Cognitive skills not enough for teacher effectiveness

The quest for the key to teacher effectiveness never ends.  The latest is the assertion that high cognitive skills result in high student performance (“Do Smarter Teachers Make Smarter Students?” Education Next, Spring 2019).

The study found that teachers who come from the top third of their academic peers in college are more likely to be successful in the classroom than others.  In other words, smarter teachers make for smarter students.  I think this conclusion is out of touch with reality. It assumes that mere possession of subject matter, as evidenced by high grades, is enough to get through to students.

If that were the case, then every Phi Beta Kappa professor who possesses a Ph. D. would automatically be a star teacher in K-12.  But knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily mean knowing how to teach it.  That’s where pedagogy comes into play. State licensing has been rightly criticized for erecting too many needless obstacles to teach in a public school.  But done correctly, such courses can mean the difference between success and failure.

Moreover, the study makes no mention of the importance of affective skills.  So much depends on the ability of teachers to connect with their students.  Personality plays an indispensable role in that regard.  Because it is not as easily measured as cognitive factors, it is too often minimized.  But anyone who has observed in a public school knows that students are easily turned off by cold, aloof pedants.  I’m not saying that personality trumps expertise.  Instead, I believe that the former warrants far greater attention.  It’s like the importance of a bedside manner in a physician.

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2 Replies to “Cognitive skills not enough for teacher effectiveness”

  1. How about the likelihood that a teacher’s college class ranking (i.e., top one-third) evidences not simply subject-matter mastery but — arguably more important — diligence, persistence, goal-oriented behavior, etc.?

    Drawing from my personal anecdotal experience managing attorneys in a govt law office and advising management in a non-govt employer that employed 1,000+ white collar/professional employees, it seemed that virtually all of the professionals had the KSAs (knowledge, skills, abilities) to do the job successfully. What distinguished the weak performers from the strong performers were the differences in the professional employees’ personality characteristics relating to hard work and getting-the-job-done.

    Most of weak performers had personality characteristics that predisposed them to the weak performance — minor mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, inability to cope with off-the-job stresses, a just-get-by approach to work, irrationally inflated views re their own competence/entitlement, and all the other personality quirks that get in the way of doing a good job.

    Graduating in the top third of a college class is evidence that a person has hung in there and done the hard work day-in, day-out over the four or five years of college. Not conclusive evidence, of course; but still strong evidence that the person does not have significant personality characteristics predisposing the person to poor or erratic performance.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Absolutely correct! Mere possession of a degree with honors is no assurance of ability to connect with students nor evidence of sound pedagogy. That’s why the conclusions from the cited study is are dubious. There are so many factors that cannot be measured that contribute to success in the classroom.


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