Voodoo Teaching

It must be a rare person who hasn’t seen this clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Of course, it’s funny. But also absurd: students in such a class wouldn’t be nearly so quiet. The desire for students to find engagement in something is stubborn – if the explicit lesson isn’t doing it, then socializing will.

Still, a great clip. And as an adult who knows the answers, enjoyable to watch.

On Knowing, Not Just Saying

Readers of this space know of my obsession with philosophical (really, epistemological) issues. Mostly, I am concerned with separating the wheat from the chaff in ideas – isolating the truly silly, from the potentially true, from the probably true, from the certain. In education, these categories tend to get tossed around together, without much reference to the important question: How Would We Know?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing John Hattie speak at the University of Toronto. To say it was refreshing is an understatement. I’ve been drawn to his work for a while now, and before I found it, was convinced such a project was possible.

(Here’s Hattie giving a similar talk.)

His interest is in measuring the effects of various inputs in the education system – inputs and interventions like team teaching, outdoor education, whole language versus phonetics, and practically every question in pedagogy. His premise: we can determine the effect size of all of the things we do in schools – how well they work. His conclusion: as a profession we should move towards those things that work well (have a large effect size), and away from those that do not.

Simple enough. I’m not able to provide a census of his detractors, but I know lots of people who critique his philosophical assumptions. They say that teaching practice cannot be reduced to such certainties. They argue that to strive to capture the subtle human interactions and nuances in teaching quantitatively is absurd. They sometimes argue that to gather such data is to take aim at low-performing schools and groups within them – they sometimes argue it’s culturally imperialist.

Obviously, they have warm hearts. All of us want students to do well, and most of us root for the disadvantaged. But until we gather reliable data on what works and what does not, we are continuing to impoverish our students. And what better way to ensure fairness in our society than by providing all students with the best possible teaching techniques and the best possible practices? And how else to do that then by measuring in the most precise way possible the effect size of what we do in schools?

Like Hattie, I am hostile to the idea that we are not professionals with something special to give. I reject outright the notion that “all teachers have their own way.” If an old-timer said, “Well, I hit the students; that’s how I get them to learn,” we would be outraged. I don’t see how it’s much different to say we are all equally successful using whatever techniques and approaches we “feel” are right. (Also, if teaching were so much based on whim, we would let absolutely anyone walk in and teach our classes; we do not, evidence we think it matters who teaches and how it is done.)

But perhaps the most satisfying element of the whole thing is the humility its adoption would bring to our field. Teaching suffers from a strange paradox of ego: on the one hand, most teachers feel like imposters, and denigrate the value of their practice; on the other, many teachers act the role of Superteacher, where everything he or she does is magical. What teacher hasn’t bristled in the staff meeting where one of their colleagues bellows, “Well, in my class, students love doing X,” or “I’ve never had that problem in my class…”, or “My students learn best when…”? I always want to ask, “How would we know?” and get a response more fulsome than “Because I’ve been teaching for 19 years, and I just know.”

Measurement projects like Hattie’s sweep all that nonsense away by asking, “What is the effect of our labours?” We can know, within some margin of error, what works and what doesn’t. At least, if we can ever know at all, it will be with an approach like Hattie’s, not our gut feelings and egotistical rantings. And in that kind of regime is comfort – it can depersonalize teaching somewhat, diminish the notion that teaching is a cult of personality, or a kind of mystical alchemy. Some approaches work better than others; let’s determine those, reliably, use them more often than not, and continue to measure the effects of our work – forever.

I dream of a rigorous measurement approach in a school setting, a unit of organization too small to hide in. You would probably need to set up long-term measurement indicators – perhaps a few basic assessments used for years within each grade or course, evaluated with clear rubrics and exemplars, and copies of old student work kept for years – and determine if students are improving by virtue of our efforts, and of course, by how much. (It isn’t enough to merely improve: as Hattie points out, we need to know the magnitude of the improvement. A student in any class will achieve some level of improvement over the year just through maturation.) Other indicators I like: success after high school, student feedback,

We could finally, without reference to our own whims, begin to address genuine “best practices” in our schools. Does team teaching work at our school? Let’s check this year’s assessment and see. Are students benefitting from the Advanced Placement regime? Let’s see how our graduates have done over the past 10 years and compare that number against our graduates from the pre-AP days. Is our program rigorous enough? Let’s gather data from 1st- and 2nd-year students in post-secondary studies. It is for these reasons I’m, in principle, a fan of large-scale assessments like the EQAO.

A proper measurement regime would provide some justification for the claims we make about our schools, our classes, our practice. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has, and ever will. Without it, merely the loudest voice in the room wins.

Flip this Video

I’ve recently written with some suspicion about the promised revolution the Flip the Classroom folks like Salman Khan have been preaching. I said that while the videos are interesting, and promising, the evidence of a revolution is hard to see. I think the word revolution should be saved for actual revolutions.

A colleague passed this video onto me this week.

It is a beautiful and inspiring video. It is the clearest explanation of the value of this kind of resource. Or is it? In fact, it seems to imply the premise of flipping – the practice of having students watch videos as homework to allow more higher-order tasks in class – is something altogether different. As the folks at TedEd put it:

“Flip” is meant to indicate that teachers of all stripes can propel/catapult/slingshot the video to a wider audience. And “flip” is also a reference to a nascent and evolving teaching method called Flip Teaching.

I smell a revolution in trouble. Their own buzz word now has two meanings.

Of course, the videos are often superb. And who could complain about some beautifully created lessons by some of the world’s great minds? (Its stated mission: “To capture and to amplify the voices of the world’s greatest teachers.”) I have shared many dozens of these clips with friends, and yes, used them in class – and as homework.

But let’s call it what it is, at least for now: better filmstrips than a generation ago. The evidence to prove me wrong would be simple: let’s examine the usage stats for the videos. If the usage is high among 14 year-olds, then I’m wrong. It is a bona-fide revolution. Young people clamouring for videos of middle-aged intellectuals doing Power Point presentations in front of other middle-aged intellectuals.

I think you’d find something else in the usage stats, though: an incredibly low number of young people visiting when not prompted by their teachers. And when they are prompted, a huge number of them watching the first few seconds, finding it boring, then clicking away.

It might just be, as I’ve argued before, we expect a revolution because the videos speak to us as adults. I’m not completely convinced they speak to those we want to reach. If they do, why aren’t the masses of teenagers showing us the videos, having found them the night before, on their own, as they do with memes? Why aren’t Ted Talks memes for kids?

Khan Academy – Again

Once again, the media has fallen all over themselves to praise Khan Academy – the internet sensation I’ve written about before. There’s nothing new in the clip, really, except the praise is even more extreme than before, the promises more grand.

Their motto? “A free world class education for anyone, anywhere.” A while back, I was more starstruck that this experiment could yield results. But now I’m moving towards skepticism.

Done watching helpful mini-lessons online constitute and education? No. Are these going to change how schools are structured? I find it hard to believe.

Why? There are lots of reasons I’m skeptical. A few simple ones: the format is suitable for rule-following exercises (calculus, economics), but I think the format would invariably suffer when dealing with any material that requires judgment (literature, history, and actually much of what schools teach). Student motivation is often the most powerful impediment to success, and watching videos in isolation seems as likely to succeed with many kids as traditional homework. It downplays the importance of reading, independent thought, and (despite what Khan says) human interaction. As a general panacea, it seems very unlikely to succeed in the terms Khan and others imagine it will.

There’s no textbook! And no teachers lecturing at a blackboard!
Aside from the problem of students not reading as much when they watch Khan’s videos, it suffers from the exact problem textbooks do – it is one way, one-size-fits-all, static communication.

But Khan’s a revolutionary!
Except there have been very similar methods of presenting concepts – remember filmstrips? – for two generations.

But it lets teachers ‘flip’ the classroom!
Perhaps. But by providing readings, teachers in most fields – history, geography, English, etc. – have been flipping the classroom since school began by providing low-order material for future higher-order tasks.

But Khan’s videos are engaging!
Perhaps. But I think this is likely a classic example where adults think technology is more important than young people do.

But Khan has measurement on his side! His online modules provide feedback teachers can use!
I fail to see how this is (very) different than giving math worksheets. And academic studies in measurement (very legitimate, powerful studies), involving millions of students over decades, already exist.

But, while the Khan academy is currently mostly about math, the modules could easily be about history of English!
Again, perhaps. But most of the fascinating aspects of many fields involves an interpretation and expression (essay writing, for example) that surely defies computational assessment.

But Khan says it will allow teachers to be coaches and mentors, not just transmitters of facts through lectures!
Anyone who has casually strolled through schools, or glanced at pedagogical texts, knows Khan is no revolutionary on this front.

I want to know the effect size of Khan’s work. Just because it seems cool to thirty-and-forty-somethings who did incredibly well in school does not mean it will have the desired effect among the students we most worry about – are the low-income, disengaged students clamouring for YouTube videos about fractions? Where is the promised revolution? How is this not just a better version of what many teachers have been doing since the 1960s?

Not to be outdone, John Green of young adult fame created a video set similar to Khan’s – but it is more interesting to watch. And more humorous. But it suffers from the same problem – when it strays from math, it proposes a relatively static view of interpretation.


Dr. David Naylor, president at the University of Toronto, had an interesting interview in the Globe and Mail recently. In it, he argues that creativity has an economic value (more so than resources or a cheap dollar), that genius is more often collective than individual, and the value of social sciences and humanities to the creation of innovation. He also quibbles with Ken Robinson (sorry SIR Ken Robinson) a little at the beginning, which always pleases me.

A small snippet:

Is there too much focus on churning out job-ready graduates? Is this necessarily incompatible with producing the type of creative minds we need?

It’s maddening. We’re asked to produce job-ready graduates with technical expertise and soft skills, who become innovators and “intrapreneurs” at the flick of a switch. Well, you may not always get all that in one person! I think the job of universities is to build what some call T-shaped individuals – a deep column of narrow expertise, capped by substantial breadth. That means more multi-disciplinary and experiential learning, and lots of opportunities for interactive problem-solving inside and outside the classroom. It also means acknowledging a digital reality: facts are cheap and accessible, but people who can generate ideas and think creatively are priceless.

Rigour – All Hail the Orphan Child

The Globe and Mail has recently been addressing an old chestnut: the question of rigour in schools. A few recent articles and letters-to-the-editor appeared in the past week or so. The general tenor: schools aren’t what they should be, technology is a distraction, and we should refocus our efforts on a conservative approach to teaching and learning. The excerpted editorial on texting here sums it up:

De shud b HHIS – which may be translated as “They should be hanging their heads in shame.”

Such is the scolding that some parents and teachers may want to give children and teenagers after reading the state of their homework, because a new study by a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Calgary confirms what some fear: that text messaging has a negative impact on language skills.

Ever since text messaging took off – Canadians send 154 million texts a day – linguists have debated the impact it has on the English language. Some experts insist that texting encourages creativity and writing, that asking “wot r u doin 2nite” isn’t laziness, but rather another way in which English is naturally evolving, as it has done for centuries. Besides, young people know the difference between communicating to make plans for Friday night and writing a formal essay. In New Zealand, educators certainly thought so when in 2006 they approved the use of text speak in high-school exams.

But the naysayers now have some ammunition on their side.

In the Calgary study, a group of university students were asked about their reading habits. Those who read widely in traditional print media such as books and magazines were able to identify more words on a checklist than students who said they did not read as much, but sent and received texts a lot.

Some of the words on the list were real, and others were fictitious. The conclusion was that traditional reading material exposes people to variety and creativity in the language. It helps develop skills that allow the interpretation of new and original words. This is not found in colloquial text speak, which actually constrains the use of English and caused the students to reject many words on the checklist.

It is a triumph for the traditionalists.

To which a teen’s flippant answer might be “wateva DBEYR,” or, Don’t believe everything you read.

You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who argued against rigour. Indeed, all teachers think they’re pursuing rigour in their own ways. But there is little shared agreement on what constitutes a rigourous program. And therein lies the rub. What goals should we be pursuing in our classrooms?

The usual turn of events goes like this: various groups (teachers, administrators, consultants) and different members within them, all argue for different end results. We should teach through games to build critical thinking; we should return to the basics; we should spend more time on math; no – more time on community service; and rest of all the old refrains.

There is obviously much by way of merit in debate, but unless we ask what the purpose of schooling is there is little point in persisting; no possibility of progress exists. One thing is clear, though – until we get a better answer to it, we’ll likely continue to work against ourselves.

The article below, in the same edition of the paper as the editorial above, argues – again – for a more conservative approach to education. At the very least, the purpose of schooling is hinted at: students should be able readers, writers, and adept at the classical subjects. I don’t find myself disagreeing with all of it.

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He’s about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don’t want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh’s class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain’s broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she’s not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

Students as Horses?

Anyone who loves horses has probably already seen the documentary “Buck,” about Buck Brannaman, horse whisperer extraordinaire. He talks candidly about the importance of earning respect, about the emotional sensitivity of horses, about how you don’t “break” horses through force, but you “start” them through care and attention. Unkindness can cause the whole teaching and learning process to break down – horses respond to the intention of the trainer, opening up to progress, or shutting down entirely.

The same logic applies, more of less, to teaching and learning with humans. Anyone who’s stepped into a classroom can see that the process is highly emotional. Consider his comments in the clips below with humans, not horses, in mind. And think of two teachers you might have had: one, seemingly cruel and unkind; and the second, fair, humorous, warm and understanding. Now recall in your history which one of these had the more profound effect on you. Undoubtedly, the cruel teacher, with enough energy, can achieve a certain kind of result with anger and hostility underpinning his actions, but the kind teacher produces a deeper and more permanent change – even if it doesn’t immediately look that way.

Listening to Buck, you can hear echoes of an educational consultant, Ronald Morrish – a man who has spent much of his life thinking about student behaviour and motivation. And while Morrish isn’t always right, he placed as a central concern student psychology.  We have lots and lots of literacy coaches, and of course those positions are valuable – but how many teachers would benefit from learning more about student behaviour?

When the Birds Leave the Nest

Most high schools that pride themselves on academics use as a key performance indicator the percentage of their students who go on to university study. All well and good, but a more interesting indicator would be the number of students who actually succeed at university. It is very easy for any high school to send students to post-secondary study – they control the major factor, grades, that matter in future admissions.

A recent article from the Globe and Mail, though, points out something most have known for some time: a shockingly high number of students drop out of their undergraduate studies. The usual critique in articles like this: high schools have failed our students. And while I think that is true in a lot of respects, this article refreshingly directs some blame at the university itself – for not engaging students as well as they might.

One last great insight: the article focuses on the mental states of undergraduates. Most of us know lots of people who didn’t finish a degree, and I can’t think of one that lacked the talent. They were usually crushed by a pervasive sense of inadequacy, though, by a drop in grades from high school to university.

Universities tossing at-risk undergrads an academic lifebuoy

Tamara Baluja

As more than one million Canadian undergraduate university students await their marks from first semester, some are hoping for a holiday miracle that will save their tanking grades.
Bad first-semester grades are a strong motivator for first-year students to pack their bags and ditch university.
Around 45 per cent of students who drop out in their first year do so in panic after getting low grades, said Todd Stinebrickner, an economics professor at the University of Western Ontario who has studied the various reasons undergraduate students choose to leave. Prof. Stinebrickner and his co-researcher studied students at the liberal arts Berea College in Kentucky.
“There is a fairly big gap between university and high school, and students have to be prepared to deal with that,” he said. “And when you perform poorly, that also impacts how much you like your university and how much stress you’re dealing with. When you look at all those factors together, it’s clear how bad grades can derail their university education.”
To stop the flight of these so-called Christmas graduates who drop off the roster around the holiday season, some universities screen students using their fall midterm marks and provide help that attempts to focus on the deeper issues behind poor grades.
At Carleton’s Science Student Success Centre, first-year science students who get a 60 per cent or lower on their midterms are immediately sent an e-mail to make an appointment with a upper-year mentor.
Since they launched the program in 2008, the centre found that students who accepted help had a much higher chance of passing the course, with 70 per cent passing, compared to 65 per cent of students who didn’t participate.
Given its success rate, Carleton is expanding the service next month to all undergraduate students and will enroll at-risk students into a voluntary nine-week ‘Bounce Back’ program.
“It’s not tutoring help at all,” said Sue Bertram, the assistant dean of recruitment and retention and director of the science student centre. “For many of them, it’s their first time away from home, or they’re trying to hold down a part-time job.”
Guelph has a similar program, which gives five students with the most improved grades a reward of $1,000 tuition credit each. In their most recent cohort, students who participated saw their grades improve by more than five per cent compared to the one-per-cent improvement for students who chose not to participate.
Other universities are also focusing their efforts on student well-being. The University of British Columbia, for example, recognizes that stress can affect academic performance and offers wellness programs that help students with depression, mental health and suicide prevention. When professors need to cancel a class, the University of Calgary’s student success centre steps in to use that class time to run sessions on writing exam essays, time management and taking good notes in lectures.
Sami Majdalany, a fourth-year biology student at Carleton understands those challenges. He was an A student and valedictorian in high school, but found his first-year classes too overwhelming and was only able to scrape by with Cs and Ds.
“It was so discouraging and sad, because I really wanted to go to medical school and I knew my grades weren’t good enough,” he said. “I just was unorganized with all my weekly different lab assignments and I didn’t prioritize the assignments that actually weighed more.”
When the science student success centre called him in, Mr. Majdalany was shown strategies for time management. Since then, his grades have bounced back and he is consistently getting As. Now, he is a mentor for the program. “I see so many students who want to drop out around this time of the year and take a break for a semester. But maybe all they need is that little help.”
A recent survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that 70 per cent of students feel well-prepared academically for university and 81 per cent for college.
“Most institutions recognize that first year is the most difficult and they focus their attention on these new students,” said Richard Wiggers, director of research at the council. “The question is, do you reach out to all the students early or do you reach out when you know which students need your help? Most institutions do both, but the thinking is: the earlier, the better.”
That’s why several universities, such as University of Toronto, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, are also experimenting with first-year seminars that allow students to connect with their professors in small group settings. Guelph, a pioneer, began offering these first-year programs in 2004. Budget crunches forced the university to shut down the program in 2009, but it was revived in 2011, said the university’s provost, Maureen Mancuso.
The university hopes that every student will be able to take at least one seminar course in his or her first-year.
“We’re, in effect, recreating a simulation of the classroom they would have had in high school that was more intimate, and I think that helps with the transition,” Dr. Mancuso said. “It was never intended to be a remedial program in that we’re getting the students prepared for university… for us, it’s more about making sure they have a positive undergraduate experience.”

To Succeed, Try Failing

A friend passed on this fascinating article on the importance of struggle in the personal growth.  Here’s a short excerpt from Paul Tough’s superb article from the New York Times.
Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”