Review of The New Art and Science of Teaching

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When I read educational literature, I prefer it that the authors take it easy on me: give me something sweeping, general, and inspiring – more The Courage to Teach, less IKEA instruction manual. But lately I’ve been pushing myself to read more technical approaches to education (more on that below), and The New Art and Science of Teaching certainly fits the bill.

This book, an update to The Art and Science of Teaching (2007), is organized around these eleven sections:

  1. Providing and Communicating Clear Goals
  2. Using Assessments
  3. Conducting Direct Lessons
  4. Conducting Practicing and Deepening Lessons
  5. Conducting Knowledge Application Lessons
  6. Using Strategies That Appear in All Types of Lessons
  7. Using Engagement Strategies
  8. Implementing Rules and Procedures
  9. Building Relationships
  10. Communicating High Expectations
  11. Making System Changes

I’m sorry to say that reading this new edition, which is actually a workbook for teachers, is not an especially pleasurable experience. If you have ever longed for research-based approaches to, say, “demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm” in the classroom, look no further. The book’s tone is dry, and it is rife with descriptions of strategies like this one for “using humor” in the service of “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that indicate affection for students”:

“The teacher uses humor strategically. The teacher can use playful banter, jokes, or self-directed humor. The teacher might also use historical and popular sayings to make a point or incorporate cartoons, jokes, puns, and wordplay into instruction” (90).

Playful banter is totally on fleek! (I mean that affectionately.)

Nothing sucks the art out of teaching as quickly as subjecting it to the science part. It’s like having to explain a joke. And nothing turns me colder than the repeated instructions you will find here about how to handle issues at “the district level.” No two ways about it – this book is intended for public school teachers and administrators.

Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in something intended to provide a framework for much of what independent school teachers do instinctively. Still, there is plenty of wisdom here if you’re willing to push past the crusty formality. For instance, amidst some technical verbiage about how to design effective assessments is this challenge:

At its core, assessment is a feedback mechanism for students and teachers. Assessments should provide students with information about how to advance their understanding of content and teachers with information about how to help students do so” (21).

 For many of us, I suspect, assessments are used primarily as a sorting tool and as a discrete measurement of performance on a specific topic. The idea that assessments are intended to be primarily feedback tools for continual improvement seems simple on its surface, but designing them with that intention takes deep thought and careful practice. This book can help with that, and lots more.

Reading this book is an intimidating experience for the uninitiated. It’s literally full of things I don’t do…and don’t know how to do. When confronted by charts like “sample scales for generating claims, evidence, and reasoning,” which then direct me to “clearly articulate learning goals” by, among other specific strategies, embedding them in “a proficiency scale” (12-13), my reaction is a mixture of despair and paranoia. I can’t do this! Who in my school knows how to do this? Should I know how to do it, too?

No doubt Robert Marzano and his colleagues would have little patience for my gnashing of teeth here; their work is aimed toward people who are willing and ready to establish research-based teaching practices. Regardless of however pitiful or small it might seem, as I read the book, I fought to lean into it and to not reject it just because this work seems foreign or confusing…or just hard to do.

In fact, it is past time for independent schools to stop being willfully oblivious to specific teaching practices like those outlined in this book – or to stop turning up our noses at anything that seems too “public school-y,” which is perhaps the more pernicious of the two sins. For too long, most independent schools have traded on close, communal connections in our communities and derisively waived away questions about the (largely invisible) infrastructure that undergirds our teaching. Curriculum development, end-of-grade testing, grading rubrics, evidence-based teaching practices – they all get tarred with the same brush.

But hopefully we can also agree that high-quality teaching is the greatest differentiator for independent schools – perhaps even more than the close communities that, with increasing frequency, are replicated by magnet schools, charter schools, and other innovative public school models. With enrollments dropping in independent schools across the country, the time is right for us to utilize targeted approaches to improving teaching, even if it’s already excellent.

So…read this book, but in little sips. It would be ideal for a hard-charging Critical Friends Group or a PLC that is focused on improving teaching and student outcomes and is willing to have its practice challenged. Administrators can use it to help teachers find ways to improve their habits in ways they never knew existed.

See the original review here: http://www.sais.org/news/381024/Book-Review-of-The-New-Art-and-Science-of-Teaching-by-Robert-J.-Marzano.htm

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