Where Can We Make Serious Progress?

There is this very interesting dichotomy one can find in the research on education. That dichotomy becomes clear if one looks at the items that have the biggest positive impact on student outcomes and then looks at the items that have the biggest negative impacts on student outcomes. The dichotomy is that the issues that really drive student achievement are all about the teacher, and the issues that really sabotage student achievement are all about the student. Schools have an impact, home life has an impact, access to technology has an impact, many items have an impact. But the things that matter most are largely questions of teacher perspectives and behaviors on the one hand and student perspectives and behaviors on the other.

In order to view this dichotomy, the MetaX data set compiled by a team of education research led by John Hattie is helpful. Over the course of twenty years, this team has compiled an exceptionally robust compilation of education research compiling study over study and meta analysis on top of meta analysis. The result is a data set of over 300 studied influences based on the research in over 90,000 studies conducted with over 300 million student participants. In this data set, you can sort the influences (which range over everything from the use of background music, to student lack of sleep, to standardized testing) from those which have the greatest positive effect to those which have the largest harmful effect.

At the top of the list over and over and over again you see items like-

  • Teacher Estimates of Achievement– Teachers who can effectively estimate how well students within a class have understood a new concept are much better at guiding students to academic achievement than those who can’t.
  • Collective Teacher Efficacy- Teachers who, as part of a working group, express confidence in their ability to meaningfully impact students’ lives achieve much better outcomes than those who don’t.
  • Cognitive Task Analysis- Teachers who attend to the mental frameworks and practices that students use to think about complex topics are much more effective than those who don’t.

And the list goes on. Six out of the top ten positive effects on student achievement concern teacher attributes and practices. If you count the curriculum that a teacher chooses to use as a teacher issue, then it’s eight out of the top ten. These teacher issues are statistically more important even than how well funded a school is, small class sizes, parental involvement, student belief in their ability to grow, how much students enjoy their classes, and a whole host of other issues that are generally thought of as important issues in education (and to one extent or another are important in education). The message is clear. Great teachers help students achieve in education more than any other issue.

On the other end of the spectrum you see over and over items like-

  • Anger- Students who feel angry about roadblocks, difficulties, requirements or other elements of education are statistically more likely to fail than any other type of student.
  • Procrastination- Students who habitually procrastinate are much more likely to struggle in school than those who don’t.
  • Anxiety- Students similarly struggle when they experience significant anxiety.

Again, the list goes on. Seven out of the top ten most disruptive effects to student achievement concern students, their perspectives, and their habits. If you include mobile phone use in class as a student issue, then it’s eight out of ten. These student issues are statistically more harmful than bullying, large class sizes, poverty, lack of sleep, and many other issues generally thought of as disruptive to education (and to one extent or another which are disruptive to education). The message is clear. Generally speaking, the greatest disruptions to student achievement happen within the student.

Interesting dichotomy right? The question is- what does it mean? As with any really interesting set of facts there are many meanings we might pull from the information. I suggest one important meaning to draw from the information here. That meaning is that not all places are equally worth putting your effort into as a teacher. If you are a dedicated teacher who really cares about getting better at teaching, then you are going to get better at teaching. But how fast you get better depends on where you put your efforts.

Here is an example. One very popular theory in education is the theory of learning styles. The idea is that some students are kinesthetic learners (need to do), some are auditory (need to hear), some are visual (need to see), and some are tactile (need to touch), or that students are some mix of those. A teacher could put a great deal of effort into making a classroom amenable to all of the learning styles. But is this where a teacher can really make the biggest impact? It turns out that this is a particularly well researched question. There have been over seven hundred studies encompassing over ninety-thousand students that have tested how effective teaching to learning styles is. The conglomerate score for this particular teaching strategy is .34. For context, Cognitive Task Analysis has a conglomerate score of 1.29 and the average score of all studied effects is .4 This means that this strategy is about one fourth as impactful as the most successful teaching strategies. It also means that you could literally take a random studied effect from a list, focus on that as a teacher, and you would be statistically more likely to have an impact on student growth than if you used that energy to make sure that you taught using the learning styles theory. While it is an interesting theory and it will have a positive impact on student learning (as will most things that a teacher does to try to benefit students), it does not seem to be the sort of place where a teacher can really have the greatest impact.

So, if you want to make the biggest impact, what should you be doing as a teacher? It’s a complex question with a complex answer, but I suggest two places to start-

Active Learning

One of the most prevalent qualities of top-of-the-list teaching strategies is that they employ active learning. What this means is that teachers can see the learning that is taking place, they can tell if the student is understanding a concept or improving in a skill because they can see the student in some way explain or use the concept or skill. In this environment teachers are able to give feedback to students and are able to adjust their lessons based on what they are seeing. Our motto in the Independent Education Program is, “If you can’t see them learning, it doesn’t count.” While this is not absolutely true- it is possible for a student to learn things that you haven’t observed, for the purposes of a teacher attending to instructional design, it may as well be true. If you want to make sure that a student is learning things, then you should teach in a way that makes students show you that they are learning things. The following sorts of activities offer this sort of benefit-

  • Small or large group discussion on a question that requires higher order thinking
  • Students teaching each other content
  • Activities that require students to use new skills or knowledge
  • Repeated practice on a given skill paired with feedback from peers or teacher
  • Students reflecting on experiences had and lessons learned
  • Having clear outcomes for students to achieve and giving students clear roadmaps to achieve those outcomes

Overall, one of the biggest places a teacher can begin to make an impact is to ask-

  • How much of my class time is spent in active versus passive learning?
  • How well can I see whether or not my students are learning the concepts and skills we are talking about?
  • How can I adjust my classroom activities to make the learning in my classroom more visible?

These questions attend to one side of the dichotomy- great teachers have the greatest positive effect on students, and great teachers teach using active learning.

The Implicit Curriculum

In teaching there is the seen and the unseen. On the side of the seen there are lessons, activities, homework, scores, etc. But there is also the unseen. Every student operates in an internal environment that has a major impact on the student’s educational experience. This is what the research shows- the things that are most harmful to student outcomes are generally happening in the student. Therefore, it is essential to consider the internal environment of the student. How does the student feel about his/her experience? How does the student feel about him/herself? Does the student labor under a persistent sense of failure, or does the student feel generally successful? Does the student feel angry? Does the student have good cause to feel angry? Is the student frequently embarrassed or frustrated or scared? These are some of the most important questions that a teacher can ask because these issues have the potential to sabotage a student’s experience more than almost any other issue.

I have seen this issue play out over and over and over again in my class. The students who really struggle and can’t seem to stop sabotaging their own experience end up being the students who feel like failures and then purposefully fail so they don’t have to go through the ups and downs of hoping to change and disappointment when they don’t. They are the students who feel an expectation that they must measure up to an older sibling who everyone likes and a terrible fear that they’ll never be able to. They are the students who are battling serious anxiety or depression, who don’t want anyone to know that they can’t write very well, or who feel destined to fail. It is for these students that the implicit curriculum is particularly important.

Implied curriculum is less about what is easily seen in a classroom- lessons, activities, homework, etc. Implied curriculum is more about the educational values that one teaches in a classroom. The question here is whether or not the values that you are teaching in your classroom are helping students deal with those issues that can so severely sabotage an education.

Let’s do a thought experiment here. Imagine your classroom. Think about what you do on a daily basis, how you interact with students, etc. Now imagine that you have a student who feels acute embarrassment about their ability to write and spell. Now ask the questions, what am I doing in my classroom that is helping that student deal with that acute embarrassment? What educational values do I express to my students that will help that student take the sort of risks that will enable him/her to make meaningful progress on his/her writing and spelling? Am I expressing these values regularly enough that the student can really grab onto those educational values?

If you have good answers for these questions for this and other students, then I think you could generally expect to see an improvement in the internal environment in which your students operate. You could expect to see students become less angry, frustrated, defensive, and so forth. And, you could expect to see student performance rise accordingly.

In my class I have, for years and through a variety of methods, promoted the value of process over outcome. The meaning being that success is best defined as a process you engage in that helps you become a person you want to be, instead of any given outcome that you achieve in any given moment. As I’ve seen students internalize this idea it has been very rewarding to see students become less angry, frustrated, defensive, and so forth, and then to see student performance rise accordingly.

So, what is the implicit curriculum in your classroom? One of the wisest statements I’ve ever heard with regards to education is that the teacher’s values always come through. The students will ultimately know what you believe about them and education. If that is true, then it means that you have an implicit curriculum on purpose or otherwise. So what is your implicit curriculum, and is it helping students deal with those crucial issues that can make or break their education?

I suggest that by attending to active learning and to the implicit curriculum teachers can make a really great start on dealing with the issues that have the greatest positive and negative impacts on education.

Teaching is a Learned Skill There is some really great research conducted by the Learning Policy Institute that demonstrates that teachers experience major growth in student outcomes in the first four years of teaching, but that teacher growth continues ten, twenty, and even thirty years into a teaching career. This points to the fact that teaching is a learned skill. It is something that a person can get better at over time, and that teaching is difficult enough to learn that you can still get better at it even thirty years after you started. As mentioned earlier, Collective Teacher Efficacy is one of the biggest predictors of student success. Collective Teacher Efficacy essentially boils down to whether or not a teacher believes that he or she can have a serious impact on student outcomes. Now, perhaps this is because good teachers believe that they are good teachers. But I tend to believe that the bigger issue is that teachers who believe that they can get better at what they are doing and teachers who believe that they can impact students keep trying. They do the hard work and reflection that it takes to figure out what really works, what really doesn’t matter, and where they can have the biggest impact on student outcomes. For the good of my students, I aspire to be one of these teachers who keeps trying to figure out what really matters in education. I hope that for the good of our wonderful homeschooling community, we all feel the same.