Withishness or How do you Predict the Quality of a Teacher?

Image by Joost Swarte

Image by Joost Swarte

For most of the years that I worked as a teacher at the Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer I was a part time coach for new teachers. The goal was to try and help them be a better educator in a new school. I always had the feeling that my input had very little effect: some teachers seemed to get it intuitively, others would never learn. Malcom Gladwell, author of the highly enjoyable The Tipping Point and Blink has written an article for the New Yorker titled Most Likely to Succeed, How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?. It partially addresses this question.

He introduces the topic by explaining how difficult it is for scouts to predict which successful college football quarterbacks will be successful in the National Football League (NFL). These scouts have developed different methodologies to select players for the draft, but they haven’t hit on a great predictor yet.

There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they how they’ll do once they are hired. So how do we know how to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

The quality of teachers is highly variable. There is a big difference between the best teachers and bad teachers:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effect are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

Bob Pianta is doing research by taping teachers as they explain things and interact with a class. They then closely watch these tapes and try to extract the competencies of a great teacher.

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers – that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. [..]
A group of researchers [..] investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees and certifications – as much as they appear related to teaching prowess – turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

Koumin did research into desist behaviour (stopping some kind of misbehaviour). He found that teachers need to have an ability which he calls “withisness” which he defines as:

“[..] a teacher’s communicating to the children by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: ‘I know what’s going on’) that she knows what the children are doing, or has the proverbial ‘eyes in the back of her head’.” It stands to reason that to be a great teacher you have to have withishness. But how do you know whether someone has withisness until she stands up in front of a classroom of twenty-five wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts and tries to impose order?

In the field of financial-advice, companies have the same problem: no one knows in advance who will become a high performing financial adviser. Recruiters in that field typically interview a thousand people (keeping the gates wide open) and pick out about 1 in 20. These recruits will go through an extensive training camp in which they need to obtain a minimum number of clients and have a minimum number of meetings in a certain amount of time. If they manage this, then they are hired.

This example suggest that for the teaching profession:

[..] we shouldn’t be raising the standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree – and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of [the financial-advice field’s] training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Is this research valuable for the Dutch policy makers in trying to solve our looming educational crisis? I have to admit I haven’t followed Dutch educational policy very closely but I can imagine a couple of things that are relevant to this topic:

  • The Dutch currently have a shortage of teachers. This shortage will get bigger in the next couple of years. Schools have trouble finding teachers for certain topics, let alone find great teachers. Lowering the barrier for HBO and WO educated people to be let into the teaching profession might become a necessity. It is good to know that this will not necessarily be a bad thing for the quality of the teaching (my years as a coach confirm this for me).
  • How do you ethically arrange for affordable apprenticeships in schools? When the budding financial advisers fail, they only incur costs to the company that was trying to hire them. When an apprentice teacher fails, a whole group of children will have had a bad educational experience. We need a framework in which we can safely try and find out who is a great teacher and who isn’t.
  • Gladwell’s article refers to teacher salaries. These are currently extremely rigid. I used to say that I could predict what I would earn in 15 years time. If we want to rate teachers based on their actual performance, then we should also try and go to a system which rewards excellent performance in some way. The introduction of “scale 11”  in the Netherlands has not had this effect. Which school in the Netherlands will be the first to pay their teachers according to performance? I would love to see that happen!

Online Educa Berlin 2008: Day 2

During the second day of the Online Educa I was able to go to the Going Global with E-Learning keynote in the morning and to the Battle of the Bloggers session in the afternoon. Here are some of my notes and thoughts:

The keynote started with a presentation by Christophe Binot, E-Learning Manager at Total in France. What he showed was quite shocking to me. All the things he described were classic webbased training materials. It felt like I was back in the 20th century. There was no talk of collaborating, of networks, not even of performance support. Instead he focused on the more than 1000 lessons in four languages.

Next up was Richard Straub. He is currently the Secretary General of the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG) and used to by an employee of IBM, but has gradually stepped out. ELIG has the mission to promote innovation in learning in Europe. They are trying to anticipate the 21st century.

The theme of his talk was the unstoppable move towards openness and how this will enable an education continuum.

We are making a move from a closed world to a more open world:

Closed Open
Top down Bottom up
Central planning Participation
Command and control Autonomy
Bureaucratic Commons sense
Rigid Flexible
IPR Intellectual capital
Proprietary Community based
Authority Reputatio

We are moving from a society of relatively static organisations towards what Straub calls the “Hollywood studio approach” of dynamic teams built around a project. The knowledge workers of the second half of the 20st century will be replaced by knowledge entrepreneurs who will work on the basis of flexible contractual relationships.

Focusing on education this might mean that the traditional silos (elementary school, secondary education, tertiary education, employment) will be bridged to create an education continuum of lifelong learning.

Straub then presented some new research from the Lisbon Council focusing on the European Human Capital Index. He had a fascinating graph showing the human capital biography of a German professional:

x-axis = age, y-axis = human captial

x-axis = age, y-axis = human captial

This is definitely material which I will look into further.

He finished his talk by mentioning that the new notion of blended learning is mixing formal and informal learning (not mixing classroom and online learning), and by recommending Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge.

The last speaker of the keynote session was Laura Overton of the independent, not for profit, community interest company Towards Maturity. Her organisation does research in multinational companies with the goal of improving the impact of learning technologies at work.

According to their research the key factors hindering the implementation of innovative learning technologies are the lack of knowledge about its potential, the high reluctance to adopt and the lack of implementation skills. Interestingly 23% of the global companies also considered the overhyping of learning products by their suppliers to be a significant hindrance to implementation.

Mature companies are moving from aligning to needs to delivering impact. Towards maturity has an interesting model of factors in this process:

Toward Maturity

Towards Maturity

  • Alignment to (business) needs is the most important factor for success.
  • Learner context. Engage learners and listen to them, involve them in the design and  the implementation.
  • Work context. Connect to regional priorities, don’t fight technical infrastructures, work with local cultures to your advantage.
  • Building capacity. Collaboratively author content, ensure that local training divisions are equipped using the latest tools, support and connect.
  • Ensuring engagement. Equip local heroes, organise pilots, develop communication toolkits, create peer to peer communication strategies.
  • Demonstrating value. Don’t be afraid to ask for value, dig deeper and communicate successes via a wide selection of media.

These strands collectively intertwine. All contribute to impact and involve stakeholders at all stages. Overton sees it like a “six-legged” race where each of these strands has to coordinate with the others to progress.

The Battle of the Bloggers session in the late afternoon was meant to be a reflective and interactive session on what had been the most relevant topics of the conference. A back channel was provided using Backnoise.

Unfortunately I only learnt two things from this session:

  • Belgium has another unknown comic: session chair Bert De Coutere lead it with a great sense of humour.
  • A backchannel does not add a lot of value yet. People (me included) do two things in it: they discuss the backchannel itself (“we should have this in every session”) or they make witty remarks.

The blogger panelists did not seem to be too comfortable behind their tables on the stage in front of a very large and largely empty room. We had a heckler that could only talk about how all generations have turned into sheep and a vocal audience member with the age of somebody from generation Y, but the mind of baby boomer. All in all Michael Wesch could have gotten some great cultural anthropological material for research on weird group interactions.

Moodle and Digital Pedagogy

The Dutch Moodle association, Ned-Moove, organised a seminar on Digital Pedagogy and Moodle. I had the honour to be able to do a presentation on my work as a teacher at the Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer. This (Dutch!) presentation was very practical: which simple benefits can be had from a Virtual Learning Environment in secondary education (where they currently have about 7 computers per student 7 students per computer).

The presentation is public (download it as a 3.4MB PDF file) and has some examples that should inspire and enthuse:

Next time I will try and record my audio so that the slides will make slightly more sense.