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)

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.

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)

That Artful Science

One of the more important developments of the past generation in this and other fields is the insistence that we get better at what we do; further, to do so it would be a good idea to know more about the basic science behind our work; and that practitioners should be supplied with the fruits of that scientific research.  Sometimes this is called Knowledge Mobilization (or, in some fields, Research Translation, a not-dissimilar idea).  The problem: there has been only a tiny uptake of scientific practices in a lot of fields, chief among them education.

Daniel Willingham, a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist, represents what can be possible when thoughtful experts produce clear and usable guidelines for daily practice  His book, Why Don’t Students Like School? is a superb piece of work; it shows how research can meaningfully inform very practical decisions in schools, without being either overly diluted nor overly technical.

He is centred on a fairly conventional view of what schools are and what they can achieve.   He is not prone to fad; he insists on evidence for his claims.  As such, he has argued against a set of likely untrue ideas about cognition and learning – learning styles for one, bless him – and argues that many of the problems related to learning (particularly reading) are related to a clack of subject knowledge.  He provides a compelling and thorough account of the challenges of working memory, something that many teachers have been told is important but without much explanation.  His clarity and evidence is a welcome antidote to the esoteric products of many publishing houses.

Perhaps most admirable is his scientific worldview – without such a view, the other fruits would not be possible.  Just listen to how he describes the role of science in improving schools:

Education is similar to other fields of study in that scientific findings are useful but not decisive.  An architect will use principles of physics in designing an office building, but she will also be guided by aesthetic principles that are outside of science’s realm.  Similarly, knowledge of cognitive science can be helpful in planning what you teach and how, but it is not the whole story.

 

Not the whole story – but I see two ways that cognitive science can be useful to teachers.  First, knowledge of cognitive science can help teachers balance conflicting concerns.  Classrooms, after all, are not just cognitive places.  They are emotional places, social places, motivational places, and so on.

 

Second, I see principles of cognitive science as useful boundaries to educational practice.  Principles of physics do not prescribe for a civil engineer exactly how to build a bridge, but they let him predict how it is likely to perform if he builds it. Similarly, cognitive scientific principles do not prescribe how to teach, but they can predict how much your students are likely to learn.  If you follow these principles, you maximize the chances your students will flourish.

 

Education is the passing of accumulated wisdom of generations to children, and we passionately believe in its importance because we know it holds the promise of a better life for each child, and for us all collectively.  It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children… Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.

– Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, pp. 164-5

 

Amen.

What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.

Medicine and Schooling

I am fond of arguing that medicine and teaching have a lot in common.  Of course, they are both helping professions; at their best, they both rely on evidence; they have the capacity to change lives; and they do so within a social framework – all of us learn better from teachers we have relationships with, and medicine is surely the same.

There is no one more able that Atul Gawande to tease out the similarities.  (He has drawn the comparison explicitly in piece “Personal Best” in the New Yorker, which I’ve already written about.)  Gawande represents a helpful mental model of professional practice: he understands the tension between the importance of long-term research projects and the immediate goals of improving practice with existing knowledge; he emphasizes the need for diligence, persistence, and getting results; he thinks practitioners should also approach their work with a scientific mindset.  He is also alive to the human side of practice.  He is able to weave quantitative and qualitative evidence into a satisfying narrative of, in this case, how medicine can improve; but the corollaries to teaching are obvious to anyone.

The following quotations are from his 2007 book, Better.  While he intends none of these to even tangentially relate to schooling, anyone who has spent any time in schools will see the corollary.

I. On the Importance of Diligence

“Betterment is a perpetual labour.” (9)

II. The Data-Improvement Connection

“In medicine, we are used to confronting failure; all doctors have unforeseen deaths and complications.  What were not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers.  I am a surgeon in a department that is, our members like to believe, one of the best in the country.  But the truth is that we have no reliable evidence about whether we’re as good as we think we are.  Baseball teams have win-loss records.  Businesses have quarterly earnings reports.  What about doctors?” (207)

III. High Expectations

“The paradox at the heart of medical care is that it works so well, and yet never well enough.  It routinely gives people years of health that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  Death rates from heart disease have plummeted by almost two-thirds since the 1950s.  Risk of death from stroke has fallen more than 80 percent.  The cancer survival rate is not 70 percent.  But the advances have required drugs and machines and operations and, most of all, decisions that can easily damage people as save them.  It’s precisely because of our enormous success that people are bound to wonder what went wrong when we fail.” (105-6)

IV. On the Superior Value of Applying Current Knowledge vs New Research

“To be sure, we need innovations to expand our knowledge and therapies, whether for CF of childhood lymphoma or heart disease or any of the other countless ways in which the human body fails.  But we have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us.  And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that.  When we’ve made a science of performance, however – as we’ve seen with hand washing, wounded soldiers, child delivery – thousands of lives have been saved.” (233)

V. Applications for Schooling?

Imagine what we could do as a field if teachers adopted this mindset.  Imagine the coherent and purposeful improvements we could make if we, as a field, took on the set of dispositions and assumptions embedded in his words above.  Imagine how we could move from the fairly random collection of hot topics in education towards a “a science of performance.” (233)

Building a Better Teacher (II)

The year 2010 was important to me in a lot of ways: I started a PhD program in educational theory and policy, I started this blog, I moved schools, and I read Elizabeth Green’s Building a  Better Teacher article in the New York Times Magazine.  Such was the importance of that article that I include it in the list above.

Why?  It said just about everything I wanted someone to say.  That schooling could be understood as more than just folk practice; that good teaching techniques could be scaled up and popularized; that with the creation of a shared vocabulary describing effective practice, we could – probably quickly – make big gains in the quality of our schools.  And these ideas – explicit and implicit – all set against the background of the assertion that schooling is important.

It also introduced me to Doug Lemov.

In August of this year, her book-length treatise arrived.  Green captures much of the spirit of our age; an age of insightful non-fiction devoted to ideas, public goods, and private folly.  I see in her Atul Gawande and his insistence that we can improve through carefully guided practice and feedback (as well as the possibility for scaling up good practice); I see in her the insight of the brilliantly scathing piece by Jill Lepore on the silliness of favouring the magic of “disruption” over steady gains; I see a better-evidenced Malcolm Gladwell, touching on broad social themes with an eye for the compelling anecdote.

It holds (at least) these truths:

  1. The best teachers are made.  They are, to use the dichotomy Green attributes to Lemov, strivers.
  2. Continuous improvement is the appropriate model to follow.  Slow, steady, thoughtful adjustments.
  3. Data is key. Either quantitative or qualitative.  But you need to have a measure of what is working.
  4. An interesting and sustainable model for individual improvement is teachers teaching teachers.  With little hierarchy.
  5. The thing that matters is the very specific teaching practices, what Hanushek called the black box of teaching.  What happens in the classroom between teachers and students, and students and their peers, is what schooling’s success rests on.

There are a lot of books written about schooling, but this is one of the few that takes a granular view of the thousands of small decisions teachers need to make to improve student outcomes.  It is not merely the elucidation of one teacher’s view about her teaching practice, but rather a synthesis of the history of a movement to improve schooling (one that does not stretch back too far, actually).  And its conclusions point to a more hopeful future; while the outcomes of schooling rival the other helping professions, we stand at an interesting an exciting point in time, within striking distance of codifying and disseminating the best teaching practices.  Green’s book is a very satisfying (if incomplete) survey of what has been done, what needs to be done, and (at least tentatively) how to do it.