Note: This is the second of two posts also published on the National Education Policy Center website.
When I worked at The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching years ago, I led a week-long seminar on film making and film criticism. One presenter helped me, and the teacher participants, move away from focusing on acting and toward a more nuanced and contextual way of seeing a film. Many of us found this jarring. Surely it was a great actor alone, a Pacino or a Streep, who made a film great. We came to realize there was much more to a moving and memorable film, and we explored theme, dialogue, direction, and many other facets of this art beyond just the acting that week.
I remembered that lesson learned in the mountains of North Carolina as I watched the Education Nation segment on how Bill Gates is funding research and inquiry into what makes a great teacher. The Measures of Effective Teaching project is ambitious, and hits many of the right notes. There are elements of good teaching that can be measured. We can “deconstruct” good practice by watching video of master teachers. We can laud ancient means of engaging young minds such as Socratic questioning and inquiry based learning, and encourage teachers to use these, and other means, to ignite learning.
But if we are talking about what makes a great education for our students, it is not simply a great teacher, just as a great film is simply not one with a great acting performance. There are many factors in education and in society that mitigate or support the efforts of valiant, persistent, and skilled, teachers. Such factors can be as unassailable as a safe home and neighborhood, free from want and the darkness of family and social dysfunction. Teachers, no matter how talented or experienced, can’t be effective if students’ lives outside the classroom are toxic.
So while I applaud the work of Gates and other enlightened benefactors, I want us all to see more widely what enables a young mind to be educated, and what is both inside the walls of our classrooms, and outside those walls, that help us achieve that end.