Pianta's ploy: Catch the teachers who pay attention
What if classroom size, education spending, and even school quality aren't really important? What if all of a teacher's fancy degrees and years of service mean nothing? And what if the only truly important predictor of classroom success is something unknowable at the outset of a teacher's career?
This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's latest article in the New Yorker and one which is sure to provoke terror among teachers unaccustomed to objective measures of their abilities.
One person not terrorized is Robert Pianta. The dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, he plays a starring role in Gladwell's story, "Most Likely To Succeed," which appears in the style/idea mag's December 15 edition.
Using the example of professional football quarterbacks–- whose NFL performance often bears no resemblance to their college play–- Gladwell paints a picture of teaching skill as a great unknown, but something that Pianta and other Curryites are trying to assess using CLASS, their Classroom Assessment Scoring System.
CLASS attempts to measure what Pianta calls a teacher's "regard for student perspective." But that's what others might call "eyes in the back of their head," "a gift for noticing," or a term coined by another educational researcher which Gladwell seems to fancy: "withitness."
In recent years, Gladwell has become the go-to guy for rethinking conventional wisdom. A year ago, he subtly challenged the entire field of criminal profiling with a devastating New Yorker article called "Dangerous Minds," and his new book, Outliers, which challenges the great man historical theory, currently rests atop the best-seller lists.
Pianta isn't the first UVA prof to inspire the Œber-journalist. Gladwell credits Strangers to Ourselves, by UVA's Timothy Wilson, which appears to have fueled much of Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book Blink, as "probably the most influential book I've ever read."
One gets the sense from reading Gladwell's latest tale that Pianta might be on to something, that "withitness"–- despite the funny name–- might be the next big thing in education.