“Good” and “Successful” Teaching: Where Does the Student Enter the Picture?

The singular and important role of the classroom teacher in getting students to learn is well established in the research literature (see here and here). I have no quarrel with that frequent finding (whatever the metrics) to confirm that teachers are instrumental to student learning.  What is far less clear is what part do five to 18 year-old students play in the chemistry of learning.

It is a question that I have puzzled over in my many years teaching high school and graduate courses. And I have no certainty in answering it.

For some teachers, as one told me after I observed his mediocre lesson, “I was selling but the students weren’t buying,” students bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. They are expected to come to class, obey the rules, do the homework, participate in discussions, and do well on tests. Those are students’ responsibilities. Other teachers (and policymakers) see it differently, that is, teachers bear full responsibility for motivating students, insuring that they have the classroom resources to succeed, and hammering home what has to be learned. Teachers, researchers, policymakers, and parents would quibble if one were to allocate percentages, for example, for the teacher is–to pick arbitrarily a number–70 percent and the student is, say again, 30 percent responsible. The uncertainty over percentages occurs because of different meanings attached to such phrases as “good” and “successful” teaching and learning.

Consider that “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of what observers call “quality” teaching. To lead us through the thicket of complexity in meaning, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher’s and Virginia Richardson’s explanation (hereafter F & R).

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

F & R point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching. In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning.

Policymakers snooker the public by squishing together”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. Current hoopla over paying teachers for performance is the most recent conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning. Such a marriage of separate concepts ultimately deceives parents, voters, and students by suggesting that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

So those current policymakers and eager reformers who recite the mantra of “no excuses” for students’ low performance place entire responsibility (100 percent) for learning on the teacher’s shoulders. And it is here that I want to look more closely at the student’s part in the learning process to restore the critical distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning described above.

Other teachers and researchers have written about the sharing of responsibility for “good” learning (see here, here, here, and here). Most observers do see the importance of students playing a small-to-large role in their own learning. Those who champion student-centered instruction (e.g., project-based teaching, “personalized” and “blended” lessons) see students taking responsibility for their own learning through self-regulation, giving tough tasks a second, even a third try, and similar independent behaviors. But such behaviors do not need to occur only in student-centered classrooms. For those teachers more comfortable with directed lessons they teach, here too student responsibilities beyond showing up and being quiet can be cultivated and become habitual if the teacher creates a classroom ethos where students feel that they must contribute to their learning.

For the fact is that teachers, like doctors with patients and therapists with clients, are wholly dependent upon students for both “good” and “successful” teaching and learning. Those teachers who recognize that basic fact–as I have over the years–seek to cultivate student attitudes and habits that help them take responsibility for their learning.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

16 responses to ““Good” and “Successful” Teaching: Where Does the Student Enter the Picture?

  1. David

    Might I suggest that this is where education, learning and phlosophy come together? Without writing a longish post, I’d direct you to wonderful blog-post at the digital counter-revolution from 2012 on Hannah Arendt’s “The Crisis of Education” (itself a good read): http://www.digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk/2012/the-crisis-of-education-hannah-arendt/

    It also makes me think of the piece by Louise Cowan where she describes the the teacher as shaman–that we construct learning out of a host of intangibles that are not measurable. Her item is embedded in a longre item by Jennifer Dubin on the Dallas Institute here: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Dubin_0.pdf

  2. lenandlar

    Thanks for sharing this little lesson professor. It’s on I’d keep in mind and one that’s good for the reflexive educator. That one could be good without being as successful offers a sobering reminder of the nobleness of our profession.

  3. Alice in Pa

    Students do,of course, share the responsibility for learning. However I do not think that they all know it. Most of my students do not view learning as an active process, or even a process. That’s an area maybe worth exploring. We give students tips on memorizing or practicing but we could do more.

  4. The person who spoke to this question most eloquently was John Holt. He once wrote: “It was never factually true that young people learn to read or do arithmetic primarily by being taught these things. They are learned, but not really taught at all. Overteaching interferes with learning.” Bill James, the baseball writer said the best managers were the ones who got in the way of their players’ success the least. I should probably read the Fenstermacher piece. I’ve never found anyone who could define good teaching to my satisfaction. Certainly I don’t know if I’m doing it.
    And what if ‘good’ teaching for one student is the opposite for his or her classmate?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Jerry, and reminder of John Holt’s perspective–few read him today, I would guess. I do note that your question, if answered yes, as I do believe that all children and youth vary in how they learn, then the positive answer contradicts what John Holt says.

  5. JoeN

    I resolved this dilemma by looking instead at what the international research says about “excellent” teaching, on the grounds that one should encourage everyone at least to emulate, if not achieve the best. It agrees on only two things: excellent secondary level teachers display a profound level of knowledge about their subject and a “passion” for it. That word appears repeatedly in the research.

    The most most debilitating mistake I think policy makers globally have made for decades now, is to ignore this and to recruit and train not teachers, but social engineers.

  6. Art Pease

    The most important line in this post is ““good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning.” ‘It takes two to tango’, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make her drink’ may be tired cliches but like mos cliches, have a kernel of truth!

  7. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    The essence of my teaching methods depends upon me successfully cultivating student attitudes and habits that help them take responsibility for their learning…just as Dr. Cuban states in the last sentence of his post.

    The challenge is being successful at said cultivation as most of the students I have encountered in my six years of teaching secondary mathematics have mostly been acculturated to being passive recipients of knowledge rather than active seekers of knowledge…This is the crux of the dilemma facing our nation’s secondary schools in preparing students for post-secondary success…the world is not fill in the blank or a series of highly scaffolded worksheets…

  8. Jim

    Educational achievement is about 50-70% genetic. What has the next biggest impact is non-shared environment which is not well understood at the present. Shared environment which would include factors such as SES and type of schooling has a lesser impact.

    Shared environment refers to environment shared by siblings raised in the same household.

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