Category: Research

Is effective teaching more about good relationships than anything else?

Carl Hendrick

On the 3rd May 2015, Chelsea won the Premier League title with three games to spare. For manager Jose Mourinho, it was his 21st trophy, marking him out as the most decorated manager in recent club football history. In August he was rewarded with a multi-million pound contract that would see him at the club until 2019. By December he was sacked.

The club had inexplicably nosedived in the new season with reports of “palpable discord” in the dressing room exacerbated by his public admonishment and subsequent ostracism of team doctor and well respected member of the group, Eva Carnerio. One of the major questions that emerged from Mourinho’s “annus horribilis” is how did a group of players who won the league at a canter a matter of months ago, capitulate in such a dramatic fashion?

mourinho

In direct contrast to this, in 2016 we witnessed possibly the greatest sporting phenomenon in English football history with Leicester City winning the Premier League, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that at the same time the previous year they were bottom of the league and fighting for their lives to even stay in it. The difference appears to be their new manager, the genial Claudio Ranieri who has elevated a disparate band of largely unknown players to the pinnacle of football history within less than a year by fostering an indomitable team spirit that has seen each and every player performing well beyond their limits.

Great teachers have much in common with great coaches. They have a vertiginous knowledge of their field with an infectious passion for it, and they can communicate that passion clearly and in ways that inspire. They have an unquestionable authority, the total respect of the players in their charge and crucially, they can engender trust and belief in their team to the extent that they will walk through walls for them. Conversely, if that relationship breaks down, players can be shadows of their former selves; aimless, lacking in confidence and self-belief and playing ‘within themselves.’

Anyone working in education has experienced this same dynamic, either themselves as students through a teacher who ignited a passion for the subject they went on to study, or through witnessing that colleague who unfailingly seems to get the best out of even the most resistant of students. I’m not talking about teachers who are well liked and who allow students to “define their own learning” (often described as a “legend”) but teachers who set high expectations, command genuine respect and trust, who model the kind of behaviour they expect, who have the authority to create a scholarly space that allows kids to really achieve, who have the ability to make students believe they are better than they ever thought they could be, and who can transmit their own obsession for their subject into a lifelong appreciation of it from their students.

Yet this element is rarely mentioned in education research. Possibly because there is no effective way of measuring such a thing and possibly because it is the elephant in the room that many simply don’t want to face. The uncomfortable truth is that without the respect and trust of their students, a teacher will often be ineffective no matter how many interventions they try or how many leadership training courses they are sent on.

One of the many blind spots in education research is that it often doesn’t take into account the context in which an particular approach occurs, which makes comparing ‘like for like’ extremely problematic and which has resulted in widely differing interpretations of what works.

However, despite the fact there is often very little consensus in education research, one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in feedback as the most effective agent of learning. For Dylan Wiliam, in order for this approach to function properly, context is all important and a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil is paramount:

“In the end, it all comes down to the relationship between the teacher and the student. To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.”

There isn’t a lot of research in this area but one interesting (yet somewhat disturbing) study conducted by Hunter Gehlbach from Harvard in which researchers tried to improve teacher/student relationships by showing areas where they had something in common, has yielded some intriguing results:

“For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.”

This study is yet to be replicated and there are many problematic aspects of it, but it does perhaps signal a new avenue of enquiry that moves away from focussing on disembodied education interventions and instead focuses on the context in which those interventions take place. If a teacher doesn’t have authority and the respect of his students, does it matter what approach they take?

It’s not a teacher’s job to be liked or popular, but it is their job to ensure students can achieve their potential and ideally, open their minds up to wonders of Shakespeare, Newtonian Physics or Minoan civilisation. If the strength of the relationship between teacher and pupil is the determining factor in how well students engage with their subject then maybe we need to talk about this rather than focussing on a set of ‘what works’ interventions that no matter how well evidenced, won’t work if the teacher has ‘lost the dressing room.’

 

Further reading:

Dylan Wiliam The Secret of Effective Feedback

In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs

 

12 Interesting Podcasts for Educators

1. Ben Riley: ‘Learning as a Science’

An incredibly useful and informative talk on the research around how students learn best from one of the Deans for Impact who are “a group of deans from schools of education around the country, that have united to make sure future teachers are armed with information about what works in the classroom as they begin their careers.”

2.  Harvard EdCast: The Great Teacher Checklist

Podcast from the Harvard Graduate School of Education asking “How do you effectively measure teacher effectiveness?” Interesting conversation on triangulating data to create a broader, more in-depth picture of the impact a teacher is having beyond test scores.

3. This American Life: How to Talk to Kids

One of the best podcasts around. This episode features stories of adults taking very different approaches to communicating with children with some very funny kids saying what particularly annoys them about how they are spoken to, specifically age appropriate talk. (TAL spawned the outstanding Serial podcast.)

4. Why do we still believe in Learning Styles? Dan Willingham

If you work in education and you haven’t read Dan Willingham’s work then you’re doing it wrong. In this podcast, he elegantly dispatches the fallacious notion of learning styles and also looks at multiple intelligences.

5. Daniel Lakens on P-Hacking and Other Problems in Psychology Research

Why can’t we replicate so much of the research on psychological studies? An interesting listen for anyone interested in education research and the problems of social science in general.

6. Freakonomics: Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? 

Intelligent podcast that asks some very controversial, almost taboo questions such as “is the issue with America’s failing education system simply that teachers just aren’t very bright?”

7. BBC4 Thinking Allowed: Happiness Industry, Wellness Syndrome

Laurie Taylor talks to Will Davies, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, who asks why policy makers have become increasingly focused on measuring happiness. Interesting contribution to the conversation around the emergence of positive psychology in education.

8. You Are Not So Smart:Learned Helplessness

Engaging podcast which essentially explores self delusion. This episode asks what keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios with just one more effort. Useful discussion for anyone dealing with young people and reluctant learners.

9. Radiolab: Memory and Forgetting

Radiolab make unique audio documentaries in the style of This American Life. This episode features Oliver Sacks telling the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.

 10. Meira Levinson on the Aims of Education

“Historically the philosophy of education has been at the core of the subject. Today there are relatively few philosophers working in this area. Meira Levinson, a philosopher with experience of teaching in US public schools, is one of them. Here she discusses  fundamental questions about what we are trying to do when we educate our children.”

11.  BBC In Our Time: Education

The ‘In Our Time’ podcasts are an indispensable resource for navigating an incredibly diverse range of areas of knowledge featuring experts in the field. Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and purpose of education.

12. A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’

NPR podcast on schools in the U.S. using traditional approaches to behaviour management that are challenging for many but yielding impressive results. Contributions from teachers in the frontline applying these methods and education academics who are less than convinced.

 

 

 

The McNamara Fallacy and the Problem with Numbers in Education

Robert McNamara was by any standards, a wildly successful man. Harvard graduate, president of Ford motors then rising to the heights of U.S. Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, McNamara epitomised American élan and brio. But he had one major flaw – he saw the world in numbers.

During the Vietnam War, McNamara employed a strategic method he had successfully used during his days at Ford where he created data points for every element of production and quantified everything in a ruthless fashion to improve efficiency and production. One of the main metrics he used to evaluate progress and inform strategy was body counts. “Things you can count, you ought to count,” claimed McNamara, “loss of life is one.”

272804773_b3577b4b7d

The problem with this method was that the Vietnam war was characterised by the unmeasurable chaos of human conflict not the definable production of parts on a factory assembly line. Things spun out of control as McNamara’s statistical method failed to take into account numerous unseen variables and the public turned against US involvement in the war through a cultural outcry that would change the country. Although on paper America was ‘winning’ the war, ultimately they lost it.

As the war became more and more untenable, McNamara had to increasingly justify his methods. Far from providing an objective clarity, his algorithmic approach gave a misleading picture of what was becoming an unfathomably complex situation. In a 1967 speech he said that:

“It is true enough that not every conceivable complex human situation can be fully reduced to the lines on a graph, or to percentage points on a chart, or to figures on a balance sheet, but all reality can be reasoned about. And not to quantify what can be quantified is only to be content with something less than the full range of reason.”

While there is some merit to this approach in certain situations,  there is a deeply hubristic arrogance in the reduction of complex human processes to statistics, an aberration which led the sociologist Daniel Yankelovitch coining the term the “McNamara fallacy”:

1. Measure whatever can be easily measured.

2. Disregard that which cannot be measured easily.

3. Presume that which cannot be measured easily is not important.

4. Presume that which cannot be measured easily does not exist.

Sadly, some of these tenets will be recognisable to many of us in education – certainly the first two are consistent with many aspects of standardised testing, inspections and graded lesson observations. This fiscal approach been allowed to embed itself in education with the justification given often to ‘use data to drive up standards.’ What we should be doing is using “standards to drive up data” as Keven Bartle reminds us.

The fallacy is based on the misguided notion that you can improve something by consistently measuring it. In the classroom, this is best illustrated by the conflation between learning and performance, which For Robert Bjork, are two very different things – the former is almost impossible to measure, the latter much simpler. It is very easy to transpose observable performance onto a spreadsheet and so that has become the metric used to measure pupil achievement and concomitantly, teacher performance. In tandem with that you’ve had the hugely problematic grading of lesson observations on a linear scale against often erroneous criteria as Greg Ashman has written about here.

RobertMcNamara55

Two years after the Vietnam war ended, Douglas Kinnard, published a significant study called The War Managers  in which almost every US general interviewed said that the metric of body counts were a totally misguided way of measuring progress. One noted that they were “grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara.”

In education, the ‘incredible interest’ of the few over the many is having a disastrous impact in many areas. One inevitable endpoint of a system that audits itself in terms of numbers and then makes high-stakes decisions based on that narrow measurement is the wilful manipulation of those numbers. A culture that sees pupils as numbers and reduces the complex relational process of teaching to data points on a spreadsheet will ultimately become untethered from the moral and ethical principles that are at the heart of the profession, as the recent Atlanta cheating scandal suggests.

Even in the field of education research, there is a dangerous view in some quarters that the only game in town is a randomised controlled trial (its inherent problems have been flagged up by people like Dylan Wiliam.) If the only ‘evidence’ in evidence based practice is that which can be measured through this dollars and cents approach then we are again risking the kind of blind spots associated with the McNamara fallacy.

Teaching is often an unfathomable enterprise that is relational in essence, and resists the crude measures often imposed upon it. There should be more emphasis on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement that is informed by a deep subject knowledge, a set of ethical and philosophical principles and quality research/sustained inquiry into complex problems.

In my experience, the most important factors in great teaching are almost unmeasurable in numbers. The best teachers I know have a set of common characteristics:

1. They are not only very knowledgable about their subject but they are almost unreasonably passionate about it – something which is infectious for kids.

2. They create healthy relationships with those students in a million subtle ways, which are not only unmeasurable but often invisible to those involved.

3. They view teaching as an emancipatory enterprise which informs/guides everything they do. They see it as the most important job in the world and feel it’s a privilege to stand in a room with kids talking about their passion.

Are these things measurable in numbers and is it even appropriate to do so? Are these things helped or hindered by the current league table culture?

5Jsgx8bQ5430kshplPqhX7CYqmc

Robert McNamara died an old man and had opportunity to reflect on his long life, most notably in the Academy award winning documentary The Fog of War. His obituary in the Economist records that:

“He was haunted by the thought that amid all the objective-setting and evaluating, the careful counting and the cost-benefit analysis, stood ordinary human beings. They behaved unpredictably.”

Measuring progress is important. We need to know what we are doing is having impact against another approach that might yield better outcomes, but the current fetish of crude numerical quantification in education is misleading and fundamentally inappropriate for the unpredictable nature of the classroom. We need better ways of recording the phenomenon of the classroom that captures more than simply test scores and arbitrary judgements on teachers, and seeks to impose an order where often there is none.

Continue reading

Podcast no. 6 – Glenn Whitman “Can you change the culture of a school through research?”

In October I went to visit Glen Whitman at St. Andrew’s School near Washington. He is the Dean of Studies there but is also a force of nature who runs an in-house research centre that has completely transformed the culture of the school. I asked him how he did it.

 

Glen Whitman

Print

 

For more on Glenn see him speak here at the Center for American Progress.