Anything Will Work at Harvard – Or Similar Institutions

Decades ago, I read a study that compared the abilities and success of teachers in public secondary schools to those of teachers in elite private schools.  The conclusion back then was that the overall teaching capabilities of teachers in public schools were actually better than those of teachers in private schools, but that the students in private schools, on average, learned more.

From what I’ve seen over the years, as a student, as a parent, and as a university lecturer, I suspect that conclusion remains largely accurate.  That’s why I’m extraordinarily suspicious of any “new” idea or concept in education that comes from institutions such as Harvard or Yale, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Smith, Ripon, and any other number of “elite” colleges or universities.  Why?  Because when you have both top level students and professors, almost anything will work in educating those students… and that’s something that all too many educators, particularly the administrations at state colleges and universities, don’t seem to grasp.

Now… if that “new” idea works at an inner city charter school, or public school, where most of the students are well below grade level, then… then I get interested.  Or if it works at a mid-level state university or college. But after teaching at a state university and being married to a professor who’s taught at that level for over thirty years, I’ve seen more “new” ideas floated and fail that I can even begin to count, and almost none of them worked as well as the old-fashioned methods of maintaining standards and accountability and simply requiring students to learn the material.

The same principle also applies to “inspirational” teachers. Certain individuals have the capability to inspire.  From what I’ve observed, the ability can be refined and better directed, but not all teachers have that capability, nor do all CEOs, nor all professionals in any given field.  Yet  I don’t see anyone claiming that the only good CEOs. lawyers, doctors, or dentists are the inspirational ones.  But in education, I’ve seen all too many books and articles based on what inspirational teachers do that claim that inspiration is the only way, and I’ve seen those methods succeed in making students feel better, but fail in improving their learning.

The techniques used by successful professionals [the ones who have been successful for decades, not those who are “flavour du jour”] in any field vary considerably, but the one thing those successful professionals all have in common is subject matter mastery, combined with self-discipline… and both of those are exactly what it takes for students to be successful.  And, just as in the rest of life, not all students have the ability, for whatever reason, to master certain subjects, and of those who do, not all have the self-discipline to keep at it steadily enough to attain that mastery.

What’s overlooked all too often in all the educational fads is that the desired end result is a student with a mastery of the subject, with the ability to think and apply that knowledge with skill, and the self-discipline to do so.  Fads come and go;   those basic requirements don’t.

4 thoughts on “Anything Will Work at Harvard – Or Similar Institutions”

  1. Corwin says:

    As someone who spent over 30 years as an ‘educator’ I totally endorse everything you wrote. You are spot on with all that you say and when I used to supervise and mentor new teachers, my mantra was always ‘KNOW your subject’. Content mastery builds the confidence a teacher needs to be able to handle any and all classroom situations.

    1. Lourain says:

      Some knowledge of child/adolescent psychology helps, as well.

  2. Daze says:

    Read John Hattie’s book Visible Learning – a synthesis of 800 meta-analyses of studies of educational achievement, covering in total more than 5 million students in comparative studies. The first thing they do is to remove any study that shows no better than the improvement over a year that you’d expect anyway from a middling teacher in a middling school without any special intervention. Almost all of the “brilliant ideas” and innovations in pedagogy disappear from the analysis at this point. So, interestingly, do most questions of class size, demography and economics.

    What is left?

    Teachers are among the most powerful influences in learning
    Teachers need to be directive, influential, caring and actively engaged in the passion of teaching and learning
    Teachers need to be aware of what each student is thinking and knowing, to construct meaning and meaningful experiences in light of this knowledge
    Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria for all students and know where to go next in light of the gap between student’s current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria.
    It is not the knowledge of ideas, but the learner’s construction of this knowledge and these ideas that is critical
    School leaders and teachers need to create a school, staffroom and classroom environment where error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, where discarding incorrect knowledge and understanding is welcomed, and where participants can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding.

    Or, in brief: know the kids and what they each specifically need, and gear your lessons to that. With these six signposts, “effective teaching can occur similarly for all students, all ethnicities, and all subjects”

    Visible Learning, pp 238-9

    1. Lourain says:

      Are you actively involved in teaching? Public or private school? Age/class level?
      What do you mean by ‘effective teaching’?
      “…the gap between student’s current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria” can be quite different for students in an honors physics class compared to a biology class where half the students are classified as ‘special needs’.
      What you quoted sounds really good from a theoretical point of view…practical application is more difficult.
      “Teachers need to be aware of what each student is thinking and knowing…” Good luck with that!

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