What are “essential teaching skills”?

In my last post, I expressed incredulity at Pat Rogan’s statement that by limiting education degrees to no more than 30 hours of pedagogy courses, the state of Indiana would be “put[ting] educators without essential teaching skills into classrooms”. I brought up the example of one-room schoolhouse teachers and homeschooling parents as examples of people who teach successfully without anywhere near that amount of coursework. Another example I realized this morning was my own profession of college teaching. Most college professors have never had a pedagogy course in their lives, and yet many of those are among the best classroom educators our society has to offer. They certainly have “essential teaching skills”.

Of course there are also many professors whose teaching is atrocious. But there are also high school teachers with 30+ hours of pedagogy courses whose teaching is equally atrocious, and it’s highly questionable whether they have “essential teaching skills” despite surviving all that coursework.

What exactly are “essential teaching skills”? How do these differ from one teaching situation to the next — the preschool classroom, elementary schools, public high schools, private high schools, college classrooms, homeschoolers’ living rooms? Is there a single set of “essential teaching skills” that is common to all teachers, regardless of their context? And what role does education coursework play in conveying those skills?



Filed under Teaching

19 responses to “What are “essential teaching skills”?

  1. Sue

    I’m concerned that most math courses follow a progression of ‘material’, and that future teachers are going to need some courses that get them thinking mathematically, outside that progression.

    I designed a math for elementary teachers course for my community college, and got to teach it a few times. But it never got oked for ‘gen ed’ credit, and now it’s not offered. It may be the best (math) course we have for getting students to really think. But some official body in California says it’s not college level.

  2. This is a can of worms akin to “explain all of linear algebra with a single blog post”, but let me make a few points.

    1. Most of the high quality ed programs I know of do more than a single student teacher semester — they extend classroom experience over several years. In such cases these are included as part of the hours. What you _don’t_ want to do is toss someone in a classroom with no previous experience whatsoever — while I did it, is not a experience I could recommend elsewhere, and the statistics bear out doing so causes a high turnover rate.

    2. There is of course what *is* taught and what *should* be taught. While educational psychology is required, I believe psychology gets far too little emphasis. We know, for example, formulas to determine when the best times to relearn are something we’re memorizing — but how many teachers know about them? I realize part of the reason hard science is not in the curriculum is a cadre of teachers who just can’t handle it, so maybe things are sitting on their pragmatic ideal for the moment.

    3. A fair amount of research (I’m thinking particularly of Fred Jones observing “natural teachers”) has gone into observing teachers who are intuitively quite good but have a hard time expressing why, and putting those principles they use to words so _everyone_ can be a good teacher. That there is some innate talent is what sometimes causes a disjoint between people who found their ed classes useful and those that didn’t (even if they are taking the exact same classes). However, I don’t believe for a moment that only people innately talented at a job should be the only ones allowed to do it; to get the numbers of teachers that we need we have to work with the “average” teachers too, and someone who studies from scratch to get something often turns out in the end to be better than the person who is capable of winging it.

    4. I could likely make a list of “ed concepts I think teachers ought to know”, but it’d likely take an extended post. Off the top of my head, every teacher should know about the Jane Elliot blue eye/brown eye experiment and the later iterations. For example, at the University of Arizona there was an experiment involving a miniature golfing challenge. One group was told it was (paraphrasing here) “a test of athletic ability” and the other was told it was “a test of mental-spacial ability”. African Americans told it was a test of athletic ability scored notably better than those told it was a test of mental ability; internalized stereotypes affected performance. One can affect one’s class performance simply to what language one uses.

    • One extra comment:

      5. The biggest difference between teaching K-12 and older students is the difficulty of classroom management. It is the main reason we get the high turnover.

      We had a very nice gentlemen with a PhD in genetics once come to teach (biology) at our school. His ability to handle 9th graders was abysmal. Not once, but twice he somehow managed to get locked out of the room while the students inside ran around spraying fire extinguishers at everything.

  3. Jason did a fine job hitting a few highlights —

    classroom management, psych, learning theory/styles, brain/memory research, pedagogy/practices of those demonstrating “innate” teaching skills

    My experience suggests —
    strong content knowledge and clear personal pursuit of continuing education/exploration

    ability to engage — storytelling, compelling narratives, productive rabbit trails

    demonstrated empathy /care / concern for students as individuals — and the ability to create a “community” within the class

    clear, rigorous, high quality standards — for student work, behavior, character

    strong commitment to providing “meaningful” tasks

    willingness to experiment and communicate creatively via many diverse modes-tweet, blog, phone, … be available to students

    an ability to laugh 😉

    Looking forward to other lists…

    By the way — I found that few useful skills were provided in education courses I was forced to take as a high school “lateral entry” teacher [Reading for Secondary School — was an exception — great pre-reading, during reading, post reading pedagogical ideas in that class]

  4. rwp

    Given that these “pedagogical” courses are nothing more than ideological tripe with no pedagogical or academic content, I think 30 hours of them is 30 hours too many. And please. Ed research? That’s an oxymoron. Here are some from a large state university not far from where you live.

    E 300 Elementary Education for a Pluralistic Society (3 cr.)
    E 320 Envisioning, Exploring, and Creating Our Social Worlds Through Multiple Literacies in the Elementary School (9 cr.)
    E 322 Diversity and Social Justice I (3 cr.) and II (3 cr.)

    See here:


    • Sue

      Ahh well, I guess ideological tripe is in the eye of the beholder. I’m reading Mathematical Problem Solving by Alan Schoenfeld (a mathematician doing ed research) right now – it’s facinating. I also found Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got to Do with It? helpful.

      For the record, after getting my BA in math, I went through a teacher ed program to get elementary certified, and would have found some sort of internship program much more useful.

      How about spending mornings in classrooms and meeting 3 times a week, in groups of 10, with someone who is both a master teacher, and qualified with knowledge in all areas of ed research, ed history, and ed practices? The students could discuss what they found valuable, puzzling, and/or problematic in the classrooms they were a part of, and the master teacher could chime in with relevant info when useful (not lecture-style). Any assignments would be based on issues the students were struggling with.

  5. This was the line in your post that stood out to me: “Most college professors have never had a pedagogy course in their lives, and yet many of those are among the best classroom educators our society has to offer.”

    I’ll have to argue here for more, not less, training in teaching for doctoral students intending to pursue faculty positions. Sure, some PhDs turn out to be great teachers with little formal training, but most benefit from some preparation for their roles as teachers. I’ve talked with plenty of junior faculty who wished they had had some formal preparation for teaching once they started their classroom work.

    Depending on the natural aptitude of some individuals to develop a workforce of proficient teachers seems a little risky when teaching is a skill that can be developed over time through training and feedback.

  6. One more point: I should have added that math faculty search committees have indicated that PhDs in math should receive more formal training in teaching. In my 2006 survey of 156 search committees in the US, this was a theme that emerged.

    • I think you’re right, Derek. However, as you well know because of your position with the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt, pedagogy courses offered in an education department are just a subset of “formal training” in teaching. Many of the professors who are great teachers might have had formal preparation for teaching but still have never taken a pedagogy course. When I was in grad school at Vanderbilt, I benefitted greatly from what the Center for Teaching offered (and eventually helped deliver that training as a Master Teaching Fellow). At the time we also had a teacher training program in the math department that was required of all teaching assistants that was fantastic. (I don’t know if that program is still going. I hope it is.) This kind of training was very practical, hands-on, and paid real dividends in the classroom. I think that training was very different from pedagogy courses offered in an education department.

      I think secondary teachers would get more out of 10-15 “credit hours” of the kind of training that the Center for Teaching offered than they would out of 30 hours of pedagogy courses — and I think that’s the point of the restrictions on pedagogy courses in the teacher licensing in Indiana that is the subject of the post prior to this one.

  7. I’m going to have to agree with Jason’s suggestions, which are spot on. All the subject matter background doesn’t exactly prepare one to impart or implement instruction in a way that helps students learn nor does it help a teacher manage a classroom, and frankly those are two areas that are lacking (or were in my situation) in teacher preparation programs. Even though I feel I received a good preparation, it wasn’t enough. I’m not sure a program like that exists, but I would not agree that educational courses are tripe either. I learned a great deal that I used later, and the courses set me on the path of becoming a lifelong learner and reflective teacher. I’m convinced you can’t be a good teacher if you do not enjoy learning and do not reflect on your practice. One of the best course for helping with classroom management and learning pedagogy was an Educational Psychology course I just took. I wish I had taken one like it earlier. I don’t remember my Ed. Psych. class in undergrad being nearly so helpful, but then it was probably just time for a refresher.

    We also need quality mentoring and professional development for new teachers (neither of which is common, sad to say), but that is a completely different post.

  8. virusdoc

    I’ve had no formal pedagogical training, but won a college-wide teaching award my second semester in the classroom. This isn’t intended to be personal horn-tooting, quite the opposite. I think I do an OK job teaching, but only slightly above average even by my own standards. I often don’t put the time into the content or the presentation I know I should. I lean too heavily on powerpoint and scripted presentations and only occasionally venture out into the unknown of discussion (admittedly, it’s a large course: 70 this past spring). So the fact that I received a student-voted award should tell us something about the gaussian distribution of teaching skills at my institution: it’s heavily left-shifted.

    As for essential teaching skills, there are a few that stand out in my mind as having served me well:

    -know your subject matter so intimately that you can explain each concept in several completely different ways.

    -be careful not to overestimate the prior knowledge and background of your audience. Ask frequent questions during your teaching to make sure you haven’t lost the whole class. Slow down. Cover less but cover it more carefully.

    -be willing to do a little disservice to the details of your subject matter if it enables you to create an overarching conceptual map of the subject that is more easily grasped by your students (don’t lie, but omit truths when they are exceptions that obscure the rule)

    -stay active in the current affairs and cutting edge of your subject. This generates personal excitement that comes out when you teach

    -have fun with your content and your presentation. If you hate what you’re doing, the students will quickly figure it out.

    -engage your students as humans, inside and outside the classroom, inside and outside the subject matter. Care about them, or get another job.

  9. I agree, Robert, that a course on pedagogical theory is only one of several possible components of formal training in teaching for future faculty members. We try to be sensible about the mix of theoretical and practical in the training activities (orientations, workshops, consultations, etc.) that we offer.

    For example, at our orientation for new teaching assistants, we rarely mention any pedagogical theory. That theory informs how we design TA Orientation itself as well as the kinds of teaching best practices we discuss at the orientation, of course. But we find that brand new TAs just aren’t interested in theory–they just want the nuts and bolts of teaching.

    It occurs to me that perhaps the more experience one has teaching (in general), the more ready (in a cognitive and a motivational sense) one is to learn about pedagogical theory as a way to make sense of one’s teaching experiences. If true, what implications would that have for pre-service teacher training?

    And I’m glad to say that the TA training seminar in the math department is alive and well!

  10. Essential teaching skill: The ability to continue learning. If we are still learning, then we still understand what it’s like to be in the learner’s shoes. If we are still learning, then we are still reframing our own ideas about teaching. If we are still learning, then we are still being exposed to new ideas.

    When I look at all of the poor instructors I’ve had in my lifetime, they all have one thing in common … they checked out of the learning process themselves.

    NOTE: Signing up to take courses or attend conferences is not the same thing as learning … being physically present does not constitute learning.

  11. I agree that there are many great college professor without pedagogical background, but also many of them can’t teach very well. I wonder if pedagogical course offered to college professor can make these worse professor perform better?

  12. kibrolv

    “cover your ass.”
    geez, people.

  13. Andrew Bell

    People have been trying to find the key to training good teachers forever with little luck, as far as I can tell. Many things may be helpful, but the training has to be meaningful to the individual in order to be effective and little is meaningful to everyone. Too often class attendance is seen as the answer to filling gaps in expertise and technique. Practice will lead to improvement, but getting feedback is also essential. Teachers, of the student variety and otherwise, need constructive feedback from their peers and supervisors.

    Most importantly, the person doing the teaching has to want to improve their craft and put in the necessary effort to make it happen.

  14. Essential skills for which purpose?

    Just the subject topics only require generally so very few things:

    Objective – What do you want the students to be able to do when the lesson is finished? From that, you can figure out how to teach the lesson.

    Activities can and should sometimes involve students participating is some activity, possibly presenting some set of exercises to the whole class and a group evaluation of these results, including evaluation and commentary from instructor.

    Beginning Algebra, at least, has a few interesting application problems which can be solved which can be analyzed according to some table or chart structures. Identifying these types of problems and learning to fill in the structures can be well taught, at least giving a good sense of well-formed instruction.

  15. coderprof

    I have very mixed feelings about pedagogy courses. A lot of college profs clearly need them, but a lot of pedagogy courses are bunk.

    Paying attention to your own professors is the single best way to train yourself. What do they do right? What do they do wrong? What little things make your life as a student better? What do they do that tick you off?

    Of course, most students don’t really pay attention to *how* their teachers teach. I didn’t as an undergrad at all. I did as a grad student, but not everyone does. Classroom observation once in the workforce (both observing and being observed) would be very valuable for both parties. And lots of profs would freak over having someone observe their class.

  16. Mary Mimouna

    Some pedagological courses have extremely good content; others do not. It mainly depends on the particular instructor. I had a completely useless methods course. The best course I ever had was called “Reading in the Content Area.” Everyone was required to take a course in operating electronic media (in Colorado), which was a state legislature fix for the problem of teachers not knowing how to operate the film projectors. The instructor I had said he wasn’t going to teach us that, and instead taught us how to make our own slide shows. All this technology is now completely outdated.

    I think many times the particular methods courses that are required are meant by state legislators to fend off future lawsuits, and provide “quick fixes” to new legal problems. An example was another very useful course which was about mainstreaming handicapped children into the classroom. I was fortunate to have an excellent instructor.

    Good education courses are out there, but they are hit and miss depending upon the instructor.

    Mary Mimouna (formerly blogging as Eileen)
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas