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C'est la Z

Teaching Styles

My friend Emmanuel lamented over on Facebook on "Learning Styles," or more specifically on how it's still given credence. We all chimed in in agreement but not an hour later I saw a Twitter thread where education thought leaders extolled the virtues of Learning Styles all over again. I pointed out that it's a great example as to why so many teachers scoff at "the research" and "research backed practices." We've seen it all before. We're told we have to teach one way or we're failures only to be told a few years later that we have to do something else. It's not necessarily the research (although I question a good deal of what I've read) but also the interpretations and implementations. There are just too many factors that are never considered.

One factor that I've rarely seen mentioned but one I think about frequently, particularly as I work with teachers is "teaching styles." I'm not talking about any deep science here but we know that teachers are people and people have tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. These are factors that are so important to teaching but rarely considered. It's always "teach this way" and never what works for you.

Think about how ridiculous that is. In what other field do we ignore the individual strengths, tendencies and even comfort level of the professional. In sports, we know that there are "player's coaches" and "disciplinarians" and players and teams might take better to one or the other. Likewise, a coaches act can grow stale over time as the team evolves. Similarly a great coach works their system to the strengths of the players and doesn't rigidly try to make players conform to a system where they just don't fit. Now that doesn't mean that a coach won't try to develop a players weaknesses or try to move towards their favored system but the greats look at the skills and personalities of all involved. It also doesn't mean that you can't evolve. Former NY Giants coach Tom Coughlin was a rigid disciplinarian and almost lost the team and his job prior to their Super Bowl run in 2007. He evolved - became more of a players coach. He didn't change his stripes. He was still a stickler for rules and details but he brought in a new human dimension to his coaching game.

Back to teaching.

While you want teachers to have a large set of tools in the box they are going to be better with some than with others. Of course you can't ignore the students and how they respond but it's not a one way street. Take my friend Jim. He's one of the best two or three natural teachers I know. I describe him as "the teacher I aspire to be." He's amazing. Stylistically though he's what I call traditional teacher dominant. He presents, there are questions comments and answer, seat work. Pretty old school stuff. He doesn't fit the constructivist mold nor the cooperative one but he's the best. I remember talking to our principal a number of years ago. They said "I can't bring superintendents and DOE officials to Jim's class when they visit and want to see what we're doing. He's great but they just wouldn't understand and we'd get a lower school rating." He's the best but he doesn't fit Danielson. Now before you give me the "but it doesn't count, he teaches at Stuy" I'll share that prior to teaching at Stuy he taught at an overall low performing neighborhood school and experience notwithstanding, he was the best then too.

What makes Jim the best? He has his preferred style and he adjusts to what his students need. He'll take an assortment of tools out of his belt - some discovery stuff here, some group work there but he'll work it in to augment his strengths rather than being something he's not and as a result being inauthentic.

For my part I too am traditional teacher dominant. I'm not anywhere close to Jim's level. I consider myself an above average in class teacher who brings other things to the table and makes up for it with honesty, sincerity, and loyalty. I'm 100% not a Danielson teacher nor am I a cooperative learning one which was all the rage when I started my career. I'll try to get new ideas and learn new techniques and pick and choose and overall it's worked pretty well.

All of this is to say that when teaching teachers or coaching them, don't try to turn them into you or into John Keating, Jaime Escalante, or what have you (note to self, write up teacher movie rant some day). Help them to look at who they are and what they bring to the table. Mix that with the needs of their students and the cosntraints of their teaching situation and help them to be the best they cab be.

Teaching styles, for lack of a better name is too frequently missing from the education equation. It's totally removed by those who want scripted curricula and cookie cutter instruction and barely mentioned anywhere else but teaching styles are an important component of great teaching and I wish more people acknowledged this.

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