U.Va. Education Dean Robert Pianta Featured in New Yorker Article

December 11, 2008

December 12, 2008 — Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, and his research team were featured in Malcolm Gladwell's Dec. 15 New Yorker article, "Most Likely To Succeed." The article explores what it takes to identify and develop successful teachers, comparing the process to scouting future professional quarterbacks and savvy financial advisers.

Gladwell describes a taped session where Pianta and research scientist Bridget Hamre are showing classroom videotapes to the research team and stopping it at various points to describe the qualities of good and great teachers — which, it turns out, have nothing to do with their level of education or certification.

After thirty seconds, the leader of the group — Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education — stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.

"What I'm struck by is how lively the affect is in this room," Pianta said. "One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She's not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back."

Pianta's team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is "regard for student perspective"; that is, a teacher's knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn't become a free-for-all."

The evaluation system Pianta and education researchers developed, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, has been tested in several large studies. On the CASTL Web site, it is summarized as "an observational instrument developed at the University of Virginia to assess classroom quality in preschool through twelfth grade classrooms. The 11 dimensions measured by the CLASS focus on the quality of teachers' emotional, organizational and instructional interactions with students in the classroom."

— By Anne Bromley