What Do The Best Teachers Do?

Welcome back to school everyone! We all know that students love to hear stories, but as the school year begins, I decided to share a story with all of you. It begins, like all good stories with …

Long, long ago… I was part of a project that decided to find what makes a best teacher “best”. Most people would agree that the most important piece of “equipment” you can have in a classroom is a really good teacher.  What makes someone a good teacher? How do you identify good teachers, anyway? Is it just test scores? Is it having your lesson plans done on time?

Here is what we did: We received recommendations from teacher supervisors of their best student teachers. We followed up those who had positive recommendations from administrators and fellow teachers. We asked those “good” teachers to submit samples of their best work. Then, a sample of experts selected the best submissions from the best work of the best teachers who had been the best student teachers.

As an expert in research methods, I was invited to be part of panel analyzing this work to figure out what all of the “best” teachers have in common. Remember, the instructions the teachers received were deliberately vague, “Send us your best work.” Some teachers sent videos of themselves teaching. Others sent 70-page lesson plans. Some teachers sent copies of students’ work saying, “The best way to show you how I teach is to show what my students can do.”

If you play our games, you’ll see that we have modeled the game design on the best teaching. So, what exactly did the best teachers do?

There were a few key factors these teachers all had in common:
1.     They taught using multiple methods, at the same time. For example, teaching taxonomy, Ms. A gave a brief lecture (auditory), held up a poster she’d made where she demonstrated how to classify types of beans and rice (visual), had students come up and point to different categories (kinesthetic) and then work in groups to make their own classifications (social, kinesthetic and visual), then stand up and describe these to the class (auditory). This was ONE lesson. All teachers use multiple methods to teach, but these teachers did it ALL of the time – and they made it seem effortless.
2.     Scaffolding. Vygotsky (a famous psychologist) suggested that people learn most in their “zone of proximal development.” That is, when a challenge is just a little too hard for you to do on your own, but you can do it with a little help is when the most learning occurs. If you’ve ever seen a gymnastics class, think of ‘spotting’ where a coach or teammate has a hand out to help you just as you are flipping over. Really good teachers won’t tell a student the answer to a problem. Instead, they give hints. If the first hint doesn’t help enough, they give another hint. Then they give an explanation.
3.     Their lessons connected. The popular term is thematic instruction.  A science lesson on the life cycle taught about reproduction and growth. The teacher got fertilized eggs and put them in an incubator. In math class, students estimated the days until the eggs hatched. These estimations were graphed and students learned about distributions. When hatched, students fed the chicks and recorded their feed and weight. These numbers were graphed and students learned about X and Y coordinates. In English, students wrote in their journals what they had learned and their opinions on where the chicks should go from here – a petting zoo, egg farm, the cafeteria for school lunch (kidding!).

Not only was it humbling to see the best teachers at work, but I also learned a lot from them. Ever since, in creating games, we have tried to model what the best teachers do.  Of course, there was a lot more and it cannot all be programmed, but where it can, we intend to do it.

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