The pursuit of teaching excellence

opinion February 23, 2015 07:29

By Gerald Fry
Distinguished inte

5,341 Viewed

Our global goal should not be education for all, but quality education for all. The key to educational quality is teaching excellence.


Actually, we can go back 2,400-2,500 years in history to find the essence of great teaching in the philosophical thinking of the Lord Buddha and the Greek thinker Socrates.

As an educator, my favourite sutra in Buddhism is the Kalama Sutra, in which Buddha articulated his highly progressive basic thinking about how to learn. He urges us to be sceptical and critical and to learn from direct experience.

For example, a student walked into a class and made the bold assertion that Neil Armstrong did not really walk on the moon, that the claim was a hoax. The teacher asked the student how he knew this. He said it was on the Internet. He uncritically accepted a statement from the Internet as “truth”.

Related directly to this sutra, the late Thai educator Kowit Worapipatana emphasised teachers’ roles in fostering “khit-pen” among their students, that is, to teach them to be critical and independent thinkers.

The four sublime states of Buddhism are also traits of great teachers – metta, loving kindness; garuna, compassion; muditha, empathetic joy; and upekkha, tranquillity, equanimity and calm. The last relates to what is now being called EQ – emotional intelligence.

Another key Buddhist concept related to teaching excellence is sati, or mindfulness. Teachers need to be mindful, such as by listening carefully to and respecting all their students, and providing timely, extensive and valuable feedback on their assignments.

The noted Stanford educator Lee Cronbach was famous for providing such feedback to his students.

The Chinese character for listen, “ting”, connotes deep and sincere listening from the heart. Students want their voices to be heard. They hate being silenced.

Socrates also offered a progressive model of teaching that is basically dialogue-based critical inquiry.

The key for teachers using the Socratic method is to develop thought-provoking questions that will generate intense dialogue among students as they seek to understand complex issues and phenomena. This is an excellent way to foster student-centred learning.

To synthesise the essence of great teaching, the geometric figure of the tetrahedron is useful, as introduced to me by the physicist and prominent Thai educator, the late Sippanondha Ketudat.

The tetrahedron allows one to display four key intertwined, interconnected factors.

In terms of being a great teacher, there are four essential factors:

l  Passion for the subject matter

l  Knowledge of the subject matter

l  Knowledge of teaching strategies and techniques

l Compassion for students

Related to the first factor, I would like to share a personal example. My academic adviser forced me to take a course on the history of American education, in which I frankly had no interest whatsoever. The course was being taught by the late Lawrence Cremin, former president of Teachers’ College at Columbia.

Professor Cremin had a tremendous passion for his subject and students had to arrive at least 15 minutes early for an 8am class to be sure they had a seat. He turned a potentially boring subject into an exciting learning adventure.

Related to the second factor, students quickly perceive when teachers are “faking it” and don’t know their subject matter.

When teachers find themselves having to teach subject matter they don’t know well themselves, then they must creatively find alternatives to compensate for their lack of knowledge, such as guest speakers, creative assignments and the use of technological tools such as, which provides correct pronunciation and meanings of English words.

Related to both the second and third factors, teachers need to be life-long learners and model that for their students. They need to be aware of new technologies and research, such as the latest scientific research related to the brain and human learning, which can enhance their teaching.

In a recent survey of US college faculty conducted by the Gates Foundation, only 40 per cent of members showed awareness of new technologies that could enhance their teaching, and only 20 per cent were actually using the new technologies.

In many ways, the last factor, compassion for students, is crucial. This relates to teachers’ commitment to their students, to learn about their backgrounds and their differential needs and capabilities.

Particularly valuable in this regard are Gardner’s concept of nine intelligences and the Universal Design for Learning, which is an educational platform that guides the establishment of learning environments that can respond creatively to individual learning differences.

With regard to the compassion factor, it should be teachers’ commitment to make their students the best they can be. Probably the best indicator of teachers’ excellence is the long-term success of their students.

In terms of teacher training, a key strategy is to have future teachers do an apprenticeship with a master teacher. Interestingly, Indonesia has implemented a major teacher education reform that is analysed in a new book by Mae Chu Cheng, Sheldon Shaeffer and others.

In the old days, “performance on the stage” (the Cremin example above) was perhaps the sign of the master teacher. But in today’s era when there are so many potential learning resources available for students to learn independently, the teacher’s role has shifted to be a creative facilitator of learning.

Also in our current age of exploding information technology, teachers need not only to foster good written communication, but also to enable their students to hone creatively other important communicative skills such as oral and visual.

There are, of course, external environmental influences that can affect the potential for teaching excellence, such as poor physical facilities or a lack of electricity or frequent brownouts.

I would like to close with sharing the metaphor of the teacher as a dynamic, lively conductor of a symphony orchestra, where its members represent all kinds of potential learning resources and activities.

Gerald Fry

Distinguished international professor

College of Education and Human Development

University of Minnesota