Some days I think the problems behind ed reform boil down to a basic misunderstanding of human nature.
In Ed Week a few weeks back, Marc Tucker wrote about getting great teachers in every classroom (I would rather talk about helping the teacher in every classroom to do more great teaching, but okay) and in the midst of that discussion, he drops this
There are, of course, teachers who do work really hard, year after year, to get better and better at the work, but they are the ones driven by an inner demon, not ordinary mortals like you and me. So, while it is probably true that most of our teachers could be really good, really expert, there are not nearly enough of them, because they have no incentive to do so.
I’m really stumped here. Is Tucker seriously suggesting that ordinary mortals don’t want to get better at what they do?
The observation comes in the context of reporting that it takes ten years to achieve expertise, spurred by the rewards of climbing a career ladder. And here he goes
It says that happens only if the individual keeps working hard, year after year, to become better and better at the work. But teachers have no incentive to do that.
This is just bonkers. The world is filled with people who work to get better and better at what they do, because that’s how people are wired. Every single one of my students cannot help trying to get better and better at things that they value. The confusion, I think, occurs because we force so many people in our society to do things, improve at things, get better at things they don’t give a rat’s rear about.
Yes, if you want someone to get better at processing G-34/A forms that mean nothing to anyone, you will have to incentivize that work. But where you find people doing something they love, you find people trying to get better for the same reason you find them breathing and eating– because that is what human beings are wired to do. We are learning and growing machines. But some people have always tried to “harness” that power by breaking people and trying to make them grow in approved directions, like a demented gardener who just keeps chopping and pruning and building obstacles to force trees to grow sideways.
Growing and improving is normal. Every person I know who plays music, in any capacity, is always trying to do better, spurred on by exactly zero external reward-based incentive. Every person I know who does a job they enjoy is always trying to do better. Every kid who ever tried to make a mud pie kept trying to improve the design and construction process. I cannot believe this is a thing we need to explain.
Reformsters keep embedding this faulty notion into their understanding of teaching over and over and over again– that teachers will only do a non-crappy job of navigating the education maze if policy makers can find a better piece of cheese to offer. Teachers will only improve through training and development if we tie it to the correct complex of carrots and sticks.
This is nuts. First of all, teaching is one field where it is absolutely clear, up front, that you need to be intrinsically motivated to enter. “I went into teaching so I could make big money, power and prestige,” said no teacher ever. The appeal used to be that you could do important work and be largely left alone to pursue excellence in your own way. Now the work is forcefully downgraded (help young folks grow has been replaced with help young folks do test prep) and the freedom to pursue excellence is increasingly stripped from the job.
Second, teaching has the best, most immediate feedback loop of almost any profession or research field. Every classroom is a laboratory, and every lesson is an experiment. “Think I’ll try teaching adverbs by using fluffy stuffed zebras,” you think, and after about ten minutes you know whether you have a genius idea on your hands or something for your Never Again file. And it’s not just about measuring data– a teacher who implements a bad lesson plan gets to suffer the consequences in real time. Make a bad step in the classroom and your students will make you pay for it for the next thirty minutes. No spread sheets or number crunching necessary; the consequences of your choices are felt immediately. This is one more reason that teachers are hugely motivated to get better.
There’s no question that mentoring from other teachers is hugely, enormously, infinitely helpful, and that many school systems have grossly inadequate systems in place to support such mentoring. But again– when a helpful experienced teacher shows up at your door when you’re trying to figure out how to approach a tricky lesson, it’s not necessary for them to say, “I’ll give you thirty bucks to take my advice.”
Everything in my personal experience says that people want to get better at the things they value. There’s a whole world of argument and discussion to be unpacked form the words “better” and “value,” not to mention the whole “how to” question– but everything I know says the basic motivation is in there if it hasn’t been too badly damaged or broken. My entire teaching career is about finding it and tapping into it. And teaching, as a career, is uniquely configured to tap into it. Reformers need to stop trying to build a bridge across a beautiful valley that we can just walk through.