Monday, July 5, 2010

Distinguishing teaching from teachers

I'm in this great reflection on practice class at PCMI every morning, and we've been looking at a bunch of videos of math teachers teaching. It's great: the videos are thought provoking and we are having all kinds of cool ideas inspired by the teaching (as well as what we want to do to avoid repeating that kind of teaching). People seem to be thinking about teaching in new ways, having a paradigm shift in understanding the value of being a 3 on the rubric for levels of discourse that I posted last week and getting excited as they identify how to get there. Their desire to be a 3 is palpable. (I haven't shared Ben's suggestions for adding 4s and 5s to the rubric yet!) It's exciting.
In the midst of this, I am noticing how quick we are to critique these virtual "peers": we don't know them personally of course, but they are our conceptual colleagues. We are so ready to dismiss what they're doing, and I'm not sure if we're saying that what they're doing isn't teaching, or if we're saying that they are not teachers. What's the difference?
I like our high standards and I wish us caution in judging the teachers we're watching, both because we're watching literally minutes of their careers, which must be limited in it's capacity to fully represent them as teachers, but also because I think even if these short videos of their teaching were representative, that there is some value in distinguishing the teaching from the teachers.

I am guilty of blurring the line between these two in my own career. It's the reason that I ever feel bad about myself when I reflect on my teaching. It's a new distinction in my life, and I'm really interested in how other people think about it and what they've read about it:
How do we distinguish between teaching and teachers? While teachers have the power and responsibility for teaching, what can we do to focus our critiques on the teaching rather than the teacher? My first math ed mentor, Rob Weiman, was the first to point out this possibility to me. I think it's worthwhile to be mindful of how hard we are on the people doing the teaching so that we can focus on the techniques themselves and the models they provide.

I'm curious if anybody has read anything about this? I'd love to read more.


  1. I would encourage you to look at some of the instructional coaching models. We are trained to give feedback on evidence of learning not teaching. The ultimate goal is to have the students learn something (skill, big idea, etc.). What is the evidence that they have? Different teachers can get there different ways. Ultimate success = the students learned.

  2. Such a great question. I remember reading something from Deborah Ball, where she says something like the following: "If teaching mathematics well cannot be taught, then there really is no reason for schools of math education." From this I see the same distinction between teachers and teaching: If we simply need to find the more talented folks and pay them well, that what are we doing learning about teaching? Like Ball, I believe effective teaching can be taught. The challenge is figuring out what constitutes "effective teaching." I think Deborah Ball calls it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching. Here's a link to a site about her work:

    I don't have first-hand knowledge of the project, but have spoken with her a few times about MKT. I have also attended a number of sessions with her and Hyman Bass.

    I'd be interested in others thoughts about their experience.

    Keep up the excellent thoughts and questions!

    Bill Thill (PCMI)