“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The greeting-card pithiness of this maxim obscures what is in fact a useful metaphor, and in “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green introduces us to educators who stick to their kindling. Her project is both a history of the research on effective teaching as well as a consideration of how that research might best be implemented. What emerges is the gaping chasm between what the best teachers do and how we go about evaluating what they’ve done.
Green outlines the teacher-training debate as one between proponents of accountability on one side and autonomy on the other. She points out that both sides assume what she calls “the myth of the natural-born teacher.” The accountability folks want to use test scores to identify these gifted teachers and winnow out the others; the autonomy advocates want to give them creative control over their classrooms. Green, a journalist and the editor of Chalkbeat, an education news organization, argues that good teaching is largely “the result of extraordinary skill, not inborn talent.” If lighting a fire is a skill, it can be learned, and it can be taught.