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Expert knowledge of subject not enough to make a good teacher

Photo courtesy Stockvault

Photo courtesy Stockvault

My high school physics teacher had a doctorate in the subject and was obviously brilliant.

But, oh, was she boring.

In college, I took a course in 19th century European philosophy, taught by a young professor with a positively encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

And that’s what his lectures sounded like — like somebody reading the encyclopedia.

Just because you have great content knowledge doesn’t mean you can teach. It’s something the teachers unions have been saying for years in an attempt to defend the kind of pedagogical training they get in education courses.  But among today’s “reformers,” such arguments are often dismissed as empty defenses of teacher colleges, some of which, to be sure, are horrible.

Just take bright college graduates with good content knowledge, these reformers say — all those young people armed with surplus enthusiasm and no baggage — and let them work their magic.

Indeed, the idea sounds enticing to me and a wonderful quick fix — until I stop to remember my own student experiences. Now, according to a recent story in Education Week, researchers are questioning whether teachers who majored in math significantly improve students’ math skills at the elementary and middle school level.

Math teachers need to “know the subject matter well and how to teach it,” math scholar Deborah Loewenberg Ball tells the newspaper. “The problem is that the math major is not a good proxy for that.”

The researchers’ concerns suggest it will take more to improve instruction than simply plucking the strongest graduates from their colleges and universities and putting them in the classroom. These young people certainly have a lot to offer, but they’ll need to learn to teach as well.

 Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|December 22nd, 2009|Categories: American School Board Journal, Teachers|Tags: , |

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