Tag Archives: Quality Teaching

The Design Failure in Education Today

When students do poorly in school and end up failing out, educators reflexively pin the problem on the students themselves. Most students don’t really care. Many of them don’t have the discipline it takes to succeed. Some are probably just not smart enough.

Problems with motivation, self-discipline, and intelligence are the three most common diagnoses (in descending order) that educators put on students who fail in school.

That last one is not typically shared outside the private space of teachers’ heads or the lounges where they gather and commiserate. But it must be a diagnostic option, right? What other possibilities are there?

In the field of higher ed, Math is one of those subjects where lots of students do poorly. Passing rates hover right now at under 50 percent, which means that less than half of students currently enrolled in a Math course will make it through. Colleges are scrambling to figure out what’s going on here. Certainly Math is more abstract and analytical than most subjects, making it difficult for students who may not have the “knack” for it.

Not having a strong Math intelligence doesn’t mean that students lack intelligence, however.

Current education theory identifies at least ten distinct types of intelligence, based on the research of psychologist Howard Gardner: logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal (intuitive), naturalist, existential, and moral. So a student’s lower-than-average Math intelligence doesn’t mean that he or she is not intelligent in other ways.

It wouldn’t be reasonable, however, for educators to pass off student failure in Math (and other subjects where success rates are low) as an issue with the students themselves, without also looking closely at the system that’s failing students and the possibility of their own complicity as educators in the outcome. I’m not suggesting that blame needs to be shifted now from students to our schools and teachers. Surely there are responsibilities on both sides.

In this post I want to focus on the responsibility of schools and teachers in providing students with the instruction and support that will maximize their opportunities to succeed. Success here refers not merely to making it through the gauntlet of grades and courses, but to the progress in learning that leads to genuine understanding.

My observations are that students are not being adequately prepared for their compulsory ascent from one level to the next.

To get the key ideas into focus, my diagram offers a simplified schematic of a student’s climb through grade or course levels, arriving at the “current” level after having passed through a “former” level, and on his or her way to the “next” level of instruction. Each level (grade or course) is accountable for a portion of the general curriculum that students need to learn before moving on. The green ascending line represents the intended progress of learning, as students build their knowledge, grow in understanding, and are able to apply what they learn in increasingly complex ways.

Before students arrived at the current level, they had to take a class designed to prepare them with the prerequisite knowledge and skills. The angle of that green line depicts what I’m calling the “challenge gradient” elevating students from one level to the next. It goes without saying that students need to learn things they don’t already know, and the difficulty (challenge) of the new material needs to be within what the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky called their “zone of proximal development.” In other words, they need to be prepared and ready for it.

If the challenge gradient is too great (depicted by a red line turned 90° into a vertical wall) students are not able to progress but instead give up in despair. An example from Math would be holding a fifth-grader who is just getting the handle on arithmetic accountable for learning calculus. There’s a good deal of Math competency in between (e.g., algebra) that applies arithmetic in more complex ways and prepares the student for success at the more abstract conceptual levels. For our fifth-grader, the complexity of calculus would be a wall blocking his or her progress in learning Math.

At the other extreme, the challenge gradient might be virtually zero (depicted by a flat grey line). In this case, students get bored quickly with instruction and the material doesn’t engage them. Consequently their learning fails to progress and they can’t move on to the next level.

You should be asking, “But why would the challenge gradient of a given course be set so low? Don’t educators want students to progress in their learning?”

I’ve reflected on this question in other posts, so here my answer will be shockingly straightforward. In recent decades schools and teachers are more interested in getting students through the system than in properly educating them. And they have done this by putting in place an array of accommodations which effectively lower the challenge gradient and make it more likely (even certain) that students will pass from one level to the next.

As a consequence of over-accommodation, students are arriving at course or grade levels under-prepared. They lack the requisite knowledge and skills for successfully meeting the challenge of learning higher-level material. But teachers and schools can’t start holding students back now, since funding and salaries are determined on the basis of student retention, persistence, and graduation rates.

So the broken process continues, and this is the design failure in education today.

How should it work? How can schools and teachers realign themselves with the critical mandate of education, which is to awaken, develop, enlighten and empower students in becoming skilled professionals, responsible citizens, and life-long learners?

Let’s go back to my diagram.

As students begin a “current” level of instruction, the teacher requires them to complete a formative assessment that will identify where each student is as to his or her level of prerequisite understanding. Formative assessments are not about grades, but rather provide instructors with valuable feedback to help them get a clear idea of where students are. Only then can instruction be delivered that will match each student’s zone of proximal development.

It’s imperative, then, that a teacher “level sets” his or her instruction to what students bring to the table.

The ultimate goal of instruction is to “level up” students so they will be course-ready for the next level. The slope of the challenge gradient needs to be calibrated – and frequently adjusted – so that students stay engaged and are stretched to learn. Staying with my earlier example, because not all students in a given Math class are equally proficient in math, a quality teacher will provide the necessary “scaffolding” to support each student’s progress in learning.

It’s important to understand that scaffolding is not an accommodation and does not lower the overall challenge gradient. Instead, it implements the type of personalized support that keeps students engaged and moving forward.

Colleges – particularly community colleges – are presently on a challenge gradient of their own, as they enroll students who come underprepared from high schools that were pressured to continue (and increase) the schedule of accommodations those same students were given in grade school.

Upstream is also back in time, and everyone knows you can’t change the past. These students are products of a broken system, but we don’t have to keep doing things the same way. There is hope for them as well.

The larger and lasting solution can’t rest on the colleges alone. Our education system needs to recover its mandate and renew its purpose in nurturing intelligence, shaping minds, and raising leaders to the new realities of our day.

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Posted by on February 7, 2020 in Education


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Quality Teaching

It’s not a surprise to anyone that our education system is in trouble. Many of us have been its victims, and there’s a fresh generation of youngsters in the process of getting their curiosity, imagination, and natural talents sterilized in school right now. Increasingly schools have been saddled with the responsibility of child rearing, intervening on poor performance, and preparing graduates for the job market.

Is it any wonder students are failing?

Another victim in the middle of all of this, together with the student, is the teacher.

Teachers are expected to manage this education pipeline from preschool and early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood: following the curriculum, designing lesson plans, managing the classroom environment, assessing student progress, and doing all of it on a shoestring salary with restricted latitude for using their own curiosity, imagination, and natural talents.

If some of them felt a “calling” to the profession of teaching originally, they quickly undergo disillusionment and feel the burnout of being held responsible for something over which they have little or no control – nor does it match what they feel most passionate about. This anxiety depletes their spirit, and an astonishing number of them are leaving to save their sanity, health, and hope for a more meaningful life, probably in a different profession altogether.

How do I know? I work in higher education and see it all around me. For a while we tried to blame students for lacking the motivation, discipline, and intelligence – the diagnostic slide typically follows that order – required for success. Then we blamed “the system” and its abusive obsession with standardized testing.

Despite its worthy intention of defining standards for grade-level achievement and helping students be course-ready for their next step, standardized testing soon shaped a culture where instructors “teach to the test” to ensure that students pass and move on.

Getting the right answers has become more important than thinking well and deeply in a given subject, selecting for students who have a knack for memorizing and recalling information. The only thing that really counts is that students can recall the correct answer for the test (the what), not necessarily how to get there or why it even matters.

We have to wonder whether this costly gauntlet of education – measured in the net loss of money, time, imagination, and hope – can be fixed. Or does it just need to be replaced? Are we simply doomed?

A meaningful and productive education has always depended on what I will call Quality Teaching. This gives a large responsibility to the teachers themselves, although I must pull back on blaming them for our current situation. As Whitman and Kelleher state in NeuroTeach (2016), “Ultimately, what research shows is that there is no greater influence on student outcomes than teacher quality.”

Today, fewer colleges are screening for new instructors who understand and practice the art of Quality Teaching. Increasingly colleges are hiring part-time instructors (called adjuncts), which keeps the institutional obligation negligible in terms of healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. Class sections are opened and more of these instructors are hired to fill the vacancies. Rarely anymore is a prospective new hire auditioned for a fluent understanding of Quality Teaching.

So what is Quality Teaching? We can thank our most effective teachers for demonstrating its salient ingredients. While a blog post doesn’t afford the space for expounding on them, I will at least introduce these ingredients here by using the acronym R-E-C-I-P-E as our framework.

Quality Teaching is Relevant

Relevance is a special type or facet of meaning, connecting not only to the course curriculum but just as importantly to the student’s experience and personal world. A Quality Teacher is careful to make these connections so that students can understand the real-life applications of what they are learning. The most valuable application of knowledge is not passing a test, but rather in using new knowledge to expand the student’s worldview, deepen self-understanding, strengthen critical and creative thinking skills, and to participate constructively in the contemporary discourse of human culture. Quality Teaching seeks to establish meaning for the student.

Quality Teaching is Enriched

Humans learn best in real-life situations, but most of a student’s time in school is spent inside boxes called classrooms. Specialized knowledge is by definition highly processed – isolated, analyzed, refined, clarified, and abstracted – which removes many of its essential nutrients. The human brain is “wired” to pick up and interpret information along visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and kinesthetic channels. In traditional classrooms, however, students sit in rows and receive instruction primarily through their eyes and ears. Enriched Quality Teaching uses a variety of sensory modalities and metaphors to “embody” the more abstract concepts students need to learn.

Quality Teaching is Creative

Perhaps the most essential function of a Quality Teacher is to collaborate with students in the construction of meaning. Knowledge itself is a mental construct, a translation of what is purportedly independent of our minds into the signs, symbols, and codes of meaning. It is in our very nature to be creative, to compose elaborate webs of significance that serve to explain what we think we know, explore what we don’t yet fully understand, and to imagine what’s possible. The Quality Teacher is not merely a docent for students through the current catalog of knowledge, but a co-creator with students in the ongoing dialogue between mind and reality.

Quality Teaching is Interactive

This dialogue or construction of meaning happens not only between the mind and reality, and between teacher and student, but also between and among the students themselves. When what really matters is getting the right answers on standardized tests, these creative exchanges of dialogue are at best only secondary to education, if not needless distractions. Quality Teachers, on the other hand, understand – if not intuitively, then at least from what is turning up consistently in the research – that the best education is about priming our imagination with questions, putting these questions to reality, sharing discoveries and perspectives, and holding these under the light of evidence.

Quality Teaching is Personalized

Our current culture of standardized mass education turns students into data. The individual life experiences, unique talents, and types of intelligence represented in the students themselves are largely ignored as inconsequential to the ultimate objective, which is to turn out graduates for the workforce. Large class sizes mean that an instructor might never even learn the faces that go with names on the class roster. But while the current system is essentially a pipeline or conveyor belt to graduation, Quality Teachers respect education as a sacred enterprise whereby human beings are awakened to their creative spirit, empowered to actualize their deeper potentials, and inspired to become lifelong learners. Quality Teaching takes time to get to know the unique person of each student.

Quality Teaching is Engaging

Our current education system cultivates a mindset of disengagement – of depersonalization, abstract knowledge, standardized metrics, and “distance learning.” Instructors are the experts who get paid to replace their students’ ignorance with a multiple-choice mastery of something that means nothing to them. To make learning relevant, enriched, creative, interactive and personalized, the Quality Teacher expects a student’s full investment. Engagement is not about entertaining students or bribing them to show up and participate. Rather, it’s about convincing students – by personal example and not just as words on the course syllabus – that education really is about their transformation, about becoming more fully and gloriously human.

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Posted by on December 10, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random


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