Who is in Charge?

Let’s think about reducing class size for a moment. Not as the substance of this article, but as a means of understanding an important principle. Smaller classes are often spoken of as a panacea to the ills in public education. Do you want better academic achievement? More individual attention? A more successful classroom? Reduce class size. And statistically speaking, reducing class size does improve student learning. But is that enough? Specifically, is that enough when, statistically speaking, just about anything a teacher or school does to benefit students improves student learning? Students are built to learn, so any benefit to their learning is likely to help them learn more. But, as far as studies in education go, students do not benefit above the average intervention when class sizes are reduced. You can see a review of studies on reducing class size from across the world here. What they show is that, on average, reductions in class size do not have a very strong effect on student achievement. Reducing class size works, but not nearly as well as a strong curriculum or a strong teacher with good management and teaching skills. From the parental perspective, a small class may be very important for the individual needs of an individual student. But from a policy perspective, reducing class size is a sort of fool’s gold. It promises a great deal and offers mediocre returns. It is more important in theory than it is in practice.

Fool’s gold is common in teaching because almost everything “works” in education. At least almost everything works to some extent. Humans are made to learn, and almost all teaching practices will help them do that. But the best teaching practices don’t just work, they accelerate growth significantly. And they work consistently for many different types of students.

If we were to now think of a ratio consisting of how much a teaching practice is expected to work compared to how much it actually benefits student learning, up toward the top of the fool’s gold list might be student control over learning. Before moving forward I would like to do some important differentiation. Student control over learning is a different educational practice than self directed learning. Student control over learning can be thought of as a practice in which students make large scale decisions about education: which subjects to learn, where to start, what the objectives of a class are, when to move on to new ideas or subjects, etc. In contrast, self directed learning can be thought of as a practice in which students seek out information, engage in problem solving, and exercise discretion within a solid framework. The difference is fairly similar with the issues discussed in a previous article: Freedom in Education is Good, Chaos is Not.

The theory behind student control over learning is that students who take the helm of their own education become more independent and are more interested in what they are learning. Because they are making all the choices, they will care more and invest themselves more. Therefore they will learn more and be more prepared to face the choices they will have to make as adults.

As to whether or not they will be more prepared to deal with the independence of adult life, I am not aware of any statistical evidence one way or the other. It seems, in all likelihood, that practicing large scale decisions may bear fruit in that way. And perhaps that would be a good enough reason to have students take an active role in directing their own education.

But as to whether or not student control over learning drives student achievement, the statistical evidence available is definitely not in favor. Student control over learning, like almost any other practice, will benefit student learning. But it benefits students less than almost all studied practices. In the MetaX educational data set, student control over learning has a nearly negligible effect size of .02. It is the smallest positive influence of any teaching practice. By comparison, reducing class size is a slam dunk with an effect size of .17. The average beneficial teaching practice (such as bilingual programs) has an effect size of .4. Self directed learning is a much more beneficial practice at .67. And top tier teaching practices (such as outcomes based education, the jigsaw method, or self reported grades) have effect sizes approaching or exceeding 1.0. Or, in other words, their effect size would be approximately eighty times larger than student control over learning.

One of my debate teachers mentioned once that he felt like what we were doing in the Independent Education Program was accomplishing what he had always hoped his school would do for him in high school. His school had focused heavily on the concept of choice. Students were promised that they could explore what was interesting to them. They were in charge. They would read the books that they wanted to read, have the discussions that they wanted to have, go in a direction that mattered to them, etc. After teaching our debate curriculum with a strong purpose and direction dictated to student, he gained some insight on what was unsatisfying about the experience. In retrospect he found that there were many books he didn’t know he would want to read, many discussions that he didn’t know he would want to have, many directions that he didn’t know would matter to him, etc. And on the other side, he really enjoyed guiding students through the debate curriculum to help them discover exciting ideas and experiences.

In other words, a strong teacher with a good comprehension of a subject and an idea of the wonders the subject holds for students can bring students to many places that the student would not likely choose on their own.

I’m not sure that the nomenclature matters all that much, but I suppose this is why I prefer the term teacher to mentor. A good teacher is more than a guide who helps a student go where the student wants to go. A good teacher knows more about the subject than the student and has the ability to discern some of the important places to visit within the subject. Not only this, but a great teacher understands teaching and learning better than the student and understands the requirements and constraints that can really help students thrive in the classroom.

As a practical application, in my experience an experienced and thoughtful teacher is likely to have better answers to the following questions than the average student-

  • How much research would be a minimum requirement to really investigate a subject?
  • What would count as general competence in a given skill?
  • What great literary works develop important ideas in a field?
  • How many times does a student generally need to repeat an activity to improve?
  • What activity would appropriately challenge a student to grow a new skill?
  • What is a good starting point for inquiry in a complex subject?
  • Which ideas have historically had the biggest impact in a subject area and how do those ideas relate to each other?

Theoretically, a student’s own intuition or curiosity could guide them on these issues. And perhaps there are some students for whom this concept plays out really well. But my experience as a teacher says that the average student will not be able to answer these questions as well as an experienced teacher.

This is why, on the question of who is in charge in education, I generally favor the answer that the teacher is in charge. An in charge teacher structures the class and its activities. An in charge teacher chooses the scope and sequence for the curriculum. This does not crowd out self directed learning, but if there is self directed learning, an in charge teacher chooses the goals and the parameters of that learning. Overall a teacher that is in charge teaches so that students can learn.

Time and attention in any classroom are finite both for the teacher and student. Which makes avoiding fool’s gold and focusing on high value classroom practices key in education. Hopefully this article has offered some value in that pursuit.