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What is the best way to improve teaching?

Room 115 of BYU’s McKay Building was full of eager students ready to hear Ronald Gallimore, PhD, speak on Thursday, March 7. Gallimore is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also an affiliated professor in psychology and education at the University of Delaware. His research addresses the improvement of teaching and cultural and behavioral change. For his lecture, Gallimore asked the question—what is the best way to improve teaching: bold initiatives or incremental changes?

Bryant Jensen, associate professor at the BYU McKay School of Education and organizer of this event, introduced Professor Gallimore saying, “I am hard pressed to think of a human being more generous, engaging, and engaged than Dr. Gallimore.” Adding that Gallimore, “lives the principles of teaching that he espouses.”

Gallimore began his lecture by sharing a piece of his personal history. He lived in a log house, on a rented farm, off the electric grid, and had no indoor plumbing until he was 13. He was the third child in his family to even attend high school and was the first to go to college. “How did that happen?” Gallimore asked the audience. “Teachers saved me from a life very different from the one I would have had if they had not intervened,” he asserted. This appreciation for teaching led Gallimore to a career focused on the improvement of teaching. 

Having worked to improve the field of education for over fifty years, Gallimore has had experience with the ups and downs of the profession. Speaking to the future educators in the audience, Gallimore shared his goal that these students would leave his lecture thinking “it’s going to be hard—but it will be worth the journey.”

When Gallimore was a young professor, he was given the opportunity to live in Hawaii with a native community. There, he studied child development and analyzed what was going on in the local schools. He built a lab school in an effort to improve teaching. His emphasis centered on helping students enhance their reading ability. Gallimore decided to play off the developmental strengths of the native Hawaiian children, focusing on their ability to take on responsibility and work together in groups. By the time Gallimore and his team were finished their research at the lab school, they had a long list of actionable concepts that had resulted in significant gains to children’s school learning. 

After returning to UCLA, Gallimore adapted these concepts to Latino students in local public schools which yielded the same results. Unfortunately, Gallimore soon found out his proven methods were so onerous that durable change was impractical. “Because the only way that we could install this was to use a level of professional development using grant money that I got from foundations to pay graduate students and people to work in the schools. And, of course, the obvious problem was, as soon as the money went away, all of the good stuff that we had done went away too,” Gallimore said.

After experiencing this disappointment, Gallimore and his team decided to switch directions. This pivot occurred after the realization “that the only people that can do this are the teachers. They have to become the people that are the improvers. You can’t bring it in from the outside,” Gallimore explained. You can’t just swoop in to make revolutionary changes in the school system, for many practical reasons. Teachers must be partners in a process of durable, incremental change.

But with so much to deal with Gallimore asked, “where in the world are teachers going to find time to be the improvers?” Using theories from psychology and cultural anthropology, they decided to make sure grade-level meetings took time to work on improvement. They discovered if teachers were able to focus on a problem that affected all of them, they would leave meetings satisfied and willing to work together to solve other issues. “Once they begin to see tangible improvements, you got them,” summarized Gallimore.

“If you can get people working towards a common goal, a lot of things that normally get in the way kind of drift aside for a moment and people will begin to form a team.” Gallimore continued, “When you get that, you get little bits of incremental improvements.” Gallimore and his team at UCLA implemented this technique at several local schools and observed substantial gains in reading and math achievement. They then applied the technique to schools in 22 states and found if teachers are given the opportunity to be the change agents, substantial and long-lasting change can be made.

“I believe my mistake early on was thinking ‘I’m going to be bringing the answer’, when instead what I can do is bring some contributions to those work groups . . . . But the transformation that affects students—that is something only the teachers can bring.”

“I think it is only going to happen through the efforts of your generation,” Gallimore said to the students in attendance. Incremental changes can have long-lasting effects on the lives of students. Applying incremental changes requires great optimism. “What’s the greatest act of optimism?” Gallimore asked in the conclusion of his lecture, “It’s teaching.”

Click the link below to watch the lecture:
Written by: Cole Witbeck