after working tirelessly and getting feedback for 4 years they started making memorable music. That’s how they went from being a bar band to the best band in the world. Why should teaching be any different?