Collaborative Leadership Is Essential for Change

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: This article is a response to Steve Eskow’s 22 Oct. 2009 comment on John’s “Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes.” Steve Eskow: “When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.” -js]

Steve, what you say is, in my experience, pretty universally true, and it is the ultimate dilemma in staff development. In my reply, I am going to include something from Bonnie’s last post as well.

I was involved with staff development for a number of years. It was my job to do exactly what you said you would not stand for—telling teachers how to do their work differently.

At first I labored under the direction of leaders who used perhaps the most misguided staff development policy of all time. Under the theory of models like the Annenberg Institute’s, the appointed educational leaders of the schools (principals and superintendents) tried to slip into the background and let teachers lead the change process. The idea was that if it appeared to come from within, change would be accepted by others. The opposite turned out to be true, and Annenberg’s own research showed that. Teachers who tried to act as change leaders were universally rejected by their peers, and they either folded their tents and retreated to the periphery of the school, transferred to another school, or dropped out of teaching altogether. I remember all too well the pain inflicted on me by those who openly bristled at my suggestions.

This was made even worse by a process we were required to follow in these attempts, a process that seemed absurd to me and which I fought unsuccessfully. We were supposed to smooth ruffled feathers from the start by telling them they were already doing a great job, but these new techniques, which would require them to change their ways so very much, would make them even better. I thought this would guarantee that they would not listen to us—if I am already doing a great job, why should I change? The National Staff Development Council later showed that I was absolutely right. Effective staff development will only work, it learned, if the people receiving the training could experience the cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing that what they are doing now is not working well.

Robert J. MarzanoAnnenberg’s study showed that those bristling teachers were the primary reason (along with a complementary factor to be discussed later) for the failure of school reforms. In fact, one or two of those bristlers on a staff was enough to derail a reform embraced by nearly the entire rest of the staff. Bob Marzano, then of the Mid Continent Regional Educational Laboratory (MCREL) said in a conference I attended that he could not think of a worse way to implement reform, or a better way to destroy a dedicated teacher.

The Effective Schools research of people like Lazotte pointed toward a solution, one that is mentioned by Bonnie in her last post. The principal (or equivalent) must lead the reform effort. This principal must not impose a vision of reform on the population, but must instead use effective leadership skills (such as those described by DuFour, Fullan, and others) to bring the faculty to a shared vision in which all believe. The bristling resisters had to be dealt with effectively and eliminated from the staff, either by artful persuasion or by removal. I myself participated in a study of schools that were more effective than would be predicted by their the inherent characteristics of the student populations and saw that this was true in every school we analyzed. Believe it or not, every faculty member we interviewed knew by heart and believed in passionately the school’s mission statement, and it was a real mission statement, not the kind of meaningless cant we normally see.

Annenberg’s research showed the same thing. In 100% of the successful schools they surveyed, teachers reported that the primary (by far) reason for success was the way the educational leader was able to deal with teacher dissent and bring the faculty together. In 100% of the failed reform efforts, teachers reported that the primary reason (by far) for the failure was the way the educational leader was unable to deal with dissent and bring the faculty together.

So, a reformer such as myself has little chance of bringing reform to schools that lack such leadership, which is the vast majority.

Given that background, Steve, how do you suggest that change come to teachers who cling to outmoded ideas and bristle when told to do differently?

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 23 Oct. 2009, 7:05 am:
A powerful and moving post, John.

All I have to contribute now are some early and unformed thoughts as answers to the question with which you ended your message.

First: I think I would try to rid myself of the vocabulary of teacher resistance, e.g. “teachers who cling to outmoded ideas.” All of us–including people like you and me who cling to constructivism and who would insist it’s not outmoded–are bristlers and resisters when our favorite recipes are challenged, as you document so well.

Based on your account, perhaps we as consultants need to differentiate between “external change agents”–you and me–and “internal change agents”–principals, superintendents, university deans and presidents. Perhaps one commandment for us might be “Thou shalt not undertake to change teachers unless and until there is an internal change agent as advocate.”

And another truism: we may need to do a better job of analyzing the pieces and interconnections of the educational system we’re trying to change to locate the various sources of the resistance to change. Obvious examples: the academic setting: if the building has lecture halls, do they ask to be used, and are we about saying letting them stand empty? If there is a hierarchy of instructional roles, e.g., lecturers and section leaders, which elements of the hierarchy resist the change? Accrediting bodies? National disciplinary bodies which define “standards”? Budget? The teachers to whom we attribute the resistance are one element in an elaborate ecology of forces that create and maintain the status quo, and attributing all the resistance to the teachers alone is patently unfair.

Or maybe not, John.

A beginning, John.

bbracey40Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:
What reformers do is to infuse ideas and lend support for the teacher change agents and involve the administration of the schools in meaningful ways. My help was at the highest level. At George Mason, Chris Dede was teaching and he brought a whole class to watch me work, but also invited me to the class to share ideas, frustrations, concerns and anything I wanted to share.

Frank Withrow and other leaders also were there.

Eventually we became a group for change with some funding. You are needed. One teacher can be moved, disposed of in a New York Minute.

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 9:05 AM:

Steve, I am not sure all of us are bristlers when it comes to change. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but the reason I ended up being a staff developer was my penchant for experimentation with change. When I encountered a new idea, I tried it out. If it worked, I went with it. The instructional processes I taught (with enthusiasm) when I was a staff developer were ones I had never used 5 years before.

A number of books have been published in the last decade that report on research on the effects of different strategies on student achievement. Bob Marzano, for one, has published several. I have read them and taken what I could from them. One of those strategies is the use of graphic organizers for instructional activities, which are apparently quite effective. I have personally always hated them. Hated them. When I read the results of the research, though, I shrugged my shoulders and made sure that strategy was a part of our required instructional design.

What makes teaching so different from other professions? Did doctors continue to use the iron lung after other strategies were shown to be more effective? Did attorneys continue to cite Plessy v. Ferguson after Brown v. Board of Education overturned it?

One of the things I used to hear frequently in protest of change was “What I am doing now is working.” Really? Are all your students learning at a high level? Is there no room for improvement?

A colleague of mine was a major advocate of the traditional lecture as the primary (perhaps only) instructional practice in his classroom. He was, in fact, a very vocal critic of the changes I advocated. One day one of his students openly said that the class was boring. He said, “It is my job to be boring, and it is your job to be bored. That’s how education works.” The fact that his students had the worst record in the history of AP exams (you can’t do any worse than having not a single student take the test during the years you teach the course because of the fear that they will fail) did not deter him from his unshakable belief in the quality of his practices.

I guess I don’t understand that attitude.

24 Oct. 2009, 5:08 AM: [Reply to Bonnie:] That is how it starts. The students taking a class from the likes of Chris Dede are a far different group from teachers at a mandatory inservice workshop.

As I said before, the key element in your experience is the administration, which must understand the reform and know how to lead that change effectively.

thompson40John Thompson, 24 Oct. 2009, 5:29 am:
“What I am doing now is working.” Yes, I hear that all the time. “Why change if I’m already successful?” is the refrain. As a response, I like to highlight Tiger Woods. After he won The Masters golf tournament by a record margin, everyone was singing his praises and how accomplished he was. However, he wasn’t satisfied so he retooled his swing, which was dangerous because sometimes golfers who do that never get back to their previous level let alone to a higher level. But Woods took the risk and was successful after nearly two years of work. His game went to another higher level. After a few years, he did the same. And he did it yet again when he was hurt and came back after a long layoff to recuperate. Here’s the acknowledged greatest golfer in the world and he’s not satisfied with his performance. So how is it that some teachers can smugly assert they are doing everything they can do in their teaching? Plateauing is not an option for Tiger Woods. It shouldn’t be for our teachers either.

Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:09 am:
Hi John,

First a general comment, then some interlinear commenting.

The general comment is really a question: Is there a bit of bristling in your last message to me?

Steve, I am not sure all of us are bristlers when it comes to change. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but the reason I ended up being a staff developer was my penchant for experimentation with change.

My speculation was this, John, and I am increasingly convinced there is something to it: many teachers do not bristle at change: like you, they have a “penchant for experimentation with change.”

They bristle at change agents.

A number of books have been published in the last decade that report on research on the effects of different strategies on student achievement. Bob Marzano, for one, has published several. I have read them taken what I could from them. One of those strategies is the use of graphic organizers for instructional activities, which are apparently quite effective. I have personally always hated them. Hated them. When I read the results of the research, though, I shrugged my shoulders and made sure that strategy was a part of our required instructional design.

Might it be that in a hypervisual culure one of the overall tasks of the educational system ought to be to balance visuality by emphasizing the language skills–language sans graphics–that make discussion, dialog, and debate possible? Students may have to learn to be comfortable in discussions without Power Point. Like this one.

(You of course are noticing that I am starting to resist–perhaps even bristle a bit.)

What makes teaching so different from other professions? Did doctors continue to use the iron lung after other strategies were shown to be more effective? Did attorneys continue to cite Plessy v. Ferguson after Brown v. Board of Education overturned it?

Here, John, we reach a critical point in our discussion and in our relationship, and I don’t know how to handle it well–so I’ll probably botch it and evoke resistance rather than understanding and agreement.

I’ll deal now only with the matter of education and medicine, and leave the matter of education and the law for another time.

Proposition: education and medicine are profoundly different, and it is a grave error to confound and confuse them.

Education is, at best, a “human science,” not a “natural science,” or a “physical science.”

Dilthey and others distinguished between “understanding”–what is attempted in the “human sciences”–and “explanation”–what is attempted in the natural sciences.

The belief that “educational research” provides us with hard incontestable evidence, e.g., that the research on graphic illustration is as conclusive as the iron lung–is a fallacy.

If it was, John, there would be no more Sages on Stages, all teachers would be Guides by the Side, and Harvard would require Michael Sandel to stop lecturing to a thousand students and become a quiet Guide by the Side.

It probably won’t happen, John.


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:09 am:

Well I have been lucky. In my lifetime I met an older woman who pushed me kicking and screaming into study of the out of doors, not just in the book. But she was the supervisor so who was I to say no. She was the change agent. At first I resented the birding, wildflower, and so on courses, but then as I got good, I really enjoyed them and became the summer camp director. No one would have predicted that. I arrived on the first visit in my Chanel suit and Gucchi sandals, and she handed me boots, a big coat, and a bucket. We hiked and she would share what various things were, and we did this over a set of seasons, with proper credit and with some great comforting things at the outdoor lodge.

Then there was the Nanosecond lady. Grace Hopper. I kept thinking she is so old and the men are being deferential to her. She must be really smart. I taught in the shadow of the NSF. How the administrators in the school system razzed us when we did the NSF project, SeeYou SeeMe. There was the most terrible write up and criticism, and so also with the NASA projects. You had to pull teeth to get the supplies and resources or buy them, so I learned to write grants. I forgot who taught me this. Some man, a physics teacher at the museum in Richmond, Virginia. He was a mentor, too, with an unconventional way of teaching physics, and I loved it.

My funniest story is about the professor who got upset about people using wireless in his classroom. It was in the newspaper. He ranted and raved and pulled out the wireless, to no avail. Those students were bored and were surfing the net duing class. If you work with the Supercomputing people and can see them on the grid, you know you have their attention when they stop looking at the computer for a while, but it doesn’t bother you because they can multitask.

There were also supervisors who wanted all of the science materials back in the closet by 4 PM, There were the people who took what I got with the grants and claimed it, so I learned to make my name the total grant recipient. I learned to do this after I won a Mac and the principal declared she was going to put it in the library (they sent it to my home, fortunately).

My latest mentor is Bob Panoff. See http://www.shodor.org — Interactivate. Well, I have a lot of learning to do. I have taken wonderfulworkshops in the computational sciences, and, you know, it’s the way in which people teach that gets your interest and attention. Programming? He says, “What is the story you want to tell?”

Anyway Chris Dede was wonderful. I fought with Seymour Papert who did not understand the restrictions in various schools, but it was a good fight. Got me to go to MIT to share the concerns.

[Steve Eskow:] Based on your account, perhaps we as consultants need to differentiate between “external change agents”–you and me–and “internal change agents”–principals, superintendents, university deans and presidents. Perhaps one commandment for us might be “Thou shalt not undertake to change teachers unless and until there is an internal change agent as advocate.”

And another truism: we may need to do a better job of analyzing the pieces and interconnections of the educational system we’re trying to change to locate the various sources of the resistance to change.

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:26 am:
Steve,

I am not bristling at you. I have heard similar comments so often I rarely associate them with an individual any more. Along those lines though, in my old age my memory for such details is failing me and I must ask a question. Did we have similar exchanges a decade or so ago on WWWEDU?

Faulty research has plagued education for years. I think the greatest harm of all came from the faulty research processes in the Coleman study, which has led several generations of teachers to assume falsely that it does not matter how you teach, for educational achievement is determined by what the student brings to the classroom, not what the individual teacher brings to the student. Subsequent research has shown that the opposite is true, but I doubt if more than a small percentage of teachers is aware of this.

When I speak of the comparison of teaching to medicine, I am speaking primarily of the attitude of the practitioner. Physicians generally assume that no matter how well the procedures or medicines they now use are working, something will eventually come along to improve things. They are thus always on the lookout for such improvements. Teachers use rationales such as the one you provide to deflect all suggestions for change and stay with what they have always done. John Goodlad showed years ago that teachers generally teach the way they themselves were primarily taught, regardless of the educational program they are supposed to be implementing.

Back in the 1970s I was introduced to the idea of group or collaborative learning. I tried it and pronounced it a total failure. Years later I attended a workshop that included that concept once more, but this time they showed how to do it, and they said that if you don’t do it right, it will be a total failure. I realized I had not indeed done it right, for the reasons they showed me. When I used the methods these change agents showed me, it worked wonderfully, and it became a mainstay of my educational technique from then on. The district even had a film crew come in to one of my classes so they could show how effective the process can be.

In the early 1980s, I had to teach writing to a remedial class. I used the best grammar based approach I knew how, and failed utterly to teach them how to write in complete sentences. I concluded they were not capable of writing in complete sentences. Years later a change agent suggested that the grammar-based approach I used was not the best, and when I taught a remedial writing class again, using a totally different approach, I achieved 100% success in getting students to write in complete sentences.

I used to think my instructional approach to teaching Oedipus Rex was my best lesson, once that I would be selected to be evaluated on if given the choice. I would teach it with total pride in a Harvard lecture hall if given the chance. But, just before I was about to teach it one year, change agents suggested a different approach to education, and I immediately thought of a way to do it with Oedipus Rex. The results were so dramatically better than anything I had ever done before that I was stunned. It was, in fact, that experience that propelled me to becoming a change agent.

So, if you embrace change but despise change agents, how is change to occur without them?


keller40Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:51 am:

You [John Thompson] said, “It shouldn’t be for our teachers either.” Indeed, it shouldn’t be for anyone seeking to remain competitive in their activities. I (with some great help) created an excellent online science lab system. However, not a day goes by that I don’t think about how to improve it. My severe resource constraints require me to be more creative and selective about the changes I make, and I continue to make them.

I think that I have the best solution, and I know that without constant improvement, it won’t remain there. If my biased opinion is incorrect, I have even more reason to make it better.

Despite the above, I think that we all should consider the reasons behind teachers not choosing change. Sure, some teachers may just plateau just as those in any activity may do so. However, the entire system thwarts change. Teachers arrive at their first classrooms with visions of all of the good work they’ll be doing. They’d like to try this idea and that idea. Soon, they discover that they aren’t rewarded for good effort or even good results. They may even be punished for innovation. For some the work is its own reward. Some become discouraged and leave teaching. Some others hang on hoping for a better future. Too many get worn out trying to build great education on a foundation of sand and mark time until they retire with a nice pension.

Let’s not be too quick to blame those in the trenches for a system that only partially works. To extend the metaphor, consider the captains and generals, the politicians and citizens, and the environment in which the “battle” is waged. Our education system should be synergistic. Too often, it’s dysfunctional.


Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 10:35 am:

Ah, John, how could I hate change agents? That would be selb has, self hate: I’ve been one of those things for a long time.And now I’m working in Africa, where very few teachers care about Marzano.

You may be willing to consider that your personal testimonials (or mine) of transformation are no more convincing to a skeptic than those of car salesman testifying to the quality of the machine he is selling. You’re selling change, and you tell stories of miraculous improvements. I’m sure they’re true, but given your motivation they will be discounted.

Or: you’re explaining why teachers who themselves are actively, even eagerly changing, balk when an outsider tries to sell them on the need for change, and sell them his particular nostrum.

The Coleman Report, with all that star power and all those data collections faulty? Of course it was faulty.It was also a powerful stimulus for an important rethinking of education in the United States.

Incidentally, is the Marzano research faulty? Might it be found faulty tomorrow? If so, what happens to all those teachers and all those courses that are going graphic?

John, it might be useful to consider that just as you’ve heard all the voices of resistance to change, many of the resisting teachers have heard an army of change agents, all with similar messages about sages on stage and guides by the side and constructivism and active learning and digital natives who are pictorial rather than print oriented.

Maybe we change agents have to stop the old sermons and find some new ways to get educators to think about where they are and where they aren’t and how they might get there.

And that new way might not be active learning or constructivism. Are you, am I, able to face the possibility that we may have to abandon our faith in constructivism? Change ourselves and our story?

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:44 PM:

The flaw in the Coleman methodology unfortunately meant that the stimulus it provided for rethinking education may have pushed it in a bad direction.. To summarize very quickly, the study looked at whole school performance and compared school to school, finding that the factors that determined student achievement lay with the student.

The Coleman study did not adequately compare teacher to teacher within a school. More recent studies, especially the Sanders study in Tennessee, have shown a tremendous difference in student achievement from one teacher to another within a school, and they have shown it is not just a good or bad year. Some teachers will have consistently poor or consistently excellent results year after year after year. More important is the overall impact on students. A series of poor or excellent teachers in elementary school can mean the difference between dropping out and going to college.

Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.


Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 1:00 pm:

It’s great that someone actually bothered to study what most people instinctively know. The teacher is the primary determinant of student achievement, all student differences being factored out.

[John Adsit:] Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.


Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:00 pm:

Harry, John, all:

Might it be all of the above: the school and its setting and climate; the students and their backgrounds and their culture; the teachers and their methods?

In the great US universities,e.g. Harvard, the lecture is a common instructional mode, perhaps the most common instructional mode.

And Harvard spends much time selecting its students for success.

Do we really believe it’s the great teaching methods at Harvard that make for its excellence? That Harvard is great because its faculty practices Marzano’s 9 secrets of great teaching?

Don’t we “instinctively” know that at least some of Harvard’s success is due to the quality of its students rather than the quality of its faculty?

[Harry Keller:] It’s great that someone actually bothered to study what most people instinctively know. The teacher is the primary determinant of student achievement, all student differences being factored out.

[John Adsit:] Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.


Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:36 pm:
Precisely, Steve.

That’s why Harvard (and Princeton and MIT and Caltech) spends so much effort on student selection.

After all, the courses at these institutions aren’t exactly paragons of excellent teaching. I know. I went to Caltech. The only “good” part of the courses was that they were very challenging. They forced you to think and think hard. The homework was grueling. The tests were unforgiving.

The faculty of these institutions are great but not for their teaching prowess. Many even dislike teaching.

However, primary and secondary education are different animals than post-secondary teaching.

The teacher is the person in the trenches, where the rubber meets the road (to mix metaphors). If all other factors (environment, student capability, family support, etc.) are eliminated, then the teacher is the one who makes the difference. In other words, if you look at the same school with students randomly distributed among teachers in the same subject, you should expect large and significant differences between teachers because there’s no uniformity. Each teacher is allowed to have an individual approach to the same curriculum.

Also, there’s very little control. Without feedback, any system can meander anywhere.

I think I see most of the issues clearly. I don’t have any real solution for the big picture. I continue to work on a small part of the solution for science education and hope that I can make a difference. Science students should have ample opportunities frequently to do science as scientists do no matter what their school or income level or background. That’s my goal.


John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 6:53 am:
Back when America first realized there was a section 504 of IDEA, and teachers were required to accommodate certain student needs in the classroom, I was asked to write an article describing some of the instructional strategies needed to work with students with specified learning needs. I was given a stack of research and recommendations from which to work. To my amazement, I saw that a handful of the same instructional strategies were suggested for the vast majority of these learning needs.

When I asked special education experts to explain this, they told me that all students learn better when those methods are used. The difference is that the “good” students have the self-motivation and personal skills to overcome weak teaching, but the rest of the student must have excellent instructional strategies to succeed.

One study in which I participated as a researcher yields more evidence of this. I was part of a team that looked at student performance within a school (compare student performance entering the school with student performance leaving the school) to see if we could identify the characteristics of schools in which students improved the most during their stay. We were to identify 10 such schools in a very large school district and compare their characteristics. We found a concentration of such schools in one attendance area. (By attendance area, I am referring to a group of elementary schools feeding into a smaller number of middle schools feeding into one high school.) Most of the elementary schools and both of the middle schools in this one area were really doing an excellent job with their students.

As you might guess, the high school, by the most common measures, was doing very well. It sent a very high percentage of its students to elite colleges, like Harvard. The teachers at that high school were very self-confident and proud of what they were accomplishing. But our study showed the opposite. The achievement of their seniors was lower than would be expected in comparison to the achievement of their freshmen. This school’s students were actually losing ground while in those classrooms. They had students of gold walking in their doors, and they had students of silver walking out.

Every one of the high achieving elementary and middle schools in that attendance area used what would be called innovative instructional methods. The high school was quite traditional (lecture) in its instructional approach.

Harvard admits only students who will thrive under any educational experience. The fact that it admits such students does not imply that its teaching is excellent. You also have no comparison. You do not know how these excellent students would perform if Harvard abandoned its lectures and went to different instructional methods. They may do even better with a different approach.

By the way, Harvard medical school dropped its traditional lecture format years ago in favor of a more experiential approach to education. They found that after three years of lecture, their medical students didn’t seem to know anything when they started internships. They switched to a program where students start interning immediately, with great results. I had to study this program’s philosophy as a part of my training.


Harry Keller, 25 Oct. 2009, 7:08 am:

[John Adsit:] Harvard admits only students who will thrive under any educational experience. The fact that it admits such students does not imply that its teaching is excellent. You also have no comparison. You do not know how these excellent students would perform if Harvard abandoned its lectures and went to different instructional methods. They may do even better with a different approach.

John has it exactly right. We don’t know. However, from a strictly statistical estimate, we can expect that some other instructional strategies will work better. The same is true for MIT, which nearly kills their students with huge workloads and class averages that frequently are in the 30s.

I’m not sure where such approaches originate. Is it Darwinian? Is it “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”

I have met MIT grads who have had their self-esteem destroyed. They’re smart but unsure of themselves. That’s a horrible outcome. Other MIT grads are cocky and self-assured beyond reason. That outcome isn’t as bad as the first, in my opinion, but it’s still not rational.

I’m not sure which strategy is best, but I know that MIT could improve theirs.

I’m making the point, in addition to John’s, that even if students survive because they were chosen to be able to survive virtually any educational environment, they may not actually thrive.


John Thompson, 25 Oct. 2009, 8:48 am:
On the other hand…

You can kill with kindness and/or lowered expectations and/or accepting what you see as the inevitable.

Case in point…A number of years ago I taught a one-credit “intro to college” course for freshmen university students at highly respected and tough admissions public higher ed institution. In our conversations during the semester the students related how easy their last half of their senior year in high school was. Apparently their teachers had concluded that there was nothing more to be gained from their insisting that the students continue grinding right through the end of the year. So instead, the teachers had accepted the premise and implications of the supposed “senioritis” syndrome so these otherwise hard driving students had effectively been given much of their last year off. At least this is what the students (pretty much all the students in the class) had admitted. The striking thing was that they expressed resentment and regret for that happening. They would have preferred to continue running right through the finish line instead of ending the race prematurely. But without their teachers mandating such hard work, the students had slacked off and developed bad habits that there dogging them in college.

So to reference another “syndrome,” this seems like what I refer to as the Goldilocks Syndrome. I.e., too hard-too easy-just right, too much-not enough-just right, etc. Where to draw the line? Who gets to draw it?


John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 10:08 am:

Killing with kindness and lowered expectations are not the alternative I am suggesting for poor instructional technique. There are other things you can do.

The extreme Harry describes comes when a teacher sets high standards, leaves the students alone, and then measures the results.

The alternative John describes is to lower the standards, leave the students alone, and measure the results.

I am suggesting something very different:

1. Set high Standards

2. Use strong teaching methods to ensure that students meet those standards

3. Measure the results.

Someday I will write a book about the conspiracy of students, parents, teachers, and administrators in high school, who all work together to make sure that standards stay low, but that is another story—and an extremely long one.

I was once asked to consult with a technical college of nearly the same stature as MIT. There writing program was nearly nonexistent. I wanted to use the instructional methods that I had instituted in a high school that in two years had gone from 20th place in the district writing assessments to 1st place, which was the primary reason I ended up in that role. When they heard what I wanted to do, they were horrified. It would mean too many students would succeed and earn high grades, even though we were maintaining high standards. They needed to make sure that enough students got Ds and Fs to make it appear that they weren’t involved in grade inflation. I pointed out that the grades would not be inflated—the students would have achieved and learned at levels of worthy of As and Bs, but they would have none of it. They needed to make sure that a decent percentage of their students failed so that they could maintain their reputation for toughness.

Setting high standards and then failing those who are not able to get there on your own does not make you a great teacher. Setting high standards and then using your skills to help students reach them makes you a great teacher.


Steve Eskow, 25 Oct. 2009, 12:24 pm:

John, I’m increasingly unsure of your point as you tell these interesting stories.I am tempted to tell personal stories that point in different directions, but I don’t think my stories would help us to agreement.

Do we agree that no single factor can account for educational success? That educational results are influenced by a) the background, motivation, and development of the student; b) the culture of the school: a culture supportive of learning rather than a culture hostile to learning; and c) the skill of the teacher in recognizing a) and b) and adopting a teaching approach responsive to them?

Or are you saying that a) and b) don’t matter, don’t influence outcomes, and that only the skill of the teacher makes the difference?


John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 12:46 pm:
Of course all things count.

What I am saying is that recent research says that the instructional strategies employed by the teacher are the primary factor in education. The others all all factors, too, and sometimes the best teachers with the best strategies cannot overcome all the other factors.

In the past, the belief was that the personal factors associated with the student were so important that the instructional strategies employed by the teacher were insignificant. That belief is still prevalent among educators.


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 25 Oct. 2009, 6:37 pm:

I always get really upset when the issue of Harvard is raised. How many people get to go to Harvard? Their influence is everywhere, but what are the rest of us supposed to be , chopped liver? My mentor is at Harvard, Chris Dede, but he does not rest on his Harvard reputation, he is out there at FETC, ISTE and other places.

We common people who went to the places that Arnie Duncan talked about are people too,Some of us collect learning experiences that are just as valuable as Harvard’s methodology.I would like to hear from others what they think was valuable as a learning experience.

I would like to know if we only use a few universities too expensive for most of us, and theoretically the best, but an isolated experience as a learning initiative from what is teaching and leanring , and then I question.

If Harvard is all of that, why are we still having minority based institutions ? Minority serving institutions need help but as Arnie Duncan says they need more than that. If Harvard is so great isn’t part of their mission to improve education for the masses? What is their outreach to other groups.

Or do we have an elite organization that pats itself on the back creates initiatives and thumbs away the rest of the teaching instititions?

Regarding students, it is easy to talk and blame the teacher for the lack of student achievement when there are other variables. The perception from the top of what is right. We teach mind numbing math that gets terrible results.

We have this ongoing fight in reading about phonics and other types of reading such as reading as an experiential type of learning. A little girl asked me once why do we have so many ways of teaching phonics from book to book.

For about eight years , science has been neglected in favor of what was tested, in 8 of the states in which I work 20 minutes a week ( probably more time given to announcements and bathroom.. and we want to be first in the world?

I have taught urban, rich, DODDS, ghetto, inner city not ghetto, rural and distant and each population has its needs. Working in inner city DC, I worried more about children’s food, health and living conditions, often finding them sleeping beneath my car , or at my doorstop. There was little in the way of resources in the ghetto schools. More in DODD schools just a really interesting ELL problem, which was over come.

I think the theorists need to put their teaching ideas in practice to show us what works everywhere. There is no universal way to teach that fits all situations. You have to look at the variables of the situation..


John Adsit, 26 Oct. 2009, 5:46 am:
Steve,

I agree with the first part of the message, and I feel it is too bad that you have experienced the last part:

And the notion promoted by some change agents that certain instructional techniques are always and uniformly beneficial are the problem, e.g. the belief that multimediated instruction is always preferable to monomediated instruction, or the insistence that group collaborative instruction is always superior to individualized instruction.

No one I know teaches that. We instead teach that the skilled teacher has a large repertoire of instructional strategies ready to be used. That teacher uses whatever is appropriate to the content, the situation, and the student.


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 26 Oct. 2009, 5:45 am:
See Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 26 Oct. 2009, 6:00 am:
I hear so much talk about the poor teacher. What are the earmarks for such. Teaching is like slavery, by permission, they had permission to service the crops, they did not design the land, create the soil, the weather/climate and or manage the variables of insects, disease or the illnesses that rankled the enslaved and majority population , still they were supposed to pick their bale of cotton. Regardess… Teachers have very limited permission and the more control a school system has the less innovation and creativity there is.


John Adsit, 26 Oct. 200i, 6:07 am:
[Re Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis] This is a good example of the conspiracy to lower standards I suggested earlier.

There is an assumption that some students are not capable of swimming in the deep end, so they are steered toward lover level classes. The students and parents are generally happy with that, because they have come to believe the same thing and try to avoid the extra work that they believe will not lead to anything positive anyway.

Administrators are happy, too, for they are pressured to improve the percentage of students who graduate. Graduation requires the completion of a certain number of courses, not a certain standard of quality. The schools are thus well served by an academic program that provides enough units to get students graduated. Learning would be a nice actual side benefit, but it is not the goal.

Everyone is working together to make sure students don’t learn.

That is only one segment of the greater conspiracy.


Harry Keller, 26 Oct. 2009, 6:31 am:
As a scientist and not an education researcher, I have to wonder what all of the talk about recent research in education means in light of this comment. It would seem that educators attempt to follow research in choosing what to do in the classroom. The Department of Education, in its new “Investing in Innovation Fund,” has emphasized techniques that have the support of studies.

If each situation requires different approaches, then the research either cannot be universally applied or else must be imperfect in the first place. I know that difficulties should not prevent us from trying. Still, it would seem to be a cautionary note with regard to applying research results blindly.

[John Adsit:] No one I know teaches that. We instead teach that the skilled teacher has a large repertoire of instructional strategies ready to be used. That teacher uses whatever is appropriate to the content, the situation, and the student.


John Adsit, 26 Oct. 2009, 7:45 am:
Different instructional approaches are needed for a variety of reasons. Here are a couple:

  1. Different subjects have different content goals. Some are heavily weighted toward skill and performance, and others have a greater emphasis on content knowledge.
  2. Different students learn in different ways. What works for student A is less effective for student B.
  3. Varying approaches keeps students interested and engaged.
  4. Even within a content area, learning goals are complex and variation in approaches leads to more complete learning.
  5. Different approaches take differing amounts of time, and teachers have to work with an eye to the calendar. A true constructive project takes a lot of time, and the instructor frequently cannot do all learning that way and get the job done. In planning a unit, the instructor will decide that some degree of lecture is needed for some aspects of the learning, some level of practice is needed, and a project might complete the learning process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s