Teaching as it should be

A new book looks at teaching as an evolutionary cognitive skill
By: and | Issue: May, 2015
April 15, 2015

Vanessa Rodriguez knew there was more to teaching than producing test-ready students. Feeling constricted by a system that evaluated teachers not on personal performance but on student outcomes, she had enough.

In pursuing her doctoral degree, she wanted to know exactly what teaching is and how it relates to learning. The existing research, she found, was lacking.

In The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education (The New Press, 2014), Rodriguez and co-author Michelle Fitzpatrick go to the intersection of education, neuroscience and daily experience to explore how the mind of a teacher works, and more important, how it can be made more effective.

“No one has ever truly bothered to understand specifically how the teaching process and its corollary, the teaching brain, are separate and distinct from the learning process and the learning brain,” she says. “It’s time for that to change.”

You say commonly accepted definitions of teaching don’t match the actual practice of teaching.

Right. We’ve never actually studied it this way. I started the doctoral program thinking I’d learn the language of what teaching is. Instead, what I found is that we really haven’t explored teaching in the way we have learning.

We understand learning as a practice of cognitive development that we’re all born with. But we don’t actually understand teaching in that way.

The literature on teaching is grounded in an understanding of learning. That means we’re actually considering teaching a tool for learning. On the surface, that seems to make senseÑthe whole purpose of teaching is to help someone learn. But where it falls short is that the tool that we’re using is a human being.

Unlike learning, teaching absolutely must be an interaction. When you study teaching like an interaction, it suddenly shifts everything we understand about it and have done research on.

We have all kinds of technology to help kids learn on their own, so why do we even need teachers?

Right now we are trying to replace the human model of teaching with computers.

It’s not the first time that this has been attempted. B.F. Skinner came up with a teaching machine in the 1950s and argued that it helped students learn more efficiently. It used reward and punishment to influence behaviors and learning.

There are many things that machines can do more efficiently than humans, but no machine to date is able understand the complexity of the mind. It is forever changing, and it’s different for every individual.

Humans are best at understanding other humans. But the way that we’ve designed the school system is not to take that into account.

If we shift how we define teaching, then we find there is a completely different way of understanding that process of development. We can design ways to better prepare teachers in a classroom to help learnersÑwho are also human. That’s different from being effective at helping children score high on exams that we don’t know even matter in the end.

Give us an overview of what the teaching brain is.

It’s a way to understand other people and to interact more effectively in relationships. The teaching brain is something we all have, but it’s not something we’re born with, which is fascinating. We’re not born with the ability to understand that other people have different minds than our own. We are born believing that everyone knows exactly what we know.

Somewhere around the age of 1 or 2 we realize, “I think one thing, but the people around me have different knowledge bases.” That’s where we’re then able to begin teaching. It starts simply and we then develop various other cognitive skills. But there is a point at which that natural development stops. That’s the shift into professional intentional teaching.

Much of your focus is on five “awarenesses”Ñawareness of context, of the learner, of yourself as teacher, of interaction, and of teaching practice.

You may be aware and doing some of these things, but if you aren’t aware you are even doing them, you can’t really affect how you are changing.

For example, an awareness of my learner means I understand that the learner has a cultural background that affects the way they learn. They have a certain capacity for memory. They have certain emotions and their own cognition, how they process information. All of that is how I understand that learner.

But if I’m not aware that I’m forming this theory about who my learner is, then I’m not going to recognize it as a theory. Instead, I’m going to teach as if that is who that child is. But we never know who a person is. We only have our perspective of who that person is. If I form the incorrect theory, then I’m continually teaching to a misguided notion of who my learner is.

That’s where you start to get frustrated and feel like the child is not trying. But then you realize, “I must have formed an incorrect theory of who this learner is. Let me reevaluate that theory and let me shift it until I find the one that works.”

To be able to do that, you need to have an awareness that you’ve even formed a theory of that learner. And you also need to have an awareness of yourself. Because in a sense, it’s your fault that you formed the theory in the first place.

To illustrate, I always had trouble with shy students. One of my “ah-ha” moments was when a student told me, “I’m not shy. I’m actually very outgoing.” I thought, “Wow. In my definition she’s shy. But in her view of herself, she’s not.”

You studied a group of master teachers in your research, some of whom experienced revelations about themselves in the process. Can you give an example?

We did a specific type of interview. For instance, we asked them to talk about how important culture is to their process of teaching. Oftentimes they’d say, “It’s extremely important to understand where my children come from, what families they have.”

I’d remind them that the interview was about themselves, not about their students. I was trying to find out more about what was happening in the mind of teachers when they are teaching. And they’d say, “My culture? That doesn’t matter.”

Later, when the study was over I’d ask them if they really thought their culture didn’t matter. They’d say, “It does. I just never had anyone ask me about myself when I’ve been asked to talk about teaching. They want me to talk about my learners, not about myself.”

That’s an interesting phenomenon that doesn’t happen in other professions. When you talk about how you do your work, you talk about yourself. But in teaching, we really have been trained that we don’t exist. You don’t bring who you are into the classroom. You don’t bring your politics or your culture into the classroom. You are just there to serve the learners.

We need to recognize that both the teacher and the student have perspective. And it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be thoughtful about how their perspective affects everything that occurs in the classroom.

What practical applications can an administrator draw from this? Does it impact the hiring process?

Yes. At the university level, we need to help prepare teachers to understand just as much about teaching development as they do learning development.

At the school level, principals can begin to evaluate teachers on a scale that really is about teaching and not just about learning. A school administrator could work with teachers in breaking down where they are and where they need to be in these areas of awareness. Then a teacher would know what areas they need to work on.

Not to sound flippant, but can you teach an old dog new tricks? Many teachers are just concerned with keeping their jobs.

That’s a tough one. I had this conversation not long ago. Someone asked, “What do you do with teachers who just want to keep their job and bring home their paycheck and are terrified to change?”

I said, “What’s unfortunate is that we’re talking about several decades of teachers being blamed for absolutely everything that’s wrong in education. That’s turned into real consequences where their paychecks are tied to measures that every researcher and most of the public understands are not a measure of teaching, but of the learner answering questions right.”

Inevitably, what we’ve done is worry teachers by threatening their families, because once you tie it to a paycheck that means you’re tying it to whether I can feed my children at home, and whether I can keep paying my mortgage, and whether my children have shelter.

I think anyone would argue that while teachers are supposed to care about the learners in the classroom, their first priority is their children over your children.

So I am honestly not sure how to change that. I think that is a level of trust that just has been broken. Rebuilding trust takes a long time, and it has to be intentional.

Tim Goral is senior editor.