Malcolm Gladwell's article in this past week's New Yorker about how to identify the best classroom teachers risks being misinterpreted as one more reason to de-emphasize book smarts.
Gladwell's focus: a project led by Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, which involves videotaping teachers in classrooms and analyzing their interactions with students. From these videotapes Gladwell concludes, along with Pianta et al, that the most successful teachers exhibit a high level of awareness of what's going on in the classroom and communicate this awareness to their students. "It stands to reason," he writes, "that to be a great teacher you have to have withitness."
Taking this a step further, Gladewell argues that this withitness trumps academic preparedness:
Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar.Confounding Gladwell's conclusions is his conflation of cognitive and academic preparedness with teacher certification credentials:
A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.In actual practice, the inanity of much of the certification requirements, disproportionately turning off the smarter applicants, means that certification and masters degrees in education predict weaker-than-average cognitive and academic credentials. In other words Kane et al's conclusions, above, are no surprise whatsoever.
Also, while it's true that cognitive and academic credentials don't guarantee a knack for teaching, a teacher's intellectual or academic weaknesses, however pedagogically gifted s/he might be, places serious limits on what s/he can teach students--limits rivaling those of an under-challenging curriculum.
If your goal is to master upper-level mathematics, who would you choose as your teacher: Robin Williams, or a member of the Princeton math department, however dry and out of it s/he might be?