What makes a great teacher? This is a difficult but important question for education at all levels. One way to get to the answer is to think about individual teachers that you have encountered in your life. Somehow we all know great teachers when we meet them and of course, we certainly know poor teaching when we come across it.
I am not one of those who believes that teaching is a natural gift and some people are born to be teachers and others not. Most great teachers that I know work constantly on their own development as educators. A capacity for great teaching can be gained through experience and reflection and I believe that anybody who wants to be a great teacher can become a great teacher.
What then are the ingredients for successful teaching? Well, thinking about the teachers in my life, I know that teachers need to have a very good knowledge of a content area. I did science in college and I have some strong views on how we should teach science based on my own experiences as a student. Previously I commented on the lecture by Carl Wieman, the Nobel laureate in Physics. Wieman argues against the over reliance of explaining in science teaching – he suggests that we start with realistic goals and facilitate individual discovery through activities “doing science” rather than listening to it.
I attended my first lecture in Physics at UCD in 1977 I remember the lecturer Rev Dr Tom Burke asking the class what constitutes a force such as gravity. We were used to the school definitions such as the Newton’s gravitational force = M1 by M2 over R squared times G (the gravitational constant) and offered this as the answer. But Fr Burke asked further “sure that’s the formula but what is the gravitational force? What’s happening for example, between the Earth and the Moon that manifests itself as gravity?” We were stumped! When we left the lecture we were none too happy – our old world of Physics as the subject of certainty (you only needed to know the formula) was turned upside down. We were not given the answer. We were forced to think. I’m thinking about it still. Welcome to science. Fr Burke was a great science teacher.
So, good knowledge of a content area is certainly a characteristic of an effective teacher. However, this on its own is not sufficient. Here is what Jean Piaget had to say about subject matter knowledge:
“Every beginning instructor discovers sooner or later that his first lectures were incomprehensible because he was talking to himself, so to say, mindful only of his point of view. He realizes only gradually and with difficulty that it is not easy to place one’s self in the shoes of students who do not yet know about the subject matter of the course.”
(Piaget 1962 p5)
Piaget suggests that it is not easy to place one’s self in the shoes of the learner. Just because we know something doesn’t mean that we can teach it. We use the term pedagogy to refer to knowledge about learning in others. A good teacher needs to have pedagogical as well as content knowledge.
(1986) suggested Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) as a special kind of content knowledge important for teaching. There are two aspects of pedagogic knowledge – a kind of general or generic understanding of learning and teaching that is applicable across all subject areas and a second subject specific pedagogic knowledge. This is knowledge as to the teach-ability of aspects of a subject.
This may involve asking questions that encourage new thinking as occurred in my first Physics lecture. It may also involve identifying threshold concepts
(Meyer & Land 2006), aspects of a subject area that open up understanding, and presenting these in ways that are accessible to students.
In a recent conversation a friend referred to a teacher as great with analogies and metaphors. A stock of appropriate analogies, metaphors, examples, illustrations and models is perhaps part of the PCK of any teacher.
Often PCK is represented as the intersection of two domains of knowledge pedagogy and content. This representation is useful for teachers and those involved in the professional development of teachers.
Lee Shulman’s contribution has certainly helped researchers by providing a conceptual framework that encompasses the domains of knowledge associated with effective teaching. However, more recently it has been suggested that this framework needs to be extended to include the domain of technological knowledge.
Mishra and Koehler (2006) have put forward the proposition that today’s teachers also require knowledge in a third domain – technology. Their representation extends Shulman’s PCK to become TPCK also called TPACK. They emphasise the value of the integration of these bodies of knowledge for teaching rather than considering each as a separate domain.
In this model, knowledge about content (C), pedagogy (P), and technology (T) is central for developing good teaching. However, rather than treating these as separate bodies of knowledge, this model additionally emphasizes the complex interplay of these three bodies of knowledge.
Mishra and Koehler 2006 p1025
For example, it is not advocating “technology” per se be considered rather, it is what technology can do to facilitate learning. The argument is that the technologies of today offer new possibilities that were not considered when Shulman first put forward PCK.
For me, I’m not so sure of the value of separating technology as a domain. As I mentioned above, part of the PCK for a good teacher is a stock of analogies, anecdotes and illustrations. All of these are tools – intellectual tools – that are used to facilitate student understanding.
Through each generation the art and craft of teaching has evolved to accommodate the cultural and social milieu of the time. Despite what we often think there is nothing special about today, this time and these new technologies. Human cognition has evolved over thousands of generations and the essential mechanisms for learning are the same whether technology enhanced or not. In the Digital Literacy in Primary Schools
(DLIPS) project we found that teachers were using strategies that involved project learning and technology. Yes of course their are some technical skills required, and of course we will need to provide additional training and professional development for teachers at all levels as technology evolves and makes new strategies and practices possible. However, my argument is that this should always be considered as part of the pedagogical content knowledge base of the teacher rather than a new domain.
To add technology as a separate domain of competence has some advantages (as argued by Mishra and Koehler) but their are disadvantages: we may over-estimate the technology rather than the intellectual tool that the technology makes possible (film-makers tell stories – it is the story telling that has pedagogic value); we may alienate teachers who do not use technology (these may be great teachers also!) and finally, there is a danger of commercial influences driving technology into pedagogy.
Regardless, I set out to answer the question “what makes a great teacher?”. For me, knowledge (PCK), an ability to motivate, a capacity to set achievable goals, to provide students with constant feedback on performance and a learner-centered approach to instruction – these are the ingredients of a great teacher.
Casey, L., Bruce, B. C., Martin, A., Shiel, G., Brown, C., Hallissy, M., et al. (2009). Digital literacy: New approaches to participation and inquiry learning to foster literacy skills among primary school children. Report funded by the Department of Education and Science. Available from http://hdl.handle.net/2142/9765.
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.
Shulman L S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching Educational Researcher, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Feb., 1986), pp. 4-14 American Educational Research Association
Meyer J. H. F. & Land R. 2006 (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Routledge − Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York
Mishra P, Koehler MJ. 2006 Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Teachers College Record Volume 108, Number 6, pp. 1017–1054