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

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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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