Figuring out what “good” teaching means

Yesterday I read a post on the American Scholar where the author declares both herself and her sister as being “against educational reform.” It’s a short piece that’s worth reading for yourself, but in sum, Paula Marantz Cohen recounts a discussion with her sister, also a college professor, about their views on educational reform. Although their teaching styles differ, they both possess enough knowledge of U.S. educational history, as well as experience in the classroom, to recognize that most reforms in education come and go, only to return once more as the next big thing. Against her sister, who subscribes to Dewey’s model of experiential learning, Cohen considers herself more of a traditionalist—one who is more oriented, as she puts it, “toward product rather than process.” Importantly, it’s not that Cohen objects to the more open-ended inquiry that her sister orchestrates in her classroom; rather, she admits that in the progressive model “too much would be going on; I would get confused and, being confused, would likely confuse my students.” She thus concludes that “teaching—and learning—can proceed through any number of methods, provided that the teacher is engaged, knows something about the subject, and cares about the students.” The best method, in short, is that which plays to an individual teacher’s strengths.

Cohen’s piece is a refreshing read precisely for it’s teacher-centered concern. Of course educators should take into account the fact that students have different learning styles. It’s always good practice, for example, to bring in a mix of media into the classroom, and to devote segments of class time to a mixture of lecture, class discussion, and small-group or individual work. But that doesn’t mean that each of us should be able to cater perfectly to every need out there. Rather than mandating any single method, schools should encourage teachers to do as they do best. Exposing students to different teaching styles is a way of casting the net wide, but in a manner that distributes the responsibility of connecting with different types of students to a team of educators, rather than dumping that task on each individual teacher. There should be enough variation in the teacher pool to respond to various student needs. In this way, students who are naturally more self-directed will flourish in more “progressive” classrooms, while others who, like Cohen, tend to get overloaded in experiential learning situation, can find shelter in more teacher-directed classrooms. Exposing students to different teaching methods also prepares them for the working world where they will no doubt encounter managers of all stripes. Knowing whether they prefer more open or more directed working environments will enable them to pursue jobs more in line with their dispositions.

Cohen’s directive to adhere to one’s own method comes of course with one caveat: that we each develop a distinct pedagogical style that is in line with our strengths and limitations. If there is no one to tell us what “the best” method for teaching is, the onus is on us to determine it for ourselves. Much like Cohen’s sister, Dewey is one of my teaching heroes. I’m developing my food and nutrition program more or less on an experiential learning model because I believe it best mimics how people develop their own dietary habits (I’d wager that few of us simply eat what we’re told to eat). But frankly in more academic settings, my teaching style definitely trends toward Cohen’s more teacher-centered model. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is simply the lack of time and space to go about the Dewey method in proper fashion. Chiefly, however, I know myself well enough to recognize that as much as I love throwing out open-ended questions to a group of young people, I also firmly believe that it is my responsibility to set the framework for the discussion, because for me, the frame is everything.

One thought on “Figuring out what “good” teaching means

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I think it’s true in almost every sphere of public life (mental health, diet, parenting come to mind), that policymakers fall sway to broad theories and try to impose them from above when everyone would be better served by the recognition that people learn, think, parent, eat differently and it’s better to provide a variety of options and let people have a say in what works best for them.

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