Dear Mr. Gates,
In Anthony Cody’s 11/6/11 article “How Bill Gates throws his money around in education” (published in Valerie’s Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-bill-gates-throws-his-money-around-in-education/2011/11/06/gIQAXqrasM_blog.html ), you are quoted as saying, “It may surprise you—it was certainly surprising to us—but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.”
There’s a reason for that, Mr. Gates. It has to do with choice of metaphor.
You and other reformers are in love with the metaphor of teaching-is-a-science. It is comforting, after all, to look at something with the lens of science, for you can safely assume it is quantifiable. If you use the right measure, you’ll get accurate readings, and that will give you specific data that you can analyze independent of the complex classroom interactions.
But to use this lens in trying to determine what makes a teacher “terrific,” you are guaranteeing only disappointment. Oh, you’ll amass a set of data, but when you analyze it and attempt to have someone else replicate the choices and actions of that terrific teacher, it will fall flat.
In short, the terrific teacher is an artist, a performer. What makes a stunning performance so stunning? Its rich complexity, rife with subtleties and nuances. The elements of teaching that are so hard for a beginner have been overcome and mastered to a point that the terrific teacher makes it seem as though they are trivial…so they never got noticed. They were never measured or even defined. Why would they have been? Why would you measure that which you never noticed?
The lens of science has its uses, certainly including within the realm of education. The last thirty years has seen the metaphor of teaching-is-a-science flourish, and it has brought us some useful movement forward. Unfortunately, the misuse of the metaphor is now driving reforms that push too far, in a well-meaning but misguided assumption that data should drive instruction.
But teaching is an science AND an art. The pendulum swing has been so far toward science of late that many people–certainly the majority of the reformers–have truly forgotten that. Or perhaps they never knew.
It is time to go back to looking at education through the lens of art. An art student might measure components of a masterful Da Vinci or Dalí–the length of brushstroke, the underlying geometry, the thickness of the paint upon the canvas–but she knows that those measures will only provide a structured framework. Those aggregate measures can’t possibly be considered a true understanding of those pieces, or the means to replicate the unique styles involved. We need to accept that the layers of complexity in the actions of a master teacher are beyond our means of quantification, and instead look to our art instructors for the tools and methodologies we need for a thorough analysis and understanding of the master’s craft.
I’m afraid, Mr. Gates, you won’t like this at all. It is messier, and more liberal-artsy, and less cut and dry than the ordered pools of test scores and numerically ranked rubric components. It won’t lead to more data-yielding computer-based testing or anything close to uniformity in all schools. But it will allow education to make the next big step forward, and allow us to recognize that teacher- and student-driven instruction is more effective than any ever driven by data.
Larry L. Graykin, M.Ed.
Public School Teacher in New Hampshire