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.


Is This Working?

(Now that I’ve finished my thesis and defended, I’m ready to return to the interwebs.  I begin again by revisiting a few ideas that first got me interested in the artful science of education.)

A recent installment of This American Life has a topic near and dear to all teachers: student discipline.

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On the surface, this is a delightful radio hour dedicated to the question of student discipline.  Par for the course, the good folks at This American Life have produced a compelling narrative.  But the anecdotes of discipline recalls so many important debates in education (and mimics many in social sciences, generally) that further unpacking is merited.

Some obvious truths: This American Life is a truly superb production that generates excellent reporting (and Ira Glass has a soft spot for schools); student discipline is a key concern for all teachers; discipline is a difficult task that defines the range of academic possibilities (if the kids are poorly behaved, nothing much is possible).

More important than any particular response to discipline challenges, however, is the set of profound questions this podcast asks outright – and hints at, too.  Namely: what should be the goal(s) of education? How would we know if something is working?  What evidence matters?  Should we scale up good ideas, or treat each school as a unique setting?

The first question is key, but laughably too broad for this space.  But the second, third, and fourth questions are important, answerable, and sadly asked very infrequently.  If we’re going to continue the remarkable improvements in schooling, we need to approach these questions – and others – with the kind of systematic rigor of those like Michael Thompson.  Profiled in the podcast, Thompson is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and uses data sets millions large to shed light on, in this case, the “school to prison pipeline,” linking discipline practices of schools to higher incarceration rates.  He brings a scientist’s mind to the question, insisting on high-quality evidence to address complex questions about schooling effectiveness.

We might quibble with a few aspects of this – is Texas representative, for starters – but in general terms this is exactly the kind of inquiry that will lead to better schooling outcomes – and a more just schooling system, too.  We need to stop treating schooling like medicine in the 19th century.  We need to insist on evidence.  (Indeed if our goal is social equity, no greater ally could be found.)

The point is this: the question – how would we know – needs to be asked.  About all educational practices.  Not to be churlish and quarrelsome, but to remind ourselves that, like all ongoing human inquiries, schooling provides provisional truths, subject to verification and falsification.  If not, if we just go with our gut, if we fumble like the well-meaning folks in this radio hour with no systematic methods of inquiry, we have little hope of improving an institution that can lay claim, at least fractionally, to nearly all human success.


A Contagious Vagueness

Last year, Salon ran an interview by Alice Karekezi with a New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal. Senechal had recently released a book, The Republic of Noise. Her critique of some standard educational practices is intriguing, and while not empirically verifiable, rings true. (I am definitely going to be stealing the phrase, contagious vagueness.)

Below is an abridged version of the interview. (The whole thing can be found here.)

What’s your definition of solitude?
The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”
Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.

You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?
The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)
The problem with that is that the workshop model is very wonderful for certain lessons and topics, but when you apply it across the board, you are constraining the subject matter. You need a variety of approaches in order to deal with a topic. You may need a lesson where the teacher gives an extended presentation to give the students necessary background. Or an extended discussion. For instance, the students may have a project that they will have to do together, but they have to work on their own to build up to that point.
Also, schools have put an enormous emphasis on skills – or what are called skills – at the expense of content. This has been going on for decades. No one wants to specify what students should read, but they say that they should be analyzing and comparing and contrasting. Well, none of this has meaning unless you know what it is you’re comparing and contrasting or analyzing. What happens is, students write essays that show that they haven’t read very closely, and yet this passes because it meets the checks on the checklist: that it has the right number of paragraphs; it has an introduction, body, conclusion; it seems as though they’re comparing something with something. There is a contagious vagueness because we don’t specify what we’re talking about and what students should learn. We then encourage in them a certain vagueness and carelessness. The problem perpetuates itself, and it turns up much later when students enter college and don’t know how to write a coherent essay. Well, the reason this comes up is that they’re in courses where they’re expected to read on specific topics, and that’s where things fall apart and it’s no longer about the rubric.
So the problem lies in the idea of putting the model above the actual subject. You have to think about the subject and think about how you’re going to bring this to the students, and think about the type of lesson that will do that best. Often you’ll find that you need a combination of types of lessons.

You write that we “mistake distraction for engagement”? How so? How does it affect even mental cognition?
I’m not a psychologist, but in the classroom and in many discussions on education, what I see is an emphasis on keeping the students busy from start to finish. Not letting a moment creep in where they don’t have something specific to do, something concrete where they are actually producing something. So if you keep them busy, busy, busy, and doing something at every moment, then supposedly they’re engaged. And when supervisors walk into classrooms and look and see the students writing and turning and talking, their conclusion is “Oh! What an engaged class!” The problem with that is then students don’t learn how to handle moments of doubt, or moments of silence, or moments where they have to struggle with a problem and they can’t produce something right on the spot. So, the students themselves come to expect to be put to work at every moment. If you want to give them something more difficult, you have to expect a little uncertainty.

Educational Technology – Revisited Again

I was recently listening to a very seasoned, very articulate head of an independent school discuss the role of educational technology. He said, “If someone can show me one study that demonstrates that technology improves student achievement, I’d like to see it.” And while it’s a little hyperbolic, he points out something we all know but rarely say: as with most areas of education, we do what we do (in this case, spend billions of dollars on educational technology), not because we know it has an impact, but simply because it seems like a good idea.

The following was written by Paul Thomas, former high school English teacher-turned professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. It is as negative as one could get on the potential of educational technology to improve instruction, but I find myself not disagreeing with it. Sure, it’s a little overreaching. And yes, the one study he points to does not really address his main thesis (if educational technology has been used imperfectly, the solution might be better training, not less technology). But if I think of the truly important lessons I learned in school, none involved technology. They usually involved feedback, my own investment, and what Barzun refers to as student and teacher grafting their minds to one another. Can technology improve the chances this will occur? I’m agnostic. (The value of SmartBoards would deserve a posting all on it’s own…)

People will often say, “It’s not the technology that’s important – technology is just a tool to use to make learning come alive -” or some such. Perhaps. And you can find lots and lots of interesting schools with passionate teachers doing interesting things with technology. But we have to ask: if we resources for education are scarce, and they are, why bother with technology? Are there simpler ways to achieve the same ends? And given that all adults learned contemporary technology (iPhones, new operating systems) as adults and not in school, I see little reason to teach explicitly technology for its own sake (save for computer courses which require specialized knowledge like programming).

We need a reason to use technology. Too often, in the language of a cherished colleague of mine, it is a solution in search of a problem.

Paul Thomas:

Reforming education in the U.S. often includes seeking new technology to improve teaching and learning. Instead of buying the latest gadgets, however, our schools would do better to provide students with critical technological awareness, achievable at little cost.

We rarely consider the negative implications for acquiring the newest “smart” board or providing tablets for every student. We tend to chase the next new technology without evaluating learning needs or how gadgets uniquely address those needs. Ironically, we buy into the consumerism inherent in technology (Gadget 2.0 pales against Gadget 3.0) without taking full account of the tremendous financial investments diverted to technology.

Technology is a tool to assist learning. School closets and storage facilities across the U.S., though, are filled with cables, monitors and hardware costing millions of dollars that are now useless. Notably, consider one artifact that’s covered in dust — the Laserdisc video player (soon to be joined by interactive “smart” boards).

Chalk board, marker board and now “smart” board have not improved teaching or learning, but have created increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers. There is little existing research that shows positive outcomes from technology. One study found that “most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.”

Reading a young adult novel on a Kindle or an iPad, or in paperback form, proves irrelevant if children do not want to read or struggle to comprehend the text. Good teachers, however, can make the text come alive for the children whether it’s on a glowing screen or a piece of paper.

Schools should not be blinded by the latest trends and the inflated costs of new technologies. Rather, we should empower teachers and divert resources into their classrooms in more meaningful ways.

We’d do well to heed Henry David Thoreau: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Neuroplasticity and Schooling – The Thing that Hurts is the Thing that Helps

While classrooms are about as far from brain surgery as a person can get, it hasn’t seemed like that in the past few years. Increasingly, the world of teaching is infused with seminars, books, techniques, and staff room banter about neuroscience. Most of this activity is just the usual idle chat, but to the extent that we really listen, our world is about to change. For the better.

Few writers in the field have had the impact that Norman Doidge has had. His book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has (beyond selling millions of copies) began to alter the way we think about our brains. Beyond Doidge, there are few issues of important periodicals like the New Yorker that go by without any reference to neuroscience. And in our age, romantic notions of ‘mind’, the ethereal, intangible version of consciousness has all but died. The brain is our mind, the consensus goes, and we just use sentimental language when we speak otherwise. All of this might be true, but the relationship between consciousness and our brains is not one way: our brains are often subject to the power of our directed, conscious thoughts. We are not computers that merely respond to our programming.

An example: the placebo effect has always bedevilled medical researchers. In order to determine whether or not any particular medication has the desired effect, it is important to establish a double-blind study – neither the subjects nor those administering the medication know which is getting the placebo, and which is getting the real medication. In this way, we can determine if the medication is having the desired effect. When the study is concluded, we take a list at the patient lists, see who got better, see who didn’t, and we can determine if the drug works. The placebo effect – the tendency of patients to report better symptoms even on a sugar pill – can be separated from the ‘real’ effect.

Setting aside the sometimes unscrupulous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, this double-blind system works quite well. There’s no way to game the system. We can tell if real change has occurred. There are, in addition to patient reports, observable data we can draw on to know if the drug worked or not. Did the tumour shrink? Did the cholesterol decrease?

But with matters of brains, this isn’t so neat and tidy. There has been a remarkably high placebo effect in anti-depressant medication trials. Sometimes nearly as high as the group who got the actual medication. So what, we might say. So some people convinced themselves that they were feeling better – the underlying reason for their depression must have remained unchanged.

And yet, that is sometimes not the case. Generally speaking, brains of patients who suffer depression look different under an MRI than those who are not suffering depression. You would imagine that those in anti-depressant trials who received the placebo medication would see no physical changes in brain operation, and yet they sometimes do. Not only have they ‘tricked’ themselves into feeling better, but by doing so they changed the physical operation of the brain. Recent research into mindfulness meditation has hinted at the same thing: those who meditate begin to see changes in the physical and electrical and chemical structures of the brain. And the list goes on: those who have suffered strokes and lost a capacity (say, the use of their left arm) because of brain trauma (the area of the brain responsible for the activity) find that with the right therapy, other areas of the brain change and grow to take over for the damaged area. The oldest evidence of all: London cabbie’s brains have overdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for spatial awareness, having had to memorize great swaths of one of the most labyrinthine cities in the world. And then there’s the remarkable story from Atul Gawande in the New Yorker about scratching an itch.

If we are a computer, we are a computer that can reprogram ourselves.

And yet, in schooling, we continue to do something that has often puzzled me. When a student presents with a difficulty in one area (say, writing), we often reduce that very activity. The thinking goes like this: if Steven’s brain is wired in such a way as to make him a kinaesthetic learner, not a verbal or logical-mathematical learner, then he should do more dancing and running and less reading and writing.

The following has no support but resonates with me, at least.

The oldest paradigm: just try harder. If that doesn’t work, ‘you must not be built right’. Give up. This led to a tremendous amount of unused human capacity.

Now: You are a visual learner? Don’t even try listening to your peers or teachers in your classes. Hard time reading? We’ll get you the audiobooks for all your texts. A second-language seem tough? We’ll exempt you from it. After all, if you were paralyzed, we would never ask you to run the 100m dash. Asking you to violate your unique brain is potentially abusive.

Except that if stroke victims can repurpose areas of the brain to speak again and to walk again, why can’t the same logic work on remediating dyslexia? (It does, as it turns out – dyslexics who have been exposed to the right sorts of interventions have fundamentally different brain processes after the interventions.)

Perhaps the simplest conclusion is this: Our brains are more similar than they are unique. To the extent that they are unique, most of that variation is a positive good and leads to interesting, creative possibilities. For a smaller group of us, our brains don’t do as easily what other brains can do. When those areas overlap with skills our society prizes, like reading(!), we ought to do more of that hard thing, not less, to remediate, to actually change our brains for the better. The model of physiotherapy applies well, I think. When our backs are stiff, we stretch and exercise. We no longer advise bed rest for (the majority) of sore backs. The thing that hurts is the thing that helps.

Of course, we need to do so in ways that are suitable (more of a useless remedy does not achieve the desired result), but I worry that the vast majority of our interventions are akin to taking someone with a sore back and putting him in wheelchair until his legs atrophy to the point where we validate the very thing harming him.

Here’s Norman Doidge on Allan Gregg and Company.

Solutions Looking for Problems?

All fields have their shop-worn phrases and clichés, and education is no different. And while there are lots of them in education, the one that chafes me most is the well-meaning: innovation.’

Good teachers, the story goes, change everything all the time. They change books, they change approaches, they change seating arrangements – everything needs to be different than before. Much of this pressure comes from (again) well-meaning administrators who praise certain teachers for “never doing the same thing twice”; more of it comes from those teachers themselves. But I’ve always wondered: what if the way you were doing it before was best?

A gifted colleague of mine recently put it this way. Imagining a discussion with his wife later that night, “For dinner tonight, let’s eat in the ditch. Or, the dumpster. Always changing!”

People will scoff and say, but wait – when we say innovation, we mean improvement. And that’s the rub: not all new ideas are better than the ones that came before. In fact, some of them (lots?) are bound to be worse. And if we adopt them before we know if they are indeed better, really know not just have a hunch, then we do our students a disservice in the name of our own boredom.

I generally don’t tire with the comparison to medicine. We would not want our doctors ‘innovating’ protocols for assessing heart attacks, or the general method of removing a liver. There might be better techniques for those, and research ought to go into it (it does), but at the level of practice, I want my doctor to do what is generally known to create the best results, novelty be damned. Our classrooms should, in the main, follow the same example.

Here’s one of my professors, Ben Levin, on a similar topic:

Physics reformed

An old friend of mine, Chris Meyer, a Toronto-are physics teacher, has been passionate about reforming the way physics is taught. Working from research of physicists like Eric Mazur, he has moved beyond lecturing and towards a deeper level of engagement. (His collection of articles on PER – physics education research – are worth the look on their own).

Check out his work, and if you’re feeling like it, it seems he’s willing to let teachers (and teaching candidates) drop in.

His work raises many good questions – the one I’m most interested in currently is whether there is a universal grammar of good instruction underlying all of the best teaching practices, or if the subject taught determines the approach.

Art and Copy

I’ve argued before that teaching, to borrow the title of a Seymour Sarason book, is part performance art. The title of this blog is a testament to the personal nature of it, the performance aspect it benefits from, and the central role creativity plays in the teaching and learning process. I think these statements are held as self-evident by most practitioners, and by many researchers in the field, too.

But recently I saw a documentary, Art and Copy, about creative types that made me reflect on the latter term in the blog title. The documentary – centering on the advertising industry – is a joy to watch, but suffers from an adoration of all things creative. It seems to suggest that advertising is mercurial; that success or failure is resting (solely?) on the genius of the creative superman. And moreover, that you would have a hard time measuring ‘success’ even if you wanted to.

But I wonder: isn’t there some way to determine ‘best practices’ of advertising beyond the ego of those creating it? Aren’t most fields a mix of technique and inspiration? If we applied the creative superman myth to all fields, what would the results be?

We’ve all seen the results in teaching – and through that looking glass are occasionally troubling images indeed.

Set Your Confusometer to Stun
From The Toronto Star:

“U of T grad Liam Kaufman has designed a website a prof and students can go to that lets students click on a red button if they get confused. The results show up on the prof’s laptop, registering what percentage of the class is feeling baffled, so he or she can stop to explain. When students get it, they hit the green button that says Understood.”

An excellent idea, and I would like to know the contents of my students’ brains as much as the next teacher, but the skeptic in me wonders: most students who suffer confusion don’t know what they’re confused about. In fact, often the ones who are most misguided have the strongest sense of being correct. Also, the app assumes that all learning unfolds in a linear fashion, and that all students would be confused by the same thing (when it’s likely that they are confused about very different things, on the aggregate). Last, I wonder if we need yet another screen to get in between the organic – and crucial – social interaction between instructor and pupil.

But I would like to give it a try…

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.