The most important influence on student learning…

is an effective teacher in the classroom. There’s no interactive whiteboard, laptop, tablet, doc camera, web-based program, intervention strategy, curriculum, assembly, or after school program that can top what a teacher can do to help students learn and produce. Books back up this observation, and we all have at least one teacher from our past who lit a fire within us for a subject, so there’s probably not too many people who would argue with what I’ve just claimed.

That’s why it’s so alarming that even though most people say teachers are the most important factor in classrooms, the education pendulum never lands on professional development for teachers being a number one priority. Surgeons receive ongoing training. So do nurses, engineers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers. PD for teachers shouldn’t be relegated to only the beginning and end of the school year. Their expertise is just as important as the other listed professions. New educational studies, theories, and strategies are produced at least every month.

The onus for training doesn’t just land on the country, state, or school district. Yes, society should elect officials who make wise decisions regarding budgeting for PD, but teachers must also understand the importance of continual learning (not just for students, but for themselves) and strive to become better at their craft every day of the school year.

Enter Sugata Mitra.

If you haven’t watched Mitra’s TED talk, please be my guest:

If you didn’t watch the video, here’s the gist of his message: Students who are given access to the internet and encouraged by adults to explore interesting things learned at an amazingly fast rate. So fast, in fact, that Mitra’s findings could quite possibly revolutionize how we think about teaching. For some people, it already has.

If you’re familiar with Mitra, you know he views effective teachers as cheerleaders for student learning. In his opinion, teachers should not stand and deliver; instead, they should pose perplexing questions–such as Mitra’s example from the recent CUE Conference: Why do people’s teeth fall out?

I agree with Mitra. Does this conflict with my thoughts at the beginning of this post? I don’t think so, as long as I conflate the two. A teacher with expertise, experience, and skill at formatively assessing whether or not a student learned something is worth a lot. (Dylan Wiliam states that the value of a great teacher to society is around $300,000.) This is the ‘cheerleader’ needed for the type of classroom Mitra supports. This ‘Mitra teacher’ knows when to let students explore, when to encourage, when to guide… when to do almost everything.

This means (and I seriously wish what you’re about to read could be a disclaimer everyone hears whenever I talk about that importance of 1:1 devices in the classroom) technology is only a tool to be used–sometimes by teachers but mostly by students–to promote learning. I’m not a proponent of plopping children in front of screens and expecting them to learn. This will lead only to a scary, Wall-E like future. Good teachers know when to use good tools to reap good results. This is why PD is so important, because it’s only brave and knowledgeable teachers–teachers who see themselves more as senseis than lecturers, who will close the achievement gap and help all children learn.

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7 thoughts on “The most important influence on student learning…

  1. Reblogged this on How can I control my class? and commented:

    If a teacher can be replaced by a machine, do it! Now that I have your attention, please look at “Rise and Converge” by Steve Johnson and then look at the TED video. Children can learn on their own if encouraged by loving adults to do it! Let me know what you think. I know that I often used this approach during my Center activities in my last 3rd grade classes. They loved it!

  2. Departments of education and school districts have been attempting to create meaningful professional development paradigms for decades. In Pennsylvania (where I live), a concerted effort enforced by law has been in place since 1999. Teachers must accumulate a given number of PD hours to maintain their certifications. Districts generally provide the PDs.

    In practice, listening to a principal talk about budget constraints or watching a video about registering for additional PDs can count as hours. The bulk of accumulated hours end up being meaningless. I noticed teachers who had most of their required hours taking personal days when PD were scheduled. So much for initiative. Other states have similarly diluted systems. My point: ongoing professional development sounds great, but districts fail to make it worthwhile.

    Regarding technology, I taught in a school that had substantial amounts of grant money flowing through it. I never saw so much technology available in a school. Most of it was used to improve access for students with disabilities. But you know what? It didn’t make them better at reading or math. The school had data trends to support this. Some software-based remedial instructional programs helped some students, but these tended to be simple programs that were only expensive because of licensing.

    I’m not certain the teachers made much of a difference either, as turnover proved just how replaceable teachers really are (some like to think they’re not). However, I’d take three additional teachers over a $300,000 technology grant any day. The teachers can problem solve, form critical bonds with parents, and help distribute students from crowded rooms. Few students will remember the document camera they used in 3rd grade. Many more will remember the teacher who taught them how to draw.

    • Meaningless PD is my biggest fear, and I know how easy it is for training sessions to devolve into unhelpful wastes of time. You’re right, oftentimes districts fail in their effective PD pursuit. You’re also right about technology; more tech in a classroom has almost no bearing on student achievement. (You can read more about this in Dylan Wiliam’s fantastic book ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’.) Technology is just a tool that can be used to enhance pedagogy or help students create in new ways. The internet is also obviously wonderful for finding information, but a lot of items that school districts purchase are a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.

      I think as things stand right now, a lot of teachers are unfortunately replaceable (as you mentioned), but good teachers–teachers who bring value by teaching well the first time, formatively assessing well, reteaching, reassessing, etc.–are definitely worth a lot. Of course, the PD necessary to get as many teachers as possible to this point is where the difficulty lies. I’m optimistic because other fields have figured out ways of sharing best practices, but per the norm, education is behind the curve.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jeffrey. I really appreciate it!

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