FOUR WAYS TO SPOT A GREAT TEACHER


I will be leading a 75 minute discussion on teaching (“Coaxing More Excellence from Your Students”) starting at 10:40 a.m. on Saturday, September 27, 2014.   The presentation is part of the 2014 North Carolina Education Forum at the Embassy Suites near Raleigh, NC.   If you are in the area, I hope you will consider attending.  You can get more information at www.ncacpa.org.

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The September 6-7, 2014, issue of The Wall Street Journal had a great article on teaching:   “Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher.”    It is on page C3 and I would urge you to read it.   Here, I just want to address the four highlights to whet your appetite.   The author (Dana Goldstein) talks about the importance of teaching and how a parent (and I suppose a student) can recognize great teaching.   Here are the four keys as well as my own observations.

“Great teachers:   Have active intellectual lives outside their classrooms.”   Most college websites will tell you that the primary purpose of a college education is to enable each student to live a well-rounded life after graduation.   We really don’t want students to be only accounting majors or only history majors or only biology majors.   They need to get more from college than that.   A happy, satisfied life necessitates an appreciation of many things:   art, theatre, politics, literature, and the like.  That is why we have general education requirements.

Students should see that same broad intellectual interest in their college teachers so they will want to emulate it in their own lives.   Why teach theatre appreciation if the faculty don't appreciate the theatre?    When I go to plays on campus, I am delighted to see my students but I’m also thrilled to see my fellow teachers.   
 
I am always a bit concerned if I mention a well-known book and fellow academics seem totally oblivious.   Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction is speaking on our campus this year.   I will encourage my students to attend but I hope the other faculty members are also drawn to hear what this well-known author has to say.

Let the students know that you have a life outside of your discipline.  In The Wall Street Journal article, there is a wonderful statement:   “In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, who once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Tennessee wrote that teachers must ‘be broad-minded, cultured men and women’ able to ‘scatter civilization’ among the next generation.”   Now, that is a goal worth having.

“Great teachers:   Believe intelligence is achievable, not in-born.”   I tell my students openly and often that I have a goal for them that goes well beyond the understanding of accounting.   I want them to become smarter.   I believe if you challenge students and push students to figure stuff out for themselves, they will actually become smarter.   Okay, I’m not going to turn anyone into Albert Einstein or Sherlock Holmes but I do believe that turning lazy thinking into critical thinking makes students smarter.   That, to me, is another goal worth having.

“Great teachers:   Are data-driven.”   Occasionally, teachers will tell me that they are doing something innovative in a class.   I naturally ask:   Well, is it working?   Often, the response is “I have the feeling that it is.”  

Hmm.   I do understand that many teachers have a strong intuition about what works and what doesn’t work.   But, I really hate to leave assessments totally to intuition.   We live in the era of computer technology which allows us to analysis “big data.”   Intuition is rarely the only answer.  We can often get some measure of proof about results beyond intuition if we set out to get the data and then take a hard look at it.

What data do I look at in assessing my classes?

---I have said many times on this blog that I pay very little attention to my student evaluations.   That is not entirely true.   I do look at one particular question that appears on our evaluations here at Richmond:    “Compared to other college-level courses you have taken, this course called upon your ability to think critically and analytically:”   Okay, we can argue all day about whether students are capable of making this assessment accurately.   But, by the time they get to my class, they have been in school for 16 straight years.   Given that, I think “strongly agree” is a whole lot better than “strongly disagree.”   If this particular number falls for a class of mine, I want to do some thinking about why that might have happened.   For me, that is data that is important.

---Our students take a senior survey right before they graduate and we also do alumni surveys about every 2-3 years.    I want to take a serious look in both cases at what former students thought about my classes.   I can always rationalize away the problems that I might spot.   But I hope I don’t do that.   Where weaknesses are noted, I want to think seriously about whether changes are needed.   It is easy for any teacher to say “I know best; everything that happened was great regardless of what the students later say.”   Or, the teachers can actually think about this data and what it might be telling them.

---A vast majority of our students at Richmond take the CPA Exam within a year of graduation.   NASBA furnishes us (for a fee) with passing rates.   I teach Intermediate Accounting II.   I like to see high passing rates on the material I teach.   I am absolutely not “teaching to the exam” but I still think a reasonable high pass rate is a good goal.   If we don’t get that high passing rate, I immediately consider whether changes need to be made.   Again, I think about what the data might be telling me.

“Great teachers:   Ask great questions.”   Well, if you’ve read this blog for long, you have heard my obsessions about asking questions in class and using the Socratic Method.   I think great teaching is most often built around puzzling the students and that is best accomplished through carefully crafted questions.  

Today in class, I spent a few minutes demonstrating how a problem could be worked in what I viewed as a very logical way.   I explained each step carefully to indicate what I was doing.   After I finished, I smiled at the students and said “Okay, that's great but the method that I just demonstrated is not allowed.   It is viewed as wrong.   Despite how wonderful it looks, it cannot be used.   I need for you to tell me why that is.” 

The class then spent the next few moments taking apart what I had done to explain to me why it was not theoretically allowed.   At the end, I think they understood.   In fact, I think they understood much better than if I had simply told them the right way, step by step, in the first place. 

In my mind, carefully crafted questions asking things like “how can you do this?” and “why do you do this?” are fabulous as a basis for learning.


Great teaching – in these troubled times for education, we need more of it.



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