Author Interviews
5:15 pm
Sat August 9, 2014

'Building A Better Teacher': Dissecting America's Education Culture

Originally published on Sat August 9, 2014 5:18 pm

Teacher effectiveness is a hot topic in education circles right now. How do you measure it, and how can you improve it? What type of teachers should schools keep, and who should they let go?

Elizabeth Green says that it's not, as some people assume, a question of personality or charisma. Great teachers are not born, they're made, she says — and there's much more to teaching than being "good" or "bad" at it. Her book, Building a Better Teacher, explores teaching as a craft and shows just how complicated that craft can be.

Green studied teaching methods in both American and Japanese classrooms over the span of six years. She tells NPR's Arun Rath that teaching must itself be taught and that individual techniques are key.


Interview Highlights

On teaching math in the United States versus in Japan

One of the differences is the number of problems in a single class period. In this country we focus almost exclusively on answer-getting strategies, ways to find the right answer, and so we have maybe 15 practice problems or even 20 or 30 in one lesson, and the student just tries again and again to practice the same strategy. In Japan there's a single question per lesson and that allows students not only to practice how to solve the problem and get the answer, but get at some of the deeper mathematical ideas.

On the importance of mentorship

Another thing that holds our country back is that we have this culture of privacy around teaching. [American teachers] spend all of their day only with their students and they don't have exposure to their peers. In Japan, it's quite the opposite. They have [a] practice ... which really turns teaching into a public science. As many as a thousand teachers come from all across the country to watch a single lesson and then dissect it afterward.

Japanese teachers working together in this way have been able to decipher what is the best math problem for teaching subtraction. ... That's the kind of detailed finding that would be very useful for American teachers to be able to work together to come to.

On putting educational ideas into practice in the United States

We don't treat teaching as something that people need help learning how to do. So we say this great idea, but we just mandate it. We say, "Do this tomorrow and figure it out on your own." That is really ludicrous once you understand how complicated the science of teaching is.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Thanks for listen to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath here at NPR West. At a time when teacher effectiveness can mean losing tenure in places like California and New York, there's increasing debate over the type of teachers schools should keep or let go. Author Elizabeth Green spent time observing good teachers at home and in Japan. She says, a big problem here is the pervasive idea that great teachers are born rather than made.

ELIZABETH GREEN: There's this assumption that you're either good are your bad right from the get-go, that it must be a matter of maybe your personality or some kind of charisma that you have with the students but in fact when you break down what it is that teachers are doing - they're using techniques. And those are specific skills that we can teach people to do.

RATH: You talk about how some of these techniques are being used really effectively in Japan. So say in a math class can you talk about how a Japanese teacher would ask a math question as opposed to what you typically see in this country?

GREEN: One of the differences is the number of problems in a single class period. So in this country we focus almost exclusively on answer getting strategies, right? Ways to find the right answer. And so we have maybe 15 practice problems or even 20 or 30 in one lesson and the student just tries again and again to practice the same strategy. In Japan there's a single question per lesson. And that allows students not only to practice how to solve the problem and get the answer but get at some of the deeper mathematical ideas.

RATH: One of the things that you write that's also worked well is mentorships. This is also something that happens in Japan where teachers spend time working on their craft.

GREEN: Right, so another thing that holds our country back is that we have this culture of privacy around teaching. They spend all of their day only with their students and they don't have exposure to their peers. In Japan it's quite the opposite, they have this practice called Jugyou Kenkyuu - which really turns teaching into a public science. So as many as 1,000 teachers come from all across the country to watch a single lesson and then dissect it afterwards. Japanese teachers working together in this way have been able to decipher what is the best math problem for teaching subtraction with borrowing, you know, when the bottom number is bigger than the number on the top. And through trial and error and experimentation and discussion together they've all settled on 13 minus nine. That's the kind of detailed finding that it would be really useful for American teachers to be able to work together to come to.

RATH: One huge hurdle that teachers face is the problem of misbehaving students. Can you talk about Doug Lemov? He's a teacher that you write about who offered some advice.

GREEN: The instinct for most adults when you're faced with students who are talking out of turn is to tell them to be quiet, right? Say shhh. But Doug realized that shhh is actually the worst possible thing a teacher could say. It's very unclear. Are you telling the students to stop talking or are you just telling them to talk more quietly?

RATH: You write how there's more shushing in American classrooms and the Japanese classrooms sound practically raucous by comparison.

GREEN: That's right. I went to Japan and expected to robotic, drill-and-kill, obedient students. And that, you know, even the Japanese have that idea about their country versus our country - that the U.S. must be a place of incredible creativity. But in my book I write about a Japanese educator who comes to the U.S. expecting to find that utopia and instead finds that all the teachers are telling their students to be more quiet and there's this pervasive silence.

RATH: And something else that's odd as you write that ideas that are being put into practice in Japan came from America.

GREEN: Yeah. So the U.S. is like the world's greatest producer of amazing educational ideas but we're one of the worst at putting the ideas into practice. We don't treat teaching as something that people need to help learning how to do. So we say this great idea but we just mandate it. We say, do this tomorrow and figure it out on your own. And that's really ludicrous once you understand just how complicated the science of teaching is.

RATH: Elizabeth Green is the author of "Building A Better Teacher." Thanks for joining us.

GREEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.