Bertrand Russell: “Education and Discipline”

Is there any more famous English philosopher of the 20th century that Bertrand Russell?  Certainly, it is hard to think of a philosopher who occupied a larger space in our collective imaginations.  Probably, readers are most used to seeing Russell connected with the peace movement, logic, or perhaps his religious skepticism.  Russell’s writings on education and schooling, though slim, are worth reading. Partly because he is a joy to read; partly because they are not so far from accepted wisdom even today.  The selections below are from his 1935 essay, “Education and Discipline.”
On the debate between “natural” education or something formal and (perhaps) strict:

“The arguments in favour of a great degree of freedom in education are derived not from man’s natural goodness, but from the effects of authority, both on those who suffer it and on those who exercise it. Those who are subject to authority become either submissive or rebellious, and each attitude has its drawbacks.

“The submissive lose initiative, both in thought and action; moreover, the anger generated by the feeling of being thwarted tends to find an outlet in bullying those who are weaker. … The effect upon the educators is even worse: they tend to become sadistic disciplinarians, glad to inspire terror, and content to inspire nothing else. As these men represent knowledge, the pupils acquire a horror of knowledge, which, among the English upper-class, is supposed to be part of human nature, but is really part of the well- grounded hatred of the authoritarian pedagogue…

“Rebels, on the other hand, though they may be necessary, can hardly be just to what exists. Moreover, there are many ways of rebelling, and only a small minority of these are wise. Galileo was a rebel and was wise; believers in the flat-earth theory are equally rebels, but are foolish. There is a great danger in the tendency to suppose that opposition to authority is essentially meritorious and that unconventional opinions are bound to be correct: no useful purpose is served by smashing lamp-posts or maintaining Shakespeare to be no poet. Yet this excessive rebelliousness is often the effect that too much authority has on spirited pupils. And when rebels become educators, they sometimes encourage defiance in their pupils, for whom at the same time they are trying to produce a perfect environment, although these two aims are scarcely compatible.

Russell argues we should find some middle ground between free-range classrooms and overly regimented ones:

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas. These qualities are due in part to physical causes, to which old-fashioned educators paid too little attention; but they are due still more to freedom from the feeling of baffled impotence which arises when vital impulses are thwarted. If the young are to grow into friendly adults, it is necessary, in most cases, that they should feel their environment friendly. This requires that there should be a certain sympathy with the child’s important desires, and not merely an attempt to use him for some abstract end such as the glory of God or the greatness of one’s country. And, in teaching, every attempt should be made to cause the pupil to feel that it is worth his while to know what is being taught-at least when this is true. When the pupil co-operates willingly, he learns twice as fast and with half the fatigue. All these are valid reasons for a very great degree of freedom.”

Yet, he says, we shouldn’t indulge the natural impulses of youth to excess:

“It is easy, however, to carry the argument too far. It is not desirable that children, in avoiding the vices of the slave, should acquire those of the aristocrat. Consideration for others, not only in great matters, but also in little everyday things, is an essential element in civilization, without which social life would be intolerable. I am not thinking of mere forms of politeness, such as saying “please” and “thank you”: formal manners are most fully developed among barbarians, and diminish with every advance in culture. I am thinking rather of willingness to take a fair share of necessary work, to be obliging in small ways that save trouble on the balance. Sanity itself is a form of politeness and it is not desirable to give a child a sense of omnipotence, or a belief that adults exist only to minister to the pleasures of the young. And those who disapprove of the existence of the idle rich are hardly consistent if they bring up their children without any sense that work is necessary, and without the habits that make continuous application possible.”

And he seems to be against (radically) democratic classrooms:

“There is another consideration to which some advocates of freedom attach too little importance. In a community of children which is left without adult interference there is a tyranny of the stronger, which is likely to be far more brutal than most adult tyranny…This is perhaps the most important argument against the abdication of the adults.”

On student discipline:

“If you have the sort of liking for children that many people have for horses or dogs, they will be apt to respond to your suggestions, and to accept prohibitions, perhaps with some good- humoured grumbling, but without resentment. It is no use to have the sort of liking that consists in regarding them as a field for valuable social endeavour, or – what amounts to the same thing – as an outlet for power-impulses. No child will be grateful for an interest in him that springs from the thought that he will have a vote to be secured for your party or a body to be sacrificed to king and country. The desirable sort of interest is that which consists in spontaneous pleasure in the presence of children, without any ulterior purpose. Teachers who have this quality will seldom need to interfere with children’s freedom, but will be able to do so, when necessary, without causing psychological damage.”

And some sympathy for teachers. While few would agree with his stronger claim here, I’m sure that teachers reading this would find a smile creep across their faces:

“Unfortunately, it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children. The society of the young is fatiguing, especially when strict discipline is avoided. Fatigue, in the end, produces irritation, which is likely to express itself somehow, whatever theories the harassed teacher may have taught himself or herself to believe. The necessary friendliness cannot be preserved by self-control alone. But where it exists, it should be unnecessary to have rules in advance as to how “naughty” children are to be treated, since impulse is likely to lead to the right decision, and almost any decision will be right if the child feels that you like him. No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact.”

Who’s Afraid of Data in Schools?

It’s hard to have a school-wide faculty meeting, or open an education magazine, without encountering the word “data.”  Once highly idiosyncratic, teaching has rightly become more and more a skill to be learned with outcomes to be measured.  I could not be happier about this move from teaching-as-witchcraft (or worse, merely bad theatre) to teaching-as-skill.

Those opposed to the use of data in schools are legion.  Some teachers say gathering data gets in the way of instruction.  Lots of stakeholders argue that it couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of good schools and teaching.  The most troubling objection is that data isn’t necessary to improvement; it’s somehow just a sideshow for accounting fetishists.

A recent post by Robert Wachter in New York Times puts it like this: “the objections [to using data] became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to ‘look good,’ had led them to turn away from the essence of their work…. The focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

Then, quoting a “hard-nosed scientist” and measurement expert about how to improve the helping professions, Avedis Donabedian, Wachter claims he said on his deathbed: “The secret of quality is love.”

There you have it: love.  Retool, everyone!  Make loving schools and the rest falls into place.

Hardly.  Under the rubric of “love,” lots of pretty awful things happened: low expectations, damning “ability” streaming, corporal punishment, whole-language instruction, and on and on. Yes, teachers should be loving: but we know that because ample meta-analyses suggest that teacher-student relationships have a huge impact on student outcomes.  That’s data.

Why We Should Embrace Data

“Count something.” That’s the advice of Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer, health care reformer.  I am fond of borrowing his ideas, and this is no exception.  We ought to be counting more, not less; we ought to be asking research questions in our own schools and classrooms; we ought to be finding the best evidence about the effectiveness of our individual schools and making decisions based on it.

Ask Yourself: Without “Data” or “Information” or “Evidence”…

… How would you know if your classroom or school is functioning at its best?  Rather than gathering data, would it be better to merely guess?  Or perhaps listen to the loudest teacher complaining in the faculty lounge?

… How can you find improvements?  How do you know if your students are being well-served? How do you know if program changes are aiding student learning or the opposite?

Models of Using Data That Are Likely to Work:

– Validity: Measure what is valued instead of valuing only what can easily be measured

– Balance: Create a balanced scorecard

– Insist on credible, high quality data that are stable and accurate.

– Design and select data that are usable in real time.

– Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement.

(This list is taken from Andy Hargreaves, sometimes quoted as being opposed to the use of data in schools.)

Imagine This

Using the above criteria, I suggest that each school (or department within) embrace as their operating principles – something they just do as a matter of course – a set of measures.

ImagineColleagues getting together to decide, informed by stable accepted research (yes, it does exist) and professional judgment, what things really matter.  A few possibilities to illustrate: student engagement; preparation for the next step; effective instruction; and so on.

Then, consciously asking: how can we collect data – qualitative and quantitative, in valid and practical ways – to figure out how we are collectively doing across these domains?

Then, embracing an ongoing effort to track and discuss the data to improve programming or approaches.

The Scientist in the Room

I’m fond of saying that the best teachers are scientists in the room, looking for data about how the students are doing. That data could come from a lot of different sources: it could come from examining exams after students have written them; it could come from moderated or parity marking with colleagues; it could come from student surveys; it could come from student exit interviews; it could be routine (brief “stop/start/continue” surveys for students at the end of units). The more conscious we are of the information we base decisions on the better our decisions are likely to be.

The important thing is that we count, measure, and gather information, from a variety of sources to paint the most accurate picture of what we’re doing and how well it’s working.  We need to start now.  And we need to make it part of our regular practice.

We need more data, not less.  It needs to be collected efficiently and routinely, used consciously and conscientiously, for the perpetual betterment of our schools.  People have said the use of data harms children; I argue the careful use of data is the best defence against a complacent or dysfunctional approach to schooling.

If we won’t tolerate the random best guesses of heart surgeons, why would we demand any less from those that teach?

(Photo: JD Hancock)

Futurizing Education

I’ve written before about the importance of “getting sober about what schools can do. Schools are places where students learn to do important things they otherwise would not be able to do. Students learn to read and write; to paint; to play sports; to become numerate; to debate; to form argument, use evidence, and join important academic conversations.  Schools do all these things and more.  We should be collectively proud; despite all their failings, the outcomes of schooling rival any other important social enterprise.

Yet, the the current narrative goes something like this: schools are trapped in the 20th century and need to embrace the future.  They need disrupting.  Throw out the old playbook.  Let the streets run red with the blood of the sacred cows of schooling.

Doubt me?  How much effort has been expended on coding in schools?  

http://www.edutopia.org/topic/coding-classroom
A recent screenshot of articles on coding from a leading online teaching publication.

Granting the differences in aesthetics, and the discussion of “growth mindsets,” what are the fundamental differences between the coding craze of the 21st century and this from the 20th?

Disruption Thus Far: What Have The Results Been?

Hard to say, but let’s look at one aspect of futurizing education that we were told would revolutionize schooling: online learning, especially through large-scale, sometimes free MOOCs.  The results have been awful: students performed less well in MOOCs than in traditional classrooms.  And MOOCs seem to be especially hard on students who struggle with traditional classrooms. As I’ve written before, one of the largest studies found that roughly five percent of students completed such online courses.

Of course, schools can and should explore ways to improve practice.  We should, as Atul Gawande says of medicine, we should look for ‘positive deviants – teachers and schools that achieve more than the average – to learn what works and scale it up.  But surely that is where progress is to be made: keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, and slowly ensuring a greater quality of education for all.  

And let’s remember the negative connotations of the word “disrupt,” as well as the commercial interests involved in that project of “throwing into disorder” a schooling system that has better reliability than the industry trying to remodel it.

(Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031434-0006 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Results, Not Hours, Matter

A recent edition of Planet Money addressed a topic near and dear to the hearts of all teachers: the question of long working hours.  In lots of fields, but maybe especially in teaching, we equate long working hours with “doing a good job.” But there are lots of reasons to question this idea.  Steve Henn, a reporter on the show, explains with a story:

One of my favorite economists, Dan Ariely, tells this story about a locksmith. When the locksmith was new at his job, when he was an apprentice, he took a really long time to open a lock. And people saw him working away, struggling, really having a hard time. And often they’d end up giving him a tip. But then when locksmith got better at his job, when he got so good at his job he could open pretty much any lock in just a minute or two, then his customers started complaining. They were like, you want $200 for that? This took you, like, 30 seconds…

Maybe hard work is irrelevant. Maybe what should matter is what we create. Maybe companies should be measuring our output and not keeping track of our input. What would happen if you ran a company based on that idea? What would that look like?

The Scope of the Problem

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you: teaching requires long hours.  

The BBC reports that in Britain, teachers work between 55.2-63.3 hours per week, a number that includes teaching time, in-school non-teaching work, and work that gets taken home.  The Guardian more or less echoes this view, with teachers responding that they frequently work 8-10 hours a day, plus time during evenings and weekends.  And the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and ­Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers makes the case that teachers in that province work an average of 60.8 hours per week, 10 hours more than the general population of professional workers.

Any teacher has probably heard many a humble-brag along these lines.  The comment, “I spent my entire weekend marking…!” serves at once as a complaint, a brag, and a reinforcement of the narrative: good teachers work long hours.

I can recall, early in my career, a senior leader of mine telling me that the only way to teach well is to “skip watching the late show”; if you had an evening to yourself, you couldn’t be a very effective teacher.

What’s to Be Done?

Planet Money offers an interesting, if cautionary, tale.  They profile practices in the tech world where output can be measured, and tentatively conclude that the results of your work matter more than the time spent doing it.  Sounds reasonable, but as I’ve argued before, in many fields – schooling one of them – it is hard to develop an easy measurable metric for the value of a teacher’s work.

That need not mean we abandon the notion of valuing teachers by their results entirely; there are lots of ways we can reward effectiveness and discourage merely “spending time.”

How?  Three Humble Proposals:

1. Let’s change the conversation in schools.  Let’s reduce the number of times we praise faculty for merely being there, and find more and more interesting ways to reward the fruits of their labour.

2. Speaking of which, let’s move towards a more evidence-based practice.  We’re not going to be able to measure lots and lots of important aspects of a teacher’s day, but we can start looking for some.  The challenge of measuring our effectiveness is central to any improvement regime we want to make.  And evidence can come in lots of forms.  Let’s think broadly about this important aspect of perpetual betterment.

3. Let’s focus on what really matters.  I’ve written before about the need for priorities in schooling.  We too often think changing the carpet can achieve results.  The problem: these less-than-effective-efforts all take time.  Imagine we could simply stop doing some of the things that don’t matter much – how much time could we free up? 

Teaching will always be a difficult job – what’s required is infinitely complex.  But surely we can stop thinking that effective teachers are merely the ones who work longest, or who take home the biggest bags of marking.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

Testing, Testing…

Educational research is at once deserving and undeserving of its bad reputation.  Deserving because much of it has been weak.  But undeserving because the most unfortunate practices in schooling – teaching to various “learning styles,” for example – became entrenched because of a near-complete absence of research or critical scrutiny.  The problem of weak educational research is not to retreat to a position of less research, but more – and better – research endeavours.

That’s hard to do.  Teachers are busy and good research is hard.  But the good folks at NPR’s Planet Money recently cast light on a technique commonly used in some fields but not commonly enough used in schooling: A/B testing.

A/B testing is a way of comparing two possibilities to find out which one is better.  Clickbait websites like Buzzfeed will test out many different versions of the same headline.  Each new version generates data about what is most attractive to readers.  And within a few, or a few dozen, A/B tests, they have the most effective version.

Sure, Buzzfeed is a low-brow media outlet and schooling is an important social good.  But the model of A/B testing offers a form of accessible research model that nearly all teachers can use.

Imagine using A/B testing to compare simple-but-critical things like rubrics, assignment sheets, and classroom layouts.  Or more complex areas of practice, like writing instruction. One section of your course does peer editing, one does not.  Or instructional methods: cooperative learning versus a mix of direct instruction and guided practice?  What’s the difference in the outcome?

As well, A/B testing addresses the important question of magnitude.  Because our students get older, they will always appear more capable in June than they did in September.  Teachers often conclude that it was the effect of the class that caused the change.  It might be, but then maybe the students just got more capable as they aged a year.

In order to know, we need to compare one method of teaching to another to know which one worked best (as John Hattie famously pointed out).  A/B testing is perfect for such a program.  It allows us to see not just what worked, but what was optimal for student achievement.

Large scale educational testing is still critical.  We will always need the kind of authority that only large scale research endeavours can bring.  But A/B testing offers a model of in-school research, flexible enough to be scaled to a single classroom or a whole school, that keeps us engaged in the process of perpetual betterment that is so critical to the long term success of schooling and education.

Schools Are No Place for Secrets

Anyone who has stepped into a school, particularly as an adult, can see it plainly: schools are places where lives are changed.  Students learn things they otherwise would not.  Their minds are opened to a range of new ideas and thinking.  And they leave being able to do things – read and write, chief among that list – they could not do before.  But the problem: not every classroom functions as well as it could.  Some students enjoy better instruction than others. The difference between student outcomes can be staggering.

The reasons for this are many, but one major cause of inequitable education outcomes is that the best practices of the field are not universally and widely distributed.  Most teachers labour admirably, giving of themselves tremendous effort, but with frequently inferior instructional techniques.  These well-meaning teachers are not villains; every teacher is at one time or another stuck using imperfect practices.  I certainly have been, and, in many areas, probably still am.  And the students – my students included – pay the price.

What to do?  Look to another field where high reliability is key: healthcare.  Don Berwick (the American doctor, medical administrator and reformer) has argued that the solution to improving health outcomes lies in a radical concept: hospitals should keep no secrets.  They should more carefully measure outcomes and share data on success – and failure.  In so doing, the best practices would be identified and shared across hospitals.  And by making this information public, patients would know who does the best work, as measured by the health and wellness of their patients.

If we can begin to insist that hospitals – notoriously complex institutions – measure and share performance data, why not schools?  There are challenges, to be sure.  One major obstacle is that presently there is not universal agreement on appropriate measures.  Second, the tendency of media and advocacy organizations to rank might mean that schools are pitted against one another.  Third, shaming and blaming have no place in the effective improvement strategies of large organizations, especially unionized ones.  But used well, this could be a powerful driver for change.  With an appropriate set of performance measures, the best practices of the field are likely to gain traction.  We would know what works and we could scale up those practices.  The worst performing classrooms could get better by learning from the best performing.

As teachers, most of us are working without much guidance.  Simple but critical tasks are often left up to our best guesses.  What is the best method of beginning a class?  How do you productively get the attention of the reluctant learner in the back?  What is the best way of leading a whole-class discussion – and what questioning sequences work best?  How do we provide feedback on assignments so students actually improve? These questions are at the heart of our enterprise; they are to the teacher what resection techniques are to the surgeon.  And yet without data, each teacher is left to resort to a collection of folk wisdom and anecdote.  Each teacher ends up relying on a set of shop-worn practices.  But without a “no secrets” approach, each of us is never sure if what we are doing is better than any other method.  That is a shame.

We have more to gain than lose through applying the idea of “no secrets” to schooling.  Measured against the possible benefits, the challenges facing this kind of project are small.  Without knowing, in concrete ways, which practices work best, how can we hope to ensure that all students receive the best possible instruction?  Indeed, finding out what works and raising the quality of teaching practice in all classrooms is an imperative, not a luxury.

Knowing is the first step to improvement.  Let’s begin by viewing secrecy as damaging.  Let’s throw open the doors and allow improvements to spread.

 

If High Expectations Can Get the Blind to See, What Could They Do in Our Schools?

Arnie Boldt must know the value of high expectations.  Injured in an auger accident at the age of three, he lost his right leg.  This loss did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest athletes in Canada’s history, in a seemingly improbable event no less: high jump.  Over his career, he won seven gold medals and one silver in high jump, setting more records than this space has room for.

Invisibilia, NPR’s newest science-themed podcast, recently explored the remarkable case of Daniel Kish.  Kish, blind since the age of 13 months, trained himself to use the clicking of his mouth to echolocate objects in his environment.  Kish sometimes rides a bicycle to show the amazing capacity of his talent.  He has dedicated his life to teaching the blind to, as some might say, “see” through echolocation and lead lives with more possibilities.

These examples are remarkable outliers, of course, but they establish something of critical and generalized importance: our expectations shape our possibilities.  Expectations we place on ourselves and those placed on us by others.  When we convince people they cannot do something, it acts as a barrier to their achievement.  When we act as though great things are possible, they often are.

Nowhere is this more important than in schools, where our youngest members of society often decide what constellations of possibilities to explore.  Schools have a key role to play in fostering a mindset of possibility, not unlike the growth mindset for which Carol Dweck has argued persuasively.  It is in schools where young people decide to push themselves – or, too often, not.

High expectations are communicated in many ways.  Shopworn posters line many school hallways and libraries, exhorting students to reach their potential.  Good as far as they go, but likely more powerful are the underlying messages broadcast to young people in our language, in our actions, and in our subtle overtures.  A student who thinks a teacher does not care is likely to find reason to disengage, too.  But teachers can also act as Chief Encouragement Officers of their classrooms, raising possibilities for lifelong engagement.

The importance of expectation-raising is probably especially true for groups of students who graduate at lesser rates than average, enter university at lower rates, and find fewer doors open as adults.  Even if talent is distributed equally across all races, cultures, genders, and other categories, the experience of life shows some groups do better than others.  The difference in outcomes, both in school and in life, are surely sensitive to the kinds of expectations students have of the limits of their possibilities.

I don’t know Arnie Boldt, but as one of my professors used to say, I would love to meet the physical education teacher who first worked with him.  Even if the drive to jump came from Boldt himself, it would have taken an act of pure faith to foster his natural talent.

The lesson: if determination and grit and, yes, high expectations, can allow Boldt to high jump 2.08m (!) and Kish to echolocate his way to blind bicycling, what could be done with students in our schools?  And more troubling, what might not be done, what achievements and positive life outcomes might be missed, when we fail to set expectations beyond our students’ view of what is possible?

While more – much more – than high expectations are necessary to improve schooling outcomes, the most vulnerable groups of students in our schools desperately need adults to encourage the visualization of a future that right now seems improbable.  The capacity for human ingenuity cannot be known in advance; we shouldn’t behave as though it is.

Prepare for the Online Rapture?

This week, a lively piece on educational technology by Michael Godsey appeared in the Atlantic.  It is wide ranging, but the central premise is clear and familiar: technology will fundamentally change the way teaching and learning is done.  Godsey, when describing what he tells college students interested in teaching, is bleak:

I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

His main concern is that teachers will be displaced by the tremendous amount of teaching resources easily found online.  From both free and pay channels, from Silicon Valley tech firms and traditional publishers alike, there is already a greater volume of educational material, more expertly designed, than any individual teacher could hope to create in a thousand lifetimes.  The conclusion: teaching will be so thoroughly disrupted that in a decade or so, only teaching “techs,” like those described above, will exist.

But despite his concern for the safety of his profession, it seems clear that he thinks such a system might produce excellent results:

I think to myself: These resources are already good for education, and they’re only getting better. Part of me is really excited that in two decades, the giant interactive classroom computer screen that I foresaw is going to be far more sophisticated than I can possibly imagine. Why should I stand in the way of crowdsourced lesson plans and professionally edited video tutorials? Shouldn’t I stop trying to compete as an individual “sage on the stage,” appreciate the modern efficiency of today’s resources, and re-invest my time as their enthusiastic “guide on the side”?

Tempting to think so, and somehow the fear carries within it optimism: optimism that such a system would ever work as well as our current models do.  The most fervent promoters of MOOCs, of Khan Academy, of blended learning, of a thousand things meant to improve student outcomes, have a rapture-like faith in these technologies.

They will arrive!  They will be better!  It is only a matter of time!  Prepare!

Yet the evidence hardly merits such optimism.  In a recent large-scale study of one million students taking MOOCs, only 5% actually completed their courses.  They didn’t persist very well when facing challenges.  They stopped doing on-line quizzes to rehearse the things they were learning.  They had one of the highest failure rates of any educational setting – ever.

The reasons for the massive MOOC failure are likely many, but I think a large part of it is the essentially social nature of teaching and learning.  We learn from those who we respect, who hold us to account, who we look forward to seeing, and sometimes those we look forward to challenging.  When students are given the tremendous freedom platforms like MOOCs are imbued with, many of the traditional mechanisms of student engagement and accountability disappear.

Last week’s Planet Money tells the story of a young man, Demetrius, who goes away to community college: only to find that independence is harder than it looks:

CHACE (Planet Money): There are a few classic reasons why only 1 in 3 students makes it through community college. A lot of students run out of money and quit. Some have a sudden family problem. Their kid gets sick or a spouse loses their job. Demetrius had another issue that everyone talks about – motivation.

 

Nobody was in Demetrius’ life to say, hey, maybe you should go back to studying. This was the biggest difference between high school and college. No one is collecting your homework. No one’s making sure you’re keeping up with the reading. And as Demetrius went to fewer and fewer classes, nobody seemed to notice, at least according to him. Then a relative died. He had to go back to New York City for the funeral, told everyone in the family school was going great, went back to college, but he never went back to class.

 

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I thought I could get it together, but I couldn’t. I basically checked out. I stopped going for the most part. There’d be times where I would just be in my room, like, I would just sit in there and cry. And at the same time, it made me feel worse ’cause I knew I was failing. I knew I screwed up in my first semester.

And the independence required and offered by the technological rapturists is many times more extreme.  Even the founders have acknowledged the disappointment.  Maria Konnikova, in an excellent piece in the New Yorker, quotes Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers in the field, on what happened to MOOCs:

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he told Fast Company in an interview. “We have a lousy product.”

I agree.

At my most generous, I see the insistence on the impending technological rapture as yet another attempt to find a silver bullet, or worse – to “revolutionize” a field that is already fairly successful, to “disrupt,” as if we forgot the negative connotations of the word.  At my most cynical, I see it as the dream of those in the world of educational technology to increase sales.

But in the plainest view, the least judgmental view, we need to acknowledge what is thus far the provisional truth about online learning: for the average student, it does not offer what traditional schooling does.  It has not succeeded.  Teaching and learning are likely too relational, the average human brain too reluctant to engage in deep thinking, for students to, on a large scale, benefit from online platforms as well as they did – and do – from traditional means.

It might be possible to imagine a future where the technological classroom is run by a teacher-cyborg, able to do what the ed tech folks have been promoting.  That rapture might come.  But then, I doubt it.  And why not just build better schools through improved teaching, something we know a tremendous amount about, is practical, and will likely work?

To borrow an analogy from my spouse, we now have more fitness technology than we ever had – from wearable technology like Fitbits to virtual trainers to YouTube videos on workouts – and yet people still hire coaches and trainers.  We want something only another human being can provide.  What’s wrong with that?

105091321_6bbb2cf7c2_z(Photo: RedCraig)

Soldier-Scholar-Statesman: The Emotional Lives of Schools

Schools are emotional places.  Any teacher knows that happy and confident students learn more effectively.  Might the same be true for teachers?  

Most reform efforts meant to improve schooling outcomes have focused on technical reforms.  Assessment and evaluation practices come to mind.  Rubrics.  Professional Learning Communities.  And I am a big fan of some of these – I’m particularly fond of the technical improvements in teaching practice – but we do ourselves a favour if we realize these changes go on in an emotional environment.  That is, for teachers to adopt new practice, they need to feel safe, nurtured, celebrated.  Improvements in the technical practices of teaching and learning are necessary to make better the experiences of students; given that teachers are the mechanism by which principals work, it makes sense for school leaders to have front-of-mind the emotional needs of teachers.

Or, put another way…

Another one of the challenges in our large-scale reform efforts right now, which focus on capacity building, is to bring emotions out of the shadows and say ‘this is part of capacity building too’. We have to nurture the way our staff is feeling about their work if we expect them to be resilient and sustain their efforts. The work has to be something that’s meaningful. It needs to feel like we’re making progress, and it needs to be something teachers are confident about being able to do. – Ken Leithwood

The ideal of US military leadership has sometimes been described as soldier-scholar-statesman.  Principals would do well to have something like that model in mind.  They need to be all three (they need to understand what is best; act decisively; and with diplomacy, tact and empathy), but knowing when which role is required takes intelligence, grace, and courage.

Why You Might Not Want An Innovative School for Your Kids

If Hospitals Were Like Schools…

Imagine a visit to the emergency room that went something like this.  Worried you might be having a heart attack, you complain of chest pains.  Instead of using the usual protocols, the attending physician says, “Yes, thousands of other doctors have had good results using what’s tried and true, but it’s not my style.  I’ve developed my own way.”  A savvy patient would be worried; while this doctor’s approach might be better than the existing protocol, it is far more likely to be inferior.  Adopting a new approach in the absence of evidence is dangerous.  Yet, this is exactly what we force teachers to do in our schools – adopt idiosyncratic and untested ideas.

Or rather, it is what many would have us do.  If we are to keep improving our schooling outcomes, we need to keep what is working.  The imperative to innovate in our schools is seductive, but we run the risk of changing what already works in favour of untested hypotheses.  Looking back over the history of schooling, we can see a lot of under-evidenced reforms.  Multiple intelligences come to mind.  As do learning styles.  The history of schooling is too often the frequent adoption of fads unsupported by evidence.  This amounts to the worst of all worlds: ignoring the systematic evidence in favour of the gleaming one-off study.  Or adopting teaching models that have no empirical evidence at all.

Teachers who resist these ideas are often labelled as lazy or troublesome, or worse of all, acting without their students’  best interest in mind.  But educational reformers, consultants, and political actors often label experimental ideas as certain truths.  In fact, teachers are often wise to approach educational innovation with some skepticism.

Isn’t Educational Research Bad? Hardly.

Part of the blame rests in the common wisdom that educational research is bad.  Any field has its share of studies with spurious conclusions and shoddy methodology.  But we should not allow the bad to obscure the research that is productive and helpful.  The best of it examines studies in the same way medical researchers do; while achieving a double-blind study in schooling research is likely impossible, thorough meta-analyses of decades of research approaches the kind of systematic understanding we rely on in health sciences.

This is the view of Canadian-trained New Zealander John Hattie, whose work – most notably, his Visible Learning project – systematically analyzes educational research and provides welcome insight into the sometimes confusing results of studies.  Not unlike nutrition research, individual studies need to be understood as part of a longer story.  Some studies say one thing; others disagree.  Meta-analyses like Hattie’s bring together thousands of research results involving millions of students to provide a good, if provisional, answer to the question: what works best in the classroom?

That language is important.  The question is not: will students learn if a teacher uses a particular model of teaching, but will they learn more using this model than if we had used another?  If there are no gains to be made over existing practice, we harm our students.  By way of small example: Hattie’s work suggests direct instruction – a teacher-centred, traditional version of teaching –  is more effective than most other teaching practices. And yet teachers have been told for at least a generation or two that direct instruction does not work.

Schools Are Already Good, But They Can Get Better

Canadian schooling has excellent outcomes – the OECD PISA results are a testament to that.  This is not to say that improvements cannot be made; they can and should.  (Schooling outcomes for aboriginal Canadians, for example, demand urgent reform.)  But if schooling is to improve further, the answer cannot lie in adopting just any notion, no matter how interesting it seems.  We can hardly afford to scale up ideas that, while different, are not improvements over current practice.  In schooling, as in medicine, what is different should only be adopted if it is demonstrably better.

(Photo: Robb North)