Pedagogy First (A Note on Elizabeth Green’s Building A Better Teacher)

Jose Vilson Jose

Every so often, I love reading other folks talk about standards without any current teachers present in their conversation. Even a cursory read of education history in this country shows how intellectual [white] men throw their moral and scholarly swag about what teachers should and shouldn’t be focused on. On the other hand, the teachers I eavesdrop on try to out-intellectual the folks imposing their “thought leadership” onto those of us in schools. Over and again, I see templates and talking points, and less about the day-to-day events and adjustments we as teachers have to make to make school work when other adults can’t.

Thankfully, Elizabeth Green’s book Building A Better Teacher does quite a bit of this.

As an urban middle school math teacher going into my 10th year, I valued getting a different perspective about teaching. Hearing things about Finland, Singapore, and Japan are nice, and all the cool kids who get to travel over there and tell us how their talking points matched with their experience over there is all well and good, but on more than one occasion found myself saying, “So what does that have to do with me?”

Green’s book, in sharp contrast, expounds on ideas I’ve only heard in passing, like the heavily-touted Japanese model of lesson study or Magdalene Lampert’s TKOT. I appreciated hearing the trials and failures of these pedagogical movements as well. It’s great to hear that teachers want to observe each other, come together, and make observations about how they can improve their pedagogy and assessments. It’s great to hear that people had the time and resources to work with each other and feel vested in this intellectually challenging work. It’s great to hear that, at some point, a group of folks actually wanted to disband the “ed-schools from afar” approach.

It also felt weird that, simultaneously, article after article came out disputing some of the claims in the book, which I found odd. For instance, Reiko Watanabe came out with an article explaining why Green’s excerpt from her book, which appeared in the New York Times, had gotten Japanese schools all wrong. According to him, juku school, and not “regular school,” were the reason that students learned. In American terms, he’s saying that companies like Kumon and Kaplan matter more than the schools the students attend by day. While that might have some credibility, especially when it comes to SAT prep and the like), I’m not convinced that rote memorization school and beating kids over the head with facts like a thousand hammers into a child’s skull is the best way to get kids to learn.

Then again, I’m not a standards-deliverer. I’m a teacher, a pedagogue. As a few of us have said time and again, I can take a set of great standards and deliver it in monotonous worksheets or I can take a set of inappropriate and unintelligible standards and still get kids engaged in lessons about it. Thus, pedagogy must come first.

Perhaps that’s the implication in her book, too. Yes, she pays lots of attention to what many dub as the best classroom management system out there (Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion is the handbook), but she dedicates many pages critiquing its militaristic and often callous procedures. [Full disclosure: reading too much about the charter movement made me wince a bit, but that’s neither here nor there.]

She noticeably doesn’t critique Lampert’s open, patient, and precise approach to teaching mathematics. And, instead of just listing the things Japanese teachers did, she breaks down the sort of dialogue that happens in the lesson study meetings. The structures obviously support the pedagogy, and the structures include the standards, but the pedagogy still wins.

That’s why, when watching men debate each other over their own agendas, I wonder if those men have actually put both feet into the classroom and debate over the 30+ kids in front of them, and, if not, why they don’t ask the folks who must. Like Green did here. L’chayim.