In the News: Is Great Teaching Teachable?

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Manhattan Prep Blog - In the News: Is Great Teaching Teachable? by Noah TeitelbaumDid you know that you can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person courses absolutely free? We’re not kidding. Select your test to sign up now.


This past week, several of our instructors emailed me a recent Economist article, Teaching the Teachers. One of the main ideas of the article is that great teachers are not born—they’re made.

One might look at our Manhattan Prep audition process—auditioning only top scorers with years of teaching experience and then making an offer to only the 10% or fewer that really impress us—and think that we would disagree with this idea. We apparently seem to be on the hunt for the natural-born teachers. In fact, we do train our teachers very intensely, but we also know that the best training is that which happens in the classroom.

Given that our company mission is to provide transformational learning experiences to every student and that our brand is built on that promise, we can’t afford to have teachers work out the basics of great teaching on a year or two of unsuspecting guinea-pig students. (Note: if you have kids and you can choose between sending them into the hands of a first-year teacher or to the hands of a someone a few years more senior, it’s likely you want to go with the latter!) But, that doesn’t mean we don’t work on teaching with our new instructors. Our training lasts months and its centerpiece is 2-3 months of observing other Manhattan Prep instructors in action, getting up and teaching a bit in those classes, and doing intensive mock teaching exercise with our trainers. While each new instructor’s training has different goals particular to him or her, our trainers are often helping folks move out of “whole-class interaction” (as the article calls it) and learn how to get everyone in the class thinking and getting involved in the lesson. The training ends with a final assessment during which we put our instructor-to-be into teaching scenarios that are far more difficult than the usual classroom. This assessment is no rubber stamp: about a quarter of folks don’t pass and are sent back into training!

One of the struggles we face is that a lot of our students excelled in college despite their teachers, not because of them. Traditional educators seem to think that if they say something, students have learned it. Of course, true learning involves so much more than listening—it’s about thinking and doing. The problem with this is that these students often think that listening is learning and they have not been taught how to read a textbook, review a practice set, in essence, they don’t know how to learn or what an effective class lesson feels like.

Check out some of the top five factors that the article highlights as being central to great teaching. Our instructors incorporate these into their approach:

1. Feedback to pupils

Our courses involve opportunities for each student to receive feedback. Our GMAT and LSAT courses include one-on-one time with an instructor, and any student that doesn’t score well enough after their first attempt at the real test can get a Post Exam Assessment in which an instructor helps tailor a prep plan for the student. Our small class sizes (more on this later) allow time for instructors to interact with each student, look at work, and give personalized suggestions.

2. Meta-cognitive strategies

Over the past few years we’ve looked closely at what makes teachers successful and we learned that talking about how to do homework and how to think strategically about the test are key. Our courses increasingly include a focus on how to learn this material, since so much of the progress happens at home.

3. Peer tutoring

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4. Group learning

Many of our instructors use pair or group work in class. Some students initially balk because of bad memories of goofy group work projects in high school and college, or they think it’ll be ineffective (“I want to hear you explain questions, not talk with another novice!”) but the truth is that working your brain to own the material, through explaining to or struggling with a partner, is often more effective than simply hearing some expert explain something. While it might feel like you’re learning as you hear an expert lecture on how to solve a certain question, when you’re trying to learn how to succeed on a test, it’s a focus on application and synthesis that actually leads to top scores.

We tend to use pair work more than large group work, because of the time involved in organizing the roles of large groups and we like the requirement to engage that pair work creates.

5. Reducing class size

While we might be able to earn a lot more money holding our classes in lecture halls, we believe that our students excel because the small class format we provide—classes capped at 25—allows our instructors to skip the lecture and get students working.

Online, where it can be a bit tougher to organize group work, once the class hits a size that warrants it, we provide a second instructor so that the pair can break up the class effectively and tailor lessons.

While we’re proud of what we do, we also know that we can always get better. Currently, we’re looking hard at how to move from telling our students how to learn most effectively at home to forcing the right sort of behavior through the format of the homework assignments. Also, given that your instructors are truly content experts, we are sure to stay vigilant of the “expert trap”: delving too deep into a question and teasing out every nugget of learning we can from it. The brain can only learn so much in one moment!

As a longtime educator and teacher-trainer, I am proud to be part of a company that puts teacher quality above all else, and I look forward to figuring out what we can do better year after year. 📝


Manhattan Prep Instructor Noah Teitelbaum

Noah Teitelbaum is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Denver, Colorado. Noah has worked in education for years, beginning in 2001 with his first public school class in Harlem. Since then, Noah has taught mathematics at premier inner-city charter school North Star, trained teachers in New York and New Haven, and monitored human rights violations in Croatia for the United Nations. At Manhattan Prep, Noah leads the curriculum and instructor development teams. Here, Noah has re-written curriculum and books and, through regular training sessions, has maintained the renowned quality of Manhattan Prep’s instructors. Noah owns 99th percentile GMAT and LSAT scores. Interested in learning from Noah? Select your test and check out his upcoming courses here.

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