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Grade 9 Maths class, East CampusI heard that taxi drivers in centrally-planned communist Russia were incentivised by rewarding them per mile driven. It stands to reason—after all, the further a taxi has driven, the better it must be serving the passengers, right? Wrong. The taxi drivers jacked up their cars, put a brick on the accelerator, and went for a smoke. It is hard to think of a worse outcome for the passengers, the taxpayers, the environment and even the taxi drivers who ended up going through more cigarettes due to more time and money. It’s hard to see how this simple incentive ended up benefiting anyone other than the tobacco companies.

This is an admittedly extreme example to show that people respond to changes by changing their behaviour, not always in ways that are predictable or desirable. We all respond to incentives in ways that makes sense to us—but when people have different agendas, a reasonable response may look totally different from one person to another. That’s probably familiar to anyone who has ever been appraised at work. If you know that your boss is looking for a certain result (miles for the taxi drivers) then you may feel compelled to do whatever it takes to get that result—even if that’s in no one’s long-term interests. That’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals; in the UK, when the government started publishing exam results in a particular way, some schools sent students home if they thought they would score poorly. When surgeons were assessed according to the death rates of patients under their care, they modified their behaviour to meet their targets and started accepting only patients with easy to treat conditions. Other patients found it very hard to get treatment at all.

This may sound ridiculous, but there are two things here which actually make a lot of sense. Firstly, it is a good thing that we are trying to measure the things that are important. Would we really want to undergo an operation if we thought no one was counting how many people died during similar procedures? Secondly, it is a good thing that people respond to the incentives they have (albeit in ways we are often not smart enough to predict). If this were not true, how could we even try to change behaviour and improve anything?

So let’s turn to education and the incentives for teachers. Firstly, we should tread with care—our teachers love what they are doing, and came into teaching to share their passion for their subject with students; unlike some taxi drivers, they won’t be off for a quick smoke. But still, they are only human and cannot help but respond to the structures and systems the school puts in place (nor should they). Lesson observations are one such traditional method system. A senior teacher visits a classroom, watches the teacher, does his or her best not to interrupt the lesson by distracting or otherwise interacting with students, perhaps looks at a few pieces of student work, makes some judgments and then meets with the teacher afterwards to tell them how it went.

That may sound sensible, but in fact it is misguided and has some undesirable consequences. Like measuring the taxi driver’s performance by how many miles he or she has driven, it is not measuring the right thing. Because, teaching is not the same as learning. If it were, we would never need to assess or sit exams—we would just keep a record of what we had taught. The desired outcome of a lesson is better student knowledge or understanding; that is, learning, some change in the student’s mind. Watching the teacher is at best a proxy for that, and may in fact be unrelated. So an observer may see what he or she thinks is a wonderful explanation, some engaging stories, and the best use of technology he or she has ever seen; but if the students didn’t learn anything, then really, it was a bad lesson.

And the tragedy here is that by having observation systems like this, teachers are incentivised to focus on what they are doing, and how they are performing; when the focus should always be on what the students are learning; where they currently are in their understanding, and how to best move them on to the next stage. This needs to be done on an individual basis, and with more than a handful of students in the class, it’s extremely difficult to do, and needs laser-like discipline to accomplish.

Across the East Campus in all grades, we have been working to use a system of lesson observations that does exactly that; it’s a very simple idea called Looking for Learning, and it replaces the system I describe with one where teachers visit each other’s lessons and do not just watch the teacher. In fact, they do their best to ignore the teacher, and simply talk with a few students, and ask them questions like what are you learning? Do you understand the lessons? What helps you learn? What gets in the way of learning? The observer notes down the responses, and these form the basis of a conversation between observer and teacher afterwards. The teacher thinks about what he or she thinks the students would say, and then considers what they actually said; the degree of convergence or divergence then informs thinking about how best to help students learn in the future.

So the lovely thing about this system is that it tries to measure exactly what is important—learning, and it does not provide summary judgment on a teacher. It is a tool used by teachers to improve. In this sense, it is completely in line with good classroom practice and what we, as teachers, should always be doing for our students.

I think it is good for parents and students to understand this process, which is usually internal to schools, and hidden from everyone but the teachers. Thinking through everything for the first time in High School, from individual lessons to common place educational practices, is extraordinarily time-consuming and difficult. But we have the chance to go back to first principles, to re-examine the latest evidence and to act accordingly. And we are making the most of it; I know the students will see the benefit.

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