Can We Teach?

Reading Alfred’s posts on choosing a law school, I got to thinking about the quality of teaching at any given school, as a factor in that choice, and of an article I read in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, on Building a Better Teacher.

The piece describes, in essence, the effort to improve the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States, by more carefully/fully training teachers in how to teach.  By contrast, it counsels, merely incentivizing teachers (whether with the carrot of merit pay, or the stick of dismissal/school closure) fails to get at the root of the problem.  Teachers, thus, need to be taught how to teach.

The teacher trainer profiled, for example, suggests that the generally derided and dismissed issue of “classroom management” is actually foundational to whatever learning does (or does not) occur in the class.  As the article puts it, “students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions.”  (By way of empirics, I might note, the article cites data to certain that the students of the best teachers get 18 months of material, for each year in class, while those of the worse teachers get only 6 months!)

What about those of us in law school teaching, though?  Can we teach?  Is there any reason to believe that the skills that get us our teaching appointments are well correlated with teaching skills?

I’m doubtful there is, though I might perhaps be convinced otherwise.  Even if there is some such correlation, however, wouldn’t it still be useful to think about relevant training in classroom instruction, for law students thinking about going into teaching – or perhaps at least for those who actually end up there?  Isn’t that especially appropriate if, as the research reported in the article suggests, evidence of natural teaching “ability” aren’t highly correlated with student success?

One need not abandon a commitment to scholarship as the most critical metric in appointments, in promotion, and even in evaluating the overall “success” of a law professor, thus, to recognize that there are relevant skills to teaching – and perhaps to law teaching in particular – that we ought to know.

If so, how might we go about accomplishing as much?  By having a teaching “track” in law school, which would include some training in teaching?  Perhaps with some sort of intensive summer program, in which newly hired teachers would enroll for a time before embarking on their teaching careers?

No single solution would be perfect, of course.  I’m reminded, though, of my complaints to a colleague, in my first year of teaching, that I wasn’t sure I was doing a particularly good job at teaching.  “I’m sure they love you!” he responded.  Perhaps they do, I remember thinking, but that need not mean I was doing a good job.

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2 Responses

  1. durendale says:

    “…to recognize that there are relevant skills to teaching – and perhaps to law teaching in particular – that we ought to know.”

    Not to be cheeky, but … YA THINK?

  2. Robert Ahdieh says:

    Fair enough. On the other hand, the fact that limited effort is made to teach such skills – not only in law school teaching, but even in primary and secondary education – might suggest some dominant view that the real issues in successful teaching aren’t teaching skills, but enthusiasm, innate ability, or something else.