Menu

Purpose, Not Power

"A teacher's control is an exercise in purpose, not in power."

—Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion

For years, good minds have turned their attentions to studying the state of education in the US. In part through the efforts of the Obama Administration, researchers have begun to focus on the objective characteristics of good teachers. The upshot is this: what we have mistakenly attributed to natural born talent for teaching is actually a set of deliberate strategies that can be learned and applied in any setting.

Key research to support this idea originates with Teach For America. Twenty years in the making, the Teaching as Leadership (TAL) program, led by Steven Farr, has been tracking hundreds of thousands of students and their teachers to determine the qualities and behaviors of effective teaching.

Farr and his colleagues developed a list of 49 of these strategies they call the TAL Rubric (Even the "pocket version" is substantial with 28.) Generally the strategies are intuitive, but as you read through them, you’ll notice a two-pronged theme: Clarity and Purpose. Shot through the entire list is a call for explicit and unambiguous expectations for what students will do during class.

For example, we may already start class by saying, "Let's get started. Put your cellphones away." But, according to research, the teacher who explains where 'away' is (in a backpack, on the floor, off the desk, etc.) and then waits for students to follow directions are consistently more successful than those who assume that students will comply. In short, effective teachers say exactly what they want, and then wait for follow-through.

In two related examples, research has revealed that successful teachers 1. stand still while giving directions and 2. stop talking—sometimes in midsentence—if students begin side conversations. In other words, teachers focus students’ attention by expecting that everyone does one thing at a time.

In the Academy context it may be tempting to assign exclusive responsibility for paying attention to the students. They are adults, after all. But good teachers demonstrate the authority to isolate distractions in the service of making sure students see, hear, read, or discuss exactly what they need to learn.

Doug Lemov, another leader in the quest to find and train good teachers, calls this type of influence over students, "purpose, not power." We can apply Lemov’s simple adage in the Academy context by asking ourselves, what exactly do we want students to do during a critique, for example? Do we explicitly and unambiguously communicate our expectations and then wait for students to comply? Do we choreograph our critiques so that only the most willful student can ignore our expectations? In short, are we clear with our students and with ourselves about our purpose?


Read, listen, and watch more about the characteristics of good teachers by visiting the following links:

"What Makes a Good Teacher?Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2010

"Good Teaching Is About Hard Work, Not A Halo" Talk of the Nation, NPR, 2010

"Can Good Teaching Be Learned?New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010