A Conversation About “Intellectual Teachers” with Ben Riley

Ben Riley and I have been talking together about teaching for years. Ben’s day job is Executive Director of Deans For Impact, a non-profit that seeks to bring learning science to teachers before and during their careers. Much of Ben’s work is motivated by a belief that this sort of research could transform the status of teaching by giving the discipline a specialist’s language and knowledge.

Ben and I agree is that teachers have important contributions to make to the intellectual landscape of teaching. When Ben recently wanted to think more about this, he reached out to me. Below is the conversation as it played out over email.

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Benjamin Riley: Michael, I feel like you are very interested in questions about how to teach effectively in ways that you find stimulating as a teacher. Put another way, I feel like you find…joy?…in working through the challenges of finding methods to build your students’ mathematical knowledge. So, I guess I’m wondering…do you think of yourself as an “intellectual teacher”? Is there any value to trying to define what that means? Or is this all too cute and erudite by half?

Michael Pershan: I think “teaching as an intellectual craft” can mean two separate things.

The first is maybe closer to what you’re talking about, which is doing intellectual work — let’s call it theoretical work — to make pedagogical decisions. Let’s imagine a teaching problem, maybe that Johnny isn’t engaged in class. There are a lot of ways to deal with this. You might call Johnny’s parents. You might try to find out Johnny’s interests. We could try to offer challenging extension work for Johnny’s sake; we could try to add supportive instruction for the benefit of Johnny. How do we decide which course to take?

There are a lot of Johnny-centric factors involved in this decision, and clearly there is a certain amount of knowledge about teaching — about what we do with students who are like Johnny — that is involved also. I think most teachers don’t have formal, theoretical ideas about what students like Johnny are like and how you deal with situations such as his.

To the extent that you try to develop more of that theoretical knowledge as part of your teaching, I think that’s “teaching as an intellectual craft.”

But I think this is only one thing that we might mean, because there is this whole enterprise of developing and sharing theoretical knowledge about teaching. It’s developed by researchers, consultants, teacher trainers, university professors, and oh-so-rarely by teachers themselves. And I’m also interested in that aspect of “intellectual craft,” because while there are clearly limitations to the sort of generalizations that teachers can make about teaching, there are also things that teachers can add that nobody else can.

I think that both aspects of this intellectual craft are relevant for my professional life. (Clearly, they can’t be totally separated or I’d be weirdly dissociated with myself, or some kind of fraud.) I think the future of teaching could involve more teachers doing this second thing, contributing to the theoretical edifice of teaching knowledge, but there’s no roadmap for how it could get done. There’s a reason that researchers contribute more to the theoretical knowledge than teachers do — most importantly, it’s hard to make generalizations from your own, limited experience. So, if we’re going to get to a world where teachers regularly contribute in this way, it’s not obvious to me what has to change.

Ben: See, I knew you were the right teacher to ask about this. And I think you’ve made an important distinction among two types of “teaching intellectualism,” which pose related but somewhat distinct challenges.

The question of “how should I, a teacher, teach Johnny, this particular student” strikes me as essentially an engineering question. I’ve discovered the hard way that teachers hate the metaphor of “learning engineering,” yet it strikes me as apt — when teachers design a lesson or task for their students, they are trying to get them (the students) to think about something they otherwise might not be inclined to think about. Students are puzzles, and while they can never be fully solved, I think there are ways in which we can help teachers get better at “engineering” experiences that will help Johnny and his classmates learn.

You are right that we rarely give teachers formal ideas about what students are like, but this is where cognitive science can be helpful, right? We could make sure that teachers have at least a basic understanding of how our minds work, and then use that as the foundation for exploring questions about what to do with that knowledge in a teaching context. While we can’t just snap our fingers to make that happen, I at least see a roadmap to get there, and indeed, that’s the work we do at the organization I founded.

Which brings me to your second aspect of teaching as an intellectual craft. What I hear you saying is there’s a big gap right now between the largely theoretical knowledge produced by university professors and such, and the sorts of questions that might only be visible to people who actually spend most of their days with children. Unfortunately, as you hint at, there is no obvious path to make that more valued. I feel like periodically the idea of “teacher-researcher” floats around but never goes very far. The incentives just don’t exist. We could mount a policy push to create them, but that seems like a hard slog.

So what to do? Any ideas?

Michael: I think teacher-researcher as a label is sort of a trap for teachers. Quite obviously, classroom teachers aren’t able to visit a large variety of other teachers and make systematic observations. This means that, for the most part, we’re observing ourselves or our colleagues, severely limiting the generalizations we’re able to make with confidence. There are other research methodologies that are supposed to be available to classroom teachers — we can talk of case studies, action research, or teaching experiments — but I think these are rightly seen as minor contributions to the field.

(To be fair, there are a few well-known case studies and teaching experiments in math education, but they have almost exclusively been performed by academic researchers, not classroom teachers.)

If teacher-researcher is a trap, I think teacher-writer is a much better deal for the teacher. Writers just get to write, and we (I’ll switch to “we”) can try to convince the reader however we like. I think we can contribute to the intellectual landscape by chewing over our own experiences through the lens of research. In other words, we can speak directly about what we know but put it in terms that might be useful to others by relating it to research.

Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of teachers who seem interested in this. I don’t really have any bright ideas on how to change this. Part of the problem, I think, is that teachers don’t tend to write to their advantages. When teachers typically do write it tends to mimic the patterns of consultants and researchers who tediously cite study without speaking personally. We have a weird prejudice against personal experience in education writing. But what’s the point of a teacher writing if they aren’t going to sound like a teacher?

I’ll be honest, this is not a good time to be in this line of work. Everything seemed much better for teacher-writers in the early 2010s when I was coming up. Blogs were still big and there truly was a culture of people in the classroom who wrote. Not a lot of that is still around.

What’s left is books, so I’d encourage teachers to write those.

Ben: You say that teachers can’t visit other classrooms and make systematic observations…but what if they could? I’ll admit I’ve fantasized about a variety of possibilities in this regard. At the most basic level, you could imagine teachers popping into other teachers’ lessons on Zoom — a less-than-ideal format for instruction, I think we’d both agree, but it does eliminate the geographic limitation. The “multiverse” seems like it might be a giant practical joke but again, I can at least imagine a future where teachers can observe other teachers in a virtual learning environment. Or perhaps we could create a one-year teacher fellowship program, where teacher-fellows go around the country (or the world?) to watch other great teachers and learn and write about their experiences. Pricey, but we’ve got lots of philanthropists in this space!

It also occurs to me that, to foster teacher-writing, perhaps we need a prestigious journal dedicated to publishing essays by teacher-writers?  I feel like asking teachers — or anyone — to write books is a pretty big ask. 

Michael: We do have journals that will publish essays by teacher-writers but…they aren’t very interesting. It’s a lot of what I was describing before, that sort of faux research essay, the kind that starts by citing a bunch of Common Core State Standards.

The thing about making systematic observation is that it puts teachers in competition with researchers, and at that point why do we prefer the analysis of teachers? Maybe teachers would ask questions that academic researchers would not — that’s something that Callie Lowenstein has pointed to as a unique advantage that teachers have, and I agree with her on that.

Look, there are a lot of things that need money in education. We need to make sure school buildings are healthy environments. Kids should feel safe in every school. Every kid should get to study science, art, music, that’s a fundamental right. I want smaller class sizes. I want kids to love to think and read. I don’t think that your ability to succeed in school should be your last chance to make it in American society. Compared to these problems, the question of whether teachers have a part in the theory-building edifice of teaching feels like exceedingly small potatoes.

That said — a fellowship is a good idea! And I’m all for more journals, conferences, and so forth. The challenge will always be finding what unique perspective teachers can add. I believe it’s there, but too much teacher writing suffers from trying to be something that it’s not.

Ben: So to summarize our conclusions…

Yes, teaching is an intellectual craft, but this has multiple meanings.

There are things we might do to nurture the intellectual climate of teaching, such as:

  • Encouraging teachers to write more, and in authentic fashion
  • Fostering opportunities for teachers and researchers to explore classroom-relevant questions together
  • Creating fellowships to allow teachers to observe and learn from other teachers

That seems like a reasonable agenda to me, and one that might help attract intellectually curious individuals into the profession of teaching. I’ll let you have the final word — any parting thoughts?

Michael: My only parting thought is that there are many ways to change the composition of the teacher workforce. Teaching, at the end of the day, is incredibly meaningful work. What keeps people out of the profession isn’t the intellectual atmosphere as much as a wide variety of other factors. Yes, pay. But also working conditions. What would the teacher workforce look like if we had fewer behavioral problems to deal with? If we were less likely to be blamed for things beyond our control? When we think about attracting people to the job who might otherwise be in other lines of work, we should think expansively about how people choose whether or not to teach.

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