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.