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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Can We Predict
Who Will Be
A Great Teacher?

Football, like astrology, is very complicated and none of my business.

Youll understand, therefore, why it was essential for me to skip over about half of Malcolm Gladwells otherwise intriguing article for the December 15, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. Appearing under the aegis of the magazines Annals of Education section and titled Most Likely to Succeed", the piece addresses a provocative question, as indicated by its subtitle: How do we hire when we cant tell whos right for the job?

Gladwell sets up the argument as follows: There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how theyll do once theyre hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

Excellent invitation into a subject of crucial importance, right?

The trouble is that Gladwell makes this point only after illustrating it -- beforehand, mind you -- by talking for what seemed like hours (okay, endlessly long paragraphs) about Tigers and Cowboys and Lions and Chargers and also about an individual of great early prowess named Leaf.

For me, this was like listening to an adroit and enthusiastic storyteller from A Tribe Forgotten By Time outline the Tribes prevailing mythology before explaining how they discovered a method for turning mangoes into Manolo Blahniks (or something else useful). Gladwells opening narrative, while quaint and manifesting an outstanding ability for complex thought, nevertheless made no actual sense to a non-initiate like myself.

I just nodded and waited for the interesting, useful part -- you know, about shoes. Or, for that matter, education.

The interesting and fighting-words part of The New Yorker article can be summed up as follows: you cant tell from a piece of paper wholl be effective in a classroom.

Okay, so far, umm, thats something we know, right? All the football and Lion, Leaf, and Cowboy stuff is meant to indicate to the reader that a person might appear to be a good bet before he or she is hired and turn out to be a poor choice once in the field. So far so good -- although not a huge surprise.

(I kept thinking that maybe Gladwell -- who is that smart and now very, very rich young man who wrote The Tipping Point, after all -- just fastened onto the whole field in football and field in education and ran with it, so to speak. Probably not.)

More provocative, however, is the research showing that the piling up of pieces of paper doesnt help very much, either -- not even when those pieces of paper are embossed and calligraphed and have fancy letters on them, such as M.A. or Ed.D.

At this point, my deeply thoughtful response to Gladwell was Huh? (I say Huh? as someone with a Ph.D., so imagine the three-letter word being said with a nervous cough and Rodney-Dangerfield-ish expression; were I wearing a necktie, Id be tugging on it.)

According to Gladwell, A group of researchers -- Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvards school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress -- have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a masters degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom.

What, then, does matter? Gladwell refers us to the work of educational researcher, Jacob Kounin. Kounin called that ineffable ability -- the one defining the great teacher -- withitness.

(I dont think the term will catch on. As far as Im concerned, withitness sounds like the mispronunciation of something from a toothpaste commercial -- Get Dazzle and Get Withitness!)

Kouin defined withitness as a teachers communicating to the children by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: I know whats going on) that she knows what the children are doing, or has the proverbial eyes in the back of her head. It stands to reason that to be a great teacher you have to have withitness. But how do you know whether someone has withitness until she stands up in front of a classroom?

Great question. I think it means the quality that makes a great teacher great remains ineffable. See what a tough time we have trying to rope it, tie it down, and brand it?

Maybe football, like astrology, is something you need to believe in before can offer you solace, direction, or a useful lens through which to examine the world. And while Im grateful to Gladwell for asking this one question towards the end of his article --What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children? -- I would also ask him to adapt it as follows: What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its games than of those who handle its children?

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
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