“Teaching effectiveness” as another dimension in cognitive ability

December 12, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

I’m not a great teacher. I can get by because I work hard and I know a lot, and for some students my classes are just great, but it’s not a natural talent of mine. I know people who are amazing teachers, and they have something that I just don’t have. I wrote that book, Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks (with Deb Nolan) because I’m not a good teacher and hence need to develop all sorts of techniques to be able to do what good teachers can do without even trying.

I’m not proud of being mediocre at teaching. I don’t think that low teaching skill is some sort of indicator that I’m a great researcher. The other think about teaching ability is that I think it’s hard to detect without actually seeing someone teach a class. If you see me give a seminar presentation or even a guest lecture, you’d think I’m an awesome teacher. But, actually, no. I’m an excellent speaker, not such a great teacher.

This all came to mind when I received the following email from anthropologist Henry Harpending:

I [Harpending] am writing to ask about value-added studies of primary school teachers like the one commissioned and published by the LA Times. It looks quite solid to me but I am no statistician.

My take is that it may be a useful tools for objective personnel evaluation that is not simply another IQ test. Everyone agrees that there is “more than IQ” but no one can measure it. The value added stuff makes me optimistic.

I have two reasons for my interest in this issue. First, I teach a course on biology and social issues. Most of the course ends up being about IQ tests or ability tests as we called them for a few decades. Everyone knows and acknowledges that lots of other perhaps uncorrelated traits predict success, like time preference and charisma and attention, and so on. My focus on IQ is like the focus of the drunk looking for his lost keys under the streetlight.

Seems to me that the VAT approach holds out the hope of pushing personnel selection beyond IQ by identifying other important characteristics of individuals. If so, perhaps before I retire I can talk about something other than IQ for most of the semester.

I suppose literature will soon appear about how to predict who will be a high VAT teacher. After that perhaps literature about the difference between VAT teachers for the top students and VAT teachers for the bottom: certainly these will be different.

I have a high school junior who attends an urban high school. They manage to track students very well with AP courses and with the IB program, whatever that is. At any rate he and his nerd friends all agree on who the good and the bad teachers are. They approve of one of the AP calculus teachers because “most of his students get 5s on the AP exam”, which they all did last year. . . . Interestingly they are completely inarticulate when asked to describe what makes a “good teacher”: their opinions are apparently purely data based.

My earlier comments on value-added teacher assessment are here and here.

Harpending’s point, about teaching ability being a different dimension than what is usually measured, is interesting. I have never heard it put this way but that sounds right to me, partly from my own experience as a teacher and observer of teachers, and partly because I recall Jonah Rockoff telling us that nothing much predicts teacher performance except for the teacher’s performance last year. I wonder how this has been studied by the “multiple intelligences” researchers.

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