Information Age Education Blog

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10 minutes reading time (1915 words)

What Makes a Great Teacher

The title of this IAE Blog entry is motivated by the following article:

Kamenetz, A. (11/8/2014). 5 Great Teachers On What Makes A Great Teacher. nprEd. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

The article is part of the National Pubic Radio 50 Great Teachers series. (NPR, 2014).

As you might expect, Anna Kamenetz’s article focuses on human teachers. It does not discuss teaching machines such as books, audio, video, and computers (Moursund, September, 2014a & September, 2014b). My point is that for a very long time we have had both human teachers and non-human teachers. The computerization of print, audio, and video media—plus the capabilities of computers and robots to solve problems and accomplish tasks—add two new dimensions to education.

I summarize these new dimensions by two questions:

  1. If a computer can solve or greatly help in solving a type of problem that we previously taught (or now want to teach) students to solve without computers, what should we now be teaching students about solving this type of problem?
  2. If teaching machines can teach a significant part of the curriculum equally as well as, or perhaps even better, and at less cost than a human teacher who is faced by a class of 25 to 30 or more students, what role should such teaching machines be playing in our educational systems?

Human Teachers

Teaching is a very challenging task. It is quite difficult to become a really good teacher. Moreover, it is difficult to specify a comprehensive list of characteristics that “define” a really good or great teacher in a manner that can effectively drive our preservice and inservice teacher education systems and our teacher evaluation systems.

There are a variety of current efforts to use Value Added Models (VAM) to define what consititutes a good teacher. The idea is that a teacher is "good" to the extent that the teacher's students do well on state and national tests. This idea is being extended to teach education programs. A teacher education program is good if its studetns get teaching jobs and while in those teaching jobs, their studetns do well on state and natinal tests. If you disagree with these value added ways to define "good," you will find evidence to support your position in the article:

Cody, A. (12/10/2014). Duncan brings the sham of VAM to teacher education. Living in Dialogue. Retrieved 12/10/2014 from

The article by Anna Kamenetz is based on a round table discussion by five noteworthy experts on teaching. I think the ideas she presents are all very good. Moreover, the discussants did not all agree with each other, so readers get an opportunity to see that there are no “cut and dried” answers to what constitutes good teaching and how to become a good teacher.

For example, now-a-days there is a tendency to define a good teacher as one whose students score well on state and national tests. But, it is very difficult to develop tests that are fair, reliable, and valid. In addition, there is far more to a good education that just learning to score well on a test of the content being presented.

In terms of being a great teacher, here are two quotes from the article:

Eleanor Duckworth: Getting people to think about what they think, and asking them questions about it, is the best way I know how to teach.

Ken Bain: ...I think we have to avoid the temptation to define everything in terms of what the teacher does to the student. Sometimes, as the title of a wonderful book put it, we teach best with our mouth shut.

I think about the way my youngest grandson is learning to ride a bicycle.… [His] parents bought him a balance bike [with training wheels] when he was barely 3 years old, and simply gave it to him. He then figured out how to balance himself on it entirely on his own.

The second part of Ken Bain’s answer provides a good example of the tool as teacher, which I discuss later in this blog entry. Due to steady advances in design engineering and technology, many of the tools that we want students to master have the potential for the tool itself to play a major role in being the teacher that helps with this mastering.

The respondents emphasized the need for teachers to engage in continual learning. I think Ken Bain summarizes this well through his statement:

[We] should help [preservice and inservice teachers] develop an understanding of some of the major ideas coming out of the research and theoretical literature on what it means to learn, how the human mind works, and all of the personal and social forces that can influence learning. This is a dynamic field with lots of important research and ideas emerging almost constantly, and the training and experience of a great teacher has to include the opportunity to explore, understand and apply the ideas and information that is emerging.

Finally, here are three participants’ responses to the question: “Who should not be a teacher?”

Renee Moore: Anyone who cannot listen or learn from others, including his or her students.

Jose Vilson: Anyone who can't take critique and isn't willing to center their visions on the students.

Troy Cockrum: Someone who is not passionate for why they are in education. Students are not widgets. You can go to a job every day producing or designing widgets and do a good job at it even if you aren't passionate for what you do. Students deserve more. Students should be treated and respected as individuals, and only a passionate educator can do that.

Teaching Machines: Tool as Teacher

Ken Bain’s grandson’s bicycle with training wheels is a great example of a tool that has been designed as a teacher. The human mind learns to solve problems and accomplish tasks by observing and making use of examples. We learn by doing. If the “doing” has enough generality, our mind/body generalizes (does transfer of learning) to a multitude of somewhat similar problems and tasks.

Our elementary schools are designed to help students learn to read. By the time a student has finished the third grade in U.S. schools, the student is expected to read well enough to have a useful skill in learning by reading. By the seventh grade, learning by reading is a standard component of teaching.

So, ask yourself: If learning by reading is so effective, why not just teach students to read and then provide them with suitable reading material, i.e., what roles do human teachers play once a student has learned to read and has learned to learn by reading?

A short answer is—a great deal!

I am reminded of a 1913 quote from Thomas Edison about the emerging capabilities of the motion picture machine:

Books will soon be obsolete in the schools.... Scholars will soon be able to instruct through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. (Thomas A. Edison; American inventor and businessman; 1847-1931.)

Audio, video, and print media have certainly contributed to the teaching and learning processes. But, in no sense have they eliminated or even greatly reduced the need for human teachers.

Recently I presented a math education paper, Mathematics Education Is at a Major Turning Point, at a Chicago, Illinois, international conference. In this paper I address the math education aspects of the two questions in the first section of this paper. We have already had some major aspects of education changed by computer technology. Here are a few examples:

  • Web and browsers. What happened to teaching students about card catalogs or finding physical books in a library organized using the Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal system? (I chuckle when I think about using the search engine Google to look up how to use Google. This is an excellent case of the tool is also the teacher.)
  • Online books. Many books and other reading material available on table computers allow a reader to touch a word and immediately get a definition and perhaps even a link to a suitable Web site. (What is happening to using print dictionaries?)
  • Math problem solvers. This includes simple and algebraic calculators, graphing calculators, and calculator or computer-based computer algebra systems that can solve a very wide range of the math problems that students study in K-14 math.
  • Computer modeling and simulation. Computer modeling and simulation are now a part of all sciences and many other disciplines of study. Computer simulations can immerse a student in a highly interactive, exploratory environment. Computer simulations are an excellent teaching tool and provide another example of the tool as teacher.

Final Remarks

Thomas Edison’s statement about motion pictures was “only” a hundred years too early. We now have the technology to greatly change both the curriculum content and how we provide this content to students. My personal definition of the characteristics of a good human teacher includes:

  • has a solid modern comprehension of the content, pedagogy, pedagogical-content-knowledge, and assessment for the subject matter to be taught,
  • is passionate about teaching and is strongly committed to being a good teacher,
  • excels in the human aspects of teaching, such as teaching and role modeling appropriate human values and behaviors,
  • has compassion and empathy for students and their lives,
  • is a good listener,
  • deals effectively with discipline issues,
  • works well with students with diverse backgrounds and encourages all students to respect diversity in others throughout their world,
  • facilitates small group and large group student interactions, both locally and with students in other locations,
  • helps students to become curious, creative, intrinsically motivated, lifelong learners,
  • understands and uses available Information and Communication Technology effectively,
  • and, finally, is a lifelong learner who is making steady progress toward being competent and comfortable teaching and learning in a world where “smart” (artificially intelligent) computers and other tools are becoming increasingly capable of teaching their users.

Information and Communication Technology can and will greatly change our educational systems. However, it will be a very long time before machines have the types of characteristics listed above.

What You Can Do

Look to the future of your students and yourself. Your students are growing up in a world that is steadily becoming more connected and computerized. Listen to your students and observe how Information and Communication Technology is now a routine part of their lives. Work with them to make education more relevant to their current and future lives. Design your curriculum so that it places an increased emphasis on students learning to learn from both non-human and human learning resources.


Kamenetz, A. (11/8/2014). 5 great teachers on what makes a great teacher. nprEd. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (September, 2014a). Education for students' futures. Part 14: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (September, 2014b). Education for students' futures. Part 15: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

NPR (2014). 50 great teachers series. National Pubic Radio. Retrieved 11/14/2014 from

Readings from IAE Publications

Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (9/6/2014). Making school more relevant to students. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (1/28/2014). Good learners. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Computational thinking. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/13/2014 from

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