Can You Teach Teaching?

Posted on Jan 18, 2013 | 10 Comments

What distinguishes a great teacher from the ordinary has always been a mystery. How to improve teaching has also long been a thorny question.

Our universities claim to train teachers, but in reality many people find themselves overwhelmed by reality once inside a K-12 classroom. Nearly half of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting. Meanwhile, our schools still leave a lot to be desired.

One answer to all this, being pushed by education innovators, is to take teaching out of the theoretical realm and make the training a lot more hands-on. An article by Jonathan Schorr in the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review explains that the aim is to have more people “emerge not from universities, but from autonomous, typically nonprofit organizations” in which the locus of their training is the school building itself.

No one yet knows whether this new approach will translate into dramatic improvements in student performance or teacher retention, but Schorr is hopeful. “For our school systems, it would mean, for the first time, the ability to hire teachers on the basis of their demonstrated skill—from programs based on their record,” he writes. “For training programs, a feedback loop from the classroom would allow new understanding of what it means to teach well, and of how to help early-career teachers attain those skills.”

Teaching was a topic to which Peter Drucker returned often, in part because, without quite saying as much, he found it to be so complex and vexing. Drucker addressed himself to the subject at length in The Age of Discontinuity, published in 1968. “Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance,” he lamented. “In teaching we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach. Nobody seems to know, however, what it is the ‘naturals’ do that the rest of us do not do.”

Image credit: Marine Connan

Image credit: Marine Connan

Ultimately, Drucker felt that “better teachers” could not be created. Teacher-training institutes he considered to be of little use. “It is hard to see what the graduate of one of these institutions knows or can do that the 17-year-old high school girl of yesterday did not know or do when she started to teach elementary school in the rural Midwest,” Drucker wrote.

And yet, said Drucker, we do know more about learning than we used to know. Of particular importance: We know that learning is both behavioral and cognitive, drilling and thinking—and not just one. We know differences between smart and dumb may be narrowed by attention to different styles of learning. We know teachers spend a lot of time babysitting rather than teaching.

So, despite his skepticism of teaching teachers to teach—a practice he later dismissed as a product of wishful thinking by “Sophists”—Drucker still felt comfortable enough to predict that “teaching and learning are bound to undergo tremendous change in the next few decades,” and that by the turn of the 21st century “at least we should know enough to enable children to learn and teachers to teach.”

Whether we’ve gotten even close to that point is another matter.

What do you think? Can better teaching be taught—and, if so, is it the answer to what ails us in education?


  1. William Patrick Leronard
    January 18, 2013

    The answer lies in developing systems that focus on learning how to teach. That requires a lifelong career cycle of teaching, self and external assessment and followed attempting to do it better the next time in the pursuit of continuous improvement.

  2. Mike Grayson
    January 18, 2013

    One of the best graduate school professors I had said, “The effective teacher always teaches from the overflow of a full life. If you stop growing today, you stop teaching tomorrow.”

    The principle is simple, you cannot impart knowledge that you don’t have. A teacher must first be a great student. Based on years experience, whenever I have to teach a subject to someone else is when I really learn the subject matter, in other words, I become an exceptional student.

    This has more to do with attitude than methodology, and desire, more than organizational structure.

    There is an old saying, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher”.

  3. Carl
    January 19, 2013

    Better teaching reflects the relevance of the syllabus for tomorrows world.
    Experienced Teachers need to be listened to and given the opportunity to actively design teaching methodology.
    Speaking to an old friend who became a teacher and has been one for over 25 years told me that he spends more time on bureaucratic back office tasks than teaching.
    “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.:

  4. Rob P
    January 19, 2013

    Yes, I believe better teaching can be taught, but I also believe, as Drucker said.. “When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.”

  5. john karayan, jd phd
    January 19, 2013

    “Can You Teach Teaching?” is an interesting question, the answer to which seems as obvious as whether management can be taught.

    A more pressing issue is how to enhance learning, more specifically learning the skills and facts which enable students to be better citizens (which, by the way, also enable them to be better managers).

  6. Tom Jones
    January 19, 2013

    I do not believe that “great teachers” can be taught how to teach, it is a gift. But, I do think most people, who desire to teach, can become good teachers. I have taught in college and my wife in high school and I think there are a couple of observations I would make.
    1. In the public school system there is a lot of frustrations in the burdens of policy, special need students, etc that stand in the way of effective teaching. This turns off people who think they are going to teach and instead become clerks and haves to fight for classroom management.
    2. A teacher who wants to be a “friend” is beaten before they start. Rather, they must set high expectations and have a school administration that has those high expectations in both behavior and academic achievement.
    3. In both college and in high school, if the students are motivated to learn, I think a poor teacher will be good and a good teacher will be great. I always found a good deal of my teaching job was motivation. If a teacher is stuck into a culture or classrooms where there is no motivation to learn and he/she cannot turn that around, then teaching fails. We tend to blame the schools when the reality is that the society and family do not value the education. I believe that school should work to change that motivation from day one and continue, almost like a 12 step program because, if you have motivated students most teachers will be good or great.

  7. Houghton
    January 19, 2013

    My reflection to this topic is…

    what is the end result of teaching?

    if the answer is the receiver know how to do something right then just doing thing right…well, this is what Drucker said in management life long.

    but what if the receiver just able to internalize knowledge and live it out…that is quite challenging

    in a nutshell, teach teaching is to help the teacher so that they can get their student to internalize knowledge and live it out…it will be fun!

    my personal teaching experience is that if I want to teach teaching, I need to manage the knowledge super well and then I can try to teach others to teach.

    to be honest, it cannot happen until I repeat this “teach teaching” for 10 years, then, I can manage a bit so that I can deliver a solid “result”.

  8. Alba Patricia Valencia
    January 20, 2013

    Teach is an art, but the work of education, model or the intellect, will and heart, is victim of an exercise of a persons converted in teaching without vocation. Leaving aside that to be a teacher is not a something that happens suddenly and obfuscatingly. It is a slow dawn prolonged as life itself, it will not know sunsets.

    In another hand, the authorized contemporary theoretical elaborations on the formulation of policy in education exhibit great difficulty in generating the desired changes. The logic of the strategic choices made by political reformers is inconsistent as well as incompetent interactions in the structure, action and process. The resulting panorama shows a critical urgency, writ and uncertainty, where relations between the executive and the legislative power are disappointing and alarming.

    Finally, and as I expressed yet, half the world (especially in developed countries) is cutting education budgets to meet debt requirements and to prop up a financial system that does not give more of it, and half of world does not absolutely anything. Aggravated, all because within the education system itself half of the people are only “concerned”, but unable to generate actions that change and the other half is willing to move only when their employment is threatened with a system that exchanges “silence” to “a salary”.

    Enseñar es un arte, pero la labor formativa, modeladora del entendimiento, de la voluntad y del corazón, seguida de otro aprender que afina en el saber amar y en el saber actuar, como pilares de la virtud del pensar, es víctima del ejercicio de un sinnúmero de profesionales sin vocación. Dejando de lado que el llegar a ser maestro no es una aparición súbita y ofuscante. Es un lento amanecer prolongado como la propia vida, que no conocerá ocasos.

    De otro lado, las autorizadas elaboraciones teóricas contemporáneas sobre la formulación de la política en el sector educativo, exhiben una gran dificultad para generar los cambios anhelados. La lógica de las decisiones estratégicas adoptadas por los reformadores políticos son interacciones incongruentes e incompetentes en la estructura, la acción y el proceso. El panorama resultante muestra una visión crítica de urgencias, apremios e incertidumbre, donde las relaciones entre el poder ejecutivo y el legislativo, son desalentadoras y alarmantes.

    Finalmente, y como ya lo exprese la mitad del planeta (sobre todo en los países más desarrollados) está RECORTANDO presupuestos destinados a Educación para atender necesidades de deudas y para mantener en pie a un sistema financiero que no da más de sí, y la otra mitad del mundo no hace absolutamente nada. Agravado todo ello, porque dentro del propio sistema educativo la mitad de la gente sólo está “preocupada” pero sin capacidad de generar acciones de cambio y la otra mitad está dispuesta a moverse sólo cuando se ven amenazados sus contratos laborales con un sistema que intercambia “silencio” por “un salario”.

  9. Maverick 18
    January 21, 2013

    Of course teaching can be taught. the State of California says so. It is intriguing that one must take teaching techniqure courses and be “licensed” to teach at the primary or secondary level, but not at the college or university level. Perhaps the state needs to estaablish teaching competency criteria and start licensing college professors. Since some of them are more dangerous to students than firearms, strict licensing may be the way to go.

  10. Richard B. Mann, PhD
    January 21, 2013

    Both Mike and Carl, above, make very good points. I can agree with 80% of their comments. However, I believe anyone who thoroughly understands learning theory is capable of becoming an excellent teacher. I am a student of learning theory and it helped me become better. Nevertheless, teaching cannot be taught. It is an art, not a science. It depends on a “gift” that is both inborn and developed through experience. There are various assessment instruments that can identify whether a person is capable of developing into a good teacher, and has the desire and drive to help students learn. I use the DSI and Perceptual-Judging Word Choice (PJ) adapted from MBTI. The DSI evaluates a persons Cognitive Complexity in Decision Making. The PJ evaluates the way a person perceives and judges a situation. These are explained on my web site.

    However, having said that, I do not “teach” — I “coach,” and have received awards for my efforts. My research, and that of others, indicates that lecturing is the most ineffective way to transfer knowledge. I do not like the word “professor” when it implies that I earned a PhD for “knowing everything about nothing,” and, therefore, I can be the “sage on the stage” who delivers to a large room of students what I have spent years learning. My approach is different.

    I follow what Confucius observed, “I hear, I forget; I see, I remember, I do, I understand.” My model is to explain, demonstrate, and coach the students as they learn by doing. I do not lecture. Explanations are made using graphics, videos, stories, and examples. These are done in a form of discussions with Q&A. I give assignments that the students do by themselves or in teams depending on the nature of the assignment. They analyze companies, do market and management research, develop strategies, and make plans for one, three, and five years. This works for my subject, which is, Strategic Management in the Capstone Course of their business degree.

    I have explained this to others in seminars, but discovered that not everyone has the natural ability to learn how to do it. The bottom lines is that not everyone has the “gift.”
    Teaching cannot be taught! The Federal Government has spent millions on various teaching programs without any measurable success. This is especially true for k-12. Here is a current list of wasted spending:

    Discretionary Programs 2012 Funding
    Improving Teacher Quality State Grants 2,467
    Teacher Incentive Fund 299
    Mathematics and Science Partnerships 150
    Special Education Personnel Development Grants 88
    Teacher Quality Partnership Grants 43
    Transition to Teaching 26
    Teaching American History 0
    National Writing Project 0
    Advanced Credentialing/Advanced Certification 0
    Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow 0
    Academies for American History and Civics 0
    Perkins Loan Cancellation for Teachers and Head Start Instructors N/A
    Discretionary Total 3,073

    NB: much more info is available at


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