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)
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.
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.
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