Teaching wisdom that stays silent

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
The best teachers cannot discuss their skills, a survey of 'master craftsmen and women' has found, reports Karen Thornton

THE BEST teachers don't know how to talk about what makes them so good, according to new research.

The finding has implications for the Government's aim of identifying and disseminating good practice, as part of its standards-raising agenda. It has commissioned Hay Management Consultants to build up a dictionary of excellence in the classroom.

The very best teachers have complete mastery of classroom organisation and instruction, and a central focus on learning. But they do not express their practice or their professional knowledge in precise, technical ways, according to British and US researchers.

"The problem is that, in the absence of the ability to conceptualise and articulate their practice in precise, technical language, their usefulness is essentially limited to the work they do with their students," says the Apple project team, based in North Carolina.

"This is not to say that they don't act as role models, nor that others cannot learn from them. However, the efficient exploitation of their excellence is denied to their colleagues and to their school systems. They are potentially one of the most precious resources in the whole educational enterprise - and they cannot be used."

Hay's Frank Hartle, director of the dictionary of excellence project, said it had uncovered some problems with how teachers talk about pedagogical skills. But he believes teachers are no worse - or better - than others when talking about what makes them good at their jobs.

"What we have found, having interviewed 60 teachers, is some very good descriptions of how they went about being effective in the classroom but they didn't say much about pedagogical skills - the things the best teachers have done and take for granted, like the way they question children or their strategy behind questioning children." he said.

The Apple project came up with its "master craftsman" category - and six other teacher types - after applying criteria drawn from research on effective teaching to 46 primary classrooms in England and North Carolina.

They are particularly critical of "recipe" teachers and teaching, as typified by the literacy and numeracy hours.

Such recipes may be essential props for less competent teachers, but teaching is too complex for recipe solutions. The long-term answer is to encourage all teachers to become problem-solvers and thinkers.

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