I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's anthology of New Yorker pieces, What The Dog Saw and enjoyed it just as I've enjoyed all his books. Yes, I know he's a popularizer and he's middlebrow, but I think there is something admirable in taking ideas and concepts that a few high-level experts are working on and bringing their essence to a larger audience where these ideas can be part of the public discussion.
One of his pieces in the book, published on December 14, 2008, and still available in full here, entitled "Most Likely to Succeed" is based on the idea which is central to Gladwell's second book, Blink, further illustrating the notion that we can make accurate judgment about people and their performances in a split second, judgments that are confirmed by longer and deeper study. One of those judgments has to do with who makes effective teachers and why. And many administrators will not be surprised that it walks the line between being attentive to individuation and overall classroom management. Here are the two relevant excerpts. (I realize these quotes go beyond fair use, but I've told you where you can find Mr. Gladwell's entire work, and I think these two portions are self-sufficient within a much larger piece that addresses many topics other than teaching.)
I can say from experience, that "withitness" is diabolically difficult to learn and develop, other than for those naturally gifted ones, like Gladwell's model high school math teacher. But everyday, we go back into the classroom and try to get just a little bit better at relating to every person in that room and giving them the feedback they need to go a little farther.
One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.
It’s only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What’s more—and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world—the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.
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 effects 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. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem...[This refers to an earlier portion of this piece, describing the problem of recruiting NCAA quarterbacks for the NFL, given that the skill set for quarterbacks in the respective leagues is almost entirely different.]...Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: “ ‘A’ is for apple. . . . ‘C’ is for cow.” The session was taped, and the videotape is being watched by a group of experts, who are charting and grading each of the teacher’s moves.
After thirty seconds, the leader of the group—Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education—stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.
“What I’m struck by is how lively the affect is in this room,” Pianta said. “One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”
Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.
“A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids’ leaning over as misbehavior,” Pianta went on. “ ‘We can’t do this right now. You need to be sitting still.’ She would have turned this off.”
Bridget Hamre, one of Pianta’s colleagues, chimed in: “These are three- and four-year-olds. At this age, when kids show their engagement it’s not like the way we show our engagement, where we look alert. They’re leaning forward and wriggling. That’s their way of doing it. And a good teacher doesn’t interpret that as bad behavior. You can see how hard it is to teach new teachers this idea, because the minute you teach them to have regard for the student’s perspective, they think you have to give up control of the classroom.”
The lesson continued. Pianta pointed out how the teacher managed to personalize the material. “ ‘C’ is for cow” turned into a short discussion of which of the kids had ever visited a farm. “Almost every time a child says something, she responds to it, which is what we describe as teacher sensitivity,” Hamre said.
The teacher then asked the children if anyone’s name began with that letter. “Calvin,” a boy named Calvin says. The teacher nods, and says, “Calvin starts with ‘C.’ ” A little girl in the middle says, “Me!” The teacher turns to her. “Your name’s Venisha. Letter ‘V.’ Venisha.”
It was a key moment. Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success. Not only did the teacher catch the “Me!” amid the wiggling and tumult; she addressed it directly.
“Mind you, that’s not great feedback,” Hamre said. “High-quality feedback is where there is a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.” The perfect way to handle that moment would have been for the teacher to pause and pull out Venisha’s name card, point to the letter “V,” show her how different it is from “C,” and make the class sound out both letters. But the teacher didn’t do that—either because it didn’t occur to her or because she was distracted by the wiggling of the girls to her right.
“On the other hand, she could have completely ignored the girl, which happens a lot,” Hamre went on. “The other thing that happens a lot is the teacher will just say, ‘You’re wrong.’ Yes-no feedback is probably the predominant kind of feedback, which provides almost no information for the kid in terms of learning.”
Pianta showed another tape, of a nearly identical situation: a circle of pre-schoolers around a teacher. The lesson was about how we can tell when someone is happy or sad. The teacher began by acting out a short conversation between two hand puppets, Henrietta and Twiggle: Twiggle is sad until Henrietta shares some watermelon with him.
“The idea that the teacher is trying to get across is that you can tell by looking at somebody’s face how they’re feeling, whether they’re feeling sad or happy,” Hamre said. “What kids of this age tend to say is you can tell how they’re feeling because of something that happened to them. They lost their puppy and that’s why they’re sad. They don’t really get this idea. So she’s been challenged, and she’s struggling.”
The teacher begins, “Remember when we did something and we drew our face?” She touches her face, pointing out her eyes and mouth. “When somebody is happy, their face tells us that they’re happy. And their eyes tell us.” The children look on blankly. The teacher plunges on: “Watch, watch.” She smiles broadly. “This is happy! How can you tell that I’m happy? Look at my face. Tell me what changes about my face when I’m happy. No, no, look at my face. . . . No. . . .”
A little girl next to her says, “Eyes,” providing the teacher with an opportunity to use one of her students to draw the lesson out. But the teacher doesn’t hear her. Again, she asks, “What’s changed about my face?” She smiles and she frowns, as if she can reach the children by sheer force of repetition. Pianta stopped the tape. One problem, he pointed out, was that Henrietta made Twiggle happy by sharing watermelon with him, which doesn’t illustrate what the lesson is about.
“You know, a better way to handle this would be to anchor something around the kids,” Pianta said. “She should ask, ‘What makes you feel happy?’ The kids could answer. Then she could say, ‘Show me your face when you have that feeling? O.K., what does So-and-So’s face look like? Now tell me what makes you sad. Show me your face when you’re sad. Oh, look, her face changed!’ You’ve basically made the point. And then you could have the kids practice, or something. But this is going to go nowhere.”
“What’s changed about my face?” the teacher repeated, for what seemed like the hundredth time. One boy leaned forward into the circle, trying to engage himself in the lesson, in the way that little children do. His eyes were on the teacher. “Sit up!” she snapped at him.
As Pianta played one tape after another, the patterns started to become clear. Here was a teacher who read out sentences, in a spelling test, and every sentence came from her own life—“I went to a wedding last week”—which meant she was missing an opportunity to say something that engaged her students. Another teacher walked over to a computer to do a PowerPoint presentation, only to realize that she hadn’t turned it on. As she waited for it to boot up, the classroom slid into chaos.
Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.
“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.
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. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students’ needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel as if he or she were getting his personal attention. But these aren’t cognitive skills.
A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have 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.
Another educational researcher, Jacob Kounin, once did an analysis of “desist” events, in which a teacher has to stop some kind of misbehavior. In one instance, “Mary leans toward the table to her right and whispers to Jane. Both she and Jane giggle. The teacher says, ‘Mary and Jane, stop that!’ ” That’s a desist event. But how a teacher desists—her tone of voice, her attitudes, her choice of words—appears to make no difference at all in maintaining an orderly classroom. How can that be? Kounin went back over the videotape and noticed that forty-five seconds before Mary whispered to Jane, Lucy and John had started whispering. Then Robert had noticed and joined in, making Jane giggle, whereupon Jane said something to John. Then Mary whispered to Jane. It was a contagious chain of misbehavior, and what really was significant was not how a teacher stopped the deviancy at the end of the chain but whether she was able to stop the chain before it started. Kounin called that ability “withitness,” which he defined 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 withitness. But how do you know whether someone has withitness until she stands up in front of a classroom of twenty-five wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts and tries to impose order?
It is very possible that the toolbox that Gladwell is describing, that awareness of the entire room and of every individual student is not teachable. Perhaps if a teaching candidate has a glimmer of the ability, it can be brought out and heightened. But if a person is naturally socially unaware, unable to read others and unable to relate to more than one person at a time, they may never be functional as a classroom teacher. And none of it has anything to do with earning one more Masters.
When we are asking our students to achieve more along a predefined scale, is it fair to be giving teachers an "A" for effort?