Kids Know

Dec 11, 2010 by

There was an interesting article in the New York Times about the results of a recent study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The study, costing $45 million and around two years to perform reported what I hope most teachers know in their bones- and I quote the NY Times article here:

“Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores, according to a progress report on the research.”

So what we’ve shown in a formal study is good and compassionate teaching works well.

Teachers were ranked as thy study began based on value-added modeling, ranking teachers based on how much their students learned each year as evaluated on tests; the students were separately confidentially surveyed on what they thought of the teacher and classroom.  As it turns out, ” Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores, the report said ” confirming that students are as interested in getting to work and getting things done as most adults assume they would prefer to socialize or do anything other than work.

And significantly, the article also states:

“One notable early finding, Ms. Phillips said, is that teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics.

Teachers whose students agreed with the statement, “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test,” tended to make smaller gains on those exams than other teachers.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Ms. Phillips said. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Education of students is important.  Surprising to most adults, but not surprising to me, is that every study I’ve ever read where people ask students what they think of their teacher and  how hard they’re asked to work yields results where kids are, on the whole, honest and accurate in their assessments when compared to external measures of effectiveness and observations.  Not only that, but when given choices between challenge assignments and the easy stuff, kids choose to challenge themselves, because no one likes things that seem to easy and not of value.

To me, this is further evidence that education works best when it’s an interactive process between teachers and students, which is what differentiated instruction and personalized learning are all about.  Students, regardless of their level or talents, need teachers who are invested in their learning.  They deserve teachers who help them push a bit, make mistakes, learn from them, and help them master skills.

Everything we know from developmental psychology tells us this- from Vygotsky’s scaffolding model, to Piaget’s Assimilation and Accommodation models, to Dr. Bob Brooks, who writes frequently with Dr. Sam Goldstein about resiliency in children and has written the textbook on Understanding and Managing Children’s Classroom Behavior.

Dr. Bob Brooks even asks parents to ask their own children for a performance review from time to time.

When I first heard Dr. Brooks speak and he asked us all to go home and ask our kids how we were doing as parents, a large, audible gasp went up in the room.  He asked us all to ask ourselves why this made us so uncomfortable.  Almost every parent feels comfortable given our kids critique and review of their behavior all the time, but we are scared of the same thing?  Are we afraid that the “power” we hold will evaporate?  Are we afraid our kids will see us as human?  Are we really all as insecure in how we’re doing as the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz?

So, despite not knowing what I would hear, I went home and asked my kids what they thought.  The boys were 7 and 10 at the time and I was nervous, to be honest, for reasons I couldn’t even articulate but could best be summed up as insecurity and lack of formal training other than trial and error at this job called parenting.  I might have graduated from law school, but as my husband, an OB -GYN, will confirm, no one hands you a parenting manual when your baby is born- you are on your own, with only on the job training and the books at Barnes & Nobel as your guide.

I sat down with the oldest boy first, and then his younger brother.  I was surprised at how accurate their observations were and how honest they were.  I was surprised how well they thought I was doing.  Even when I pointed out my own short comings- yelling, crabbiness, pushing them to do better- the kids said they understood and often knew that they needed to be refocused or told what to do, and understood why I got frustrated with them.   This honest conversation was a turning point in our relationship.   It’s now much more relaxed, open and honest.  I know I can ask them what they think if things seem out of kilter, and they can help problem solve the situation.  Instead of going straight to yelling, I can say “I’m frustrated that we keep having this same problem.  Can we find a way to make this easier for both of us in the future?”  We can work together to make a better parent-kid relationship, they trust me more, and trust that I probably have a reason behind even the most arbitrary-sounding rules.

This same honesty and openness works when I’m teaching classes to kids or adults.  Being fallible doesn’t diminish your authority- it actually earns you respect, because it gives those in the room permission to be human as well.  Asking students how they feel the class is going is another form of comprehension check- it lets teachers and students figure out where they stand with each other, and forms a relationship based on trust that’s important to have when you’re asking students to step outside of their comfort zone.

In almost any classroom, we regularly ask students to put themselves on the line in front of the teacher (authority figures) and their peers.  This can be emotionally risky for kids, who worry that what they say may not only be “wrong” but could lead to teasing or ridicule later on.  Unless teachers can establish a classroom where trust between teacher and student (and hopefully between students as well) is valued and important, how can we really expect students to stretch and take the emotional and intellectual risks necessary to learn and grow?

What all of this tells me is that we need to teach students, then subjects.  The people are most important, and the connections you make between teacher and student are the most important thing that goes on in the classroom.  And the data is now backing this up- when teachers are more concerned with creating a safe and supportive learning environment, and help students challenge themselves, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, as is key with an inquiry-based approach, students do better.  Teachers are rated as being more effective.  Everyone wins.

What’s difficult, is this asks teachers to make an emotional investment in teaching and in their students.  It can lead to disappointments, which no one likes.  It’s not easy.  It’s not scripted.  It requires each teacher to be present and to teach with the student rather than try to fill their brains like filling bottles on an assembly line.  But in the end, the more you invest, the more kids get out, and everyone wins.

If we know this is the right way to teach, if we know it’s the right thing to do for education, what is it so hard to change?

The change is not necessarily systematic.  Most of it is attitudinal, and it starts at the individual teacher level.  It needs to be supported and nurtured by the school and administration in order to thrive, for sure, but you can change your classroom tomorrow by just asking the students how you’re doing, what they like and what they don’t, and what would help improve things.  Problem solve together.  Remember when kids say “hard’ or “difficult”  or “I can’t” ,they are often saying “I don’t understand” or “I need more help” or “Can you explain it in another way?”

What do you think?

Can you change your classroom by connecting with your students and helping them take a more “experimental” approach to assignments- allowing them to make mistakes and get another chance to try again afterwards, once they understand why they made the mistakes and how to tweek it for next time?  What would it do for you if your supervisors treated you this way?  Would it help you improve at your job as well?

Let us know what you think in the comments, and where you would find challenges trying this approach in your classroom.