Monday, November 10, 2008

More Great Teachers or More Students per Great Teacher?

The education research community has reached consensus on very few issues. One that seems to be almost universally agreed upon is that teachers are the largest within-school factor affecting student performance. As a result, I think just about everybody agrees that students having better teachers is a good thing. But it seems like everybody has a different idea as to how we can do this.

I'll skip over recruitment, retention, and training of teachers for right now and focus on the debate around class size. We can boil it down to essentially two positions:

1.) Classes should be made as small as possible because teachers are more effective when they have to teach fewer kids

2.) We should assign the best teachers as many kids as feasibly possible in order to ensure that as many kids as possible have a great teacher

The Economist's blog on American politics has an interesting post essentially supporting position #2, but taking up another notch. The author suggests that the best teachers be broadcast to multitudes of classrooms across the country -- possibly thousands of students.

On the one hand, I wouldn't completely dismiss the idea -- particularly in subjects where there are shortages of experts -- because it has the potential to help students. But, on the other, the logistical problems would be enormous: Who manages the class? Who answers student questions? Who grades homework? and so on.

But here's my largest logistical beef with the idea: if the lessons are broadcast to audiences so large that interaction is impossible then why do they have to be broadcast live? Wouldn't a video be the same thing? Or, better yet, wouldn't some sort of integrated software with video be even better?

I'm not sure at what point somebody ceases to be a "teacher" -- does "teaching" somebody require interaction with them? Am I a teacher if I write a book on how to build a chair and somebody reads it and learns how to build a chair? Because I don't see much difference between that and the distance learning to the nth degree proposal. Which would then raise the question: do people learn best when taught by a teacher? My how complicated these things get. I'm going to stop there for now, but don't ever let anybody tell you that education is simple.


Rebecca said...

I would also question whether or not a great teacher can be a great teacher remotely, or whether the face to face interaction and immediate personal feedback that a teacher gives in the classroom aren't part of what makes a "great teacher" great.

RDT said...

This seems to me to be a case of theory getting way out ahead of practical experience...

Classes come in different types, some with more student-teacher interaction, some with less. In the low-interaction type, size isn't a big issue. I don't think there's a lot of difference in teaching a lecture class to 200 or to 500 or even 1000 -- and if there is, it comes not in the lecture portion of the class, but in how much individual feedback a student can get on their work. And there are some subjects that could probably be taught well by handing students tapes from "The Teaching Company" and then having not-so-master teachers grade the papers.

But while teaching art history to 500 undergrads at once may be plausible, teaching reading to 500, or even 50, first graders at once isn't. Teaching younger students is as much about figuring out what they're not getting, and connecting what they know with what they don't know, as it is about providing information, and there are many teachers who can do this very well with a group of 20 students, who, with a group of 35 would have time to do little else besides keep them all in their seats.

There's no one answer to this question. I could be convinced that high school AP classes of 40 might be a good use of an excellent teacher's capabilities. But if I were the parent of a first grader, I'd take my chances with a class of 20 and an average teacher, over a class of 35 and a "star" teacher.

The Real Shakur said...

Suggestion 2 sounds like the precursor to the Lancasterian model (I think that's the name). If one great teacher is supposed to instruct hundreds/thousands of students, then it'd only be a matter of time until the less-experienced teachers (or older students) are charged with discipline, grading papers, etc. It didn't work then, so my bets are that it won't work now.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rebecca that a "great" teacher in a classroom may not be "great" on a remote video screen. In my memory, my great elementary school teachers combined innovative projects, varied lessons, good classroom management and a caring personality. These are not necessarily qualities that transfer "remotely."

On the other hand, this technology might be useful to incorporate lectures from specialists into the classroom, especially at the high school level. For instance, if a teacher had a strong background in military history, maybe they could deliver a lesson (remotely) on a particular Civil War battle. Or a science lesson might be broadcast using the latest equipment and close-ups on the important reactions.

Overall, I see uses for this type of technology, but I don't see how it could replace a real teacher - and particularly not at the lower grades.