“Good” Doctors and Teachers (Part 2)

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians?

2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are their core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

4. Are “good” teachers dependent for success on their students, as doctors are on their patients?

The answer to each of the four questions is yes.

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians? 

From the 1960s, researchers laid out the following personal traits and behaviors that “good” teachers exhibit:

[E]ffective teachers carefully monitor learning activities and are clear, accepting and supportive, equitable with students, and persistent in challenging and engaging them.

In the 1980s and 1990s, researcher findings added up to the following attributes of “effective” teachers. They:

*are clear about instructional goals;

*are knowledgeable about their content an strategies for teaching it;

*communicate to their students what is expected of them and why:

*make expert use of existing instructional materials in order to devote more time to practices that enrich and clarify the content;

* are knowledgeable about their students, adapting instruction to their needs….;

*address higher- as well as lower-level cognitive objectives….;

*accept responsibility for student outcomes;

*are thoughtful and reflective of their practices.

Then there are the features of “good” teachers that progressives then and now hold dear:

*A classroom that is student-centered:

*Teaching methods that are inquiry driven and organized around problem-solving and investigation:
*Instructors who are passionate about their subject’s real world significance.
*Metacognition—critical reflection about content
and pedagogy—is an integral part of the classroom

Lists of attributes and behaviors of “good” teachers appear every decade. Some lists overlap, some do not.










2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

Surely, there are. Consider that since the 1990s, policymakers have rushed to raise academic standards, hold teachers and administrators accountable for student outcomes, and expanded testing. In that push, a narrowed view of what constitutes “good” teaching has unfolded that focuses more on direct instruction and teacher-centered behaviors.







Yet there are students who see “good” teaching as different than this current mainstream view (e.g., “What makes a great teacher is being kind,” “A great teacher is someone that cares for his or her students,” “Someone who can make learning fun and someone who can be funny and focused at the same time”).

And for many, but not the majority, there are parents, practitioners, and researchers, who define a “good” teacher as going beyond high test scores. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the well-being of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia as “good” teachers who nurture, inspire, and connect to students.

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are there core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

Yes, there are. Just as when medical staff, patients, professionals and non-professionals define “goodness” in physicians, two essential features crop up again and again for teachers: competence and caring.


4. Are “good” teachers dependent on their students as doctors are on their patients for success.

Yes. they are. To see how the dependence works, one has to sort out the notion of “good” from the idea of “successful.” They are often seen as equivalent terms. They are not. Once sorted out, it becomes clear that both teachers and doctors depend on their students and patients to learn and heal.

Keep in mind that doctors and teachers using “good” practices do not automatically yield “good” results. Following the best practices in either job leads, from time to time, to failure, not success. Why? Because motivated students and patients have to participate fully for “good” teaching to turn into “successful” learning and the same is true for doctors and their patients.






Here is how the distinction works for teachers. Good” teaching pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful teaching,” on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and blended the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “good” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “good” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Best example of that muddle is evaluating teacher performance on the basis of student test scores. Consider, for example, the stark differences between Houston’s pay-teachers-for-performance and Denver’s ProComp plan.


The answers to the four questions are monotonously “yes.” The string of “yes” answers reveals that policymakers have, as so often they do, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.










*The quote marks are there to signal that “good” (or “great,” “excellent,” “effective”) is an adjective that varies in meaning among parents, teachers, students, researchers, and policymakers.




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9 responses to ““Good” Doctors and Teachers (Part 2)

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  4. The shift from “good” to “effective” is important, and in my experience “effective” includes something related to the use of data. It might be “uses data” in some manner, it might be a standardized test based measure of “effectiveness,” or it might include both, but data is always part of the criteria.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Thomas, on the importance of data in determining “good” or “effective.”

  5. Reblogged this on David J Terrell and commented:
    Education has been going through a deep change, this blog by Larry Cuban summarizes the basic ideas that help to understand the complexities in identifying what a “good” teacher is. It sure is a great read.

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