Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When "best practices" aren't -- sometimes imitating the successful is a really bad idea

We started the week with a post on the much touted Relay Graduate School of Education. Yesterday we had a piece discussing the assumptions underlying the notion of "best practices." Here's where those two topics come together.

As I mentioned before, Relay GSE and its role in the reform movement is a complicated story. Not only are there a lot of moving parts; the moving parts have moving parts, so in this thread, I'm trying to open with a cursory bits for context then zoom in on one main aspect per post.

The cursory part: The following is a very good lesson intro but not a particularly good math lesson intro. The good part is is that the kids are having fun, they're ready to learn and they are associating positive emotions with the class. All of these things important and the instructor is managing them exceedingly well. The math part is considerably weaker. The opening is knowledge-, not process-based (no problem-solving or higher-order thinking) and the knowledge covered -- a mediocre mnemonic (since these are made-up words, they are easy to scramble or to forget entirely) for a formula most kids don't have that much trouble remembering -- is fairly trivial. Even the question around the 2:00 mark that got the dean so excited didn't show any significant connection with the material. (Questions you'd rather hear at that point include: "Why do they have to be right triangles?"; "What do we do with other shapes like rectangles?"; "Does this have anything to do with similar triangles?"; "If they give us both angles, how do we know which side is opposite?")

But I don't want to get too caught up in the criticisms. Though I have concerns, it is still clear that Corcoran is an extraordinarily talented teacher with a tremendous gift for entertaining and engaging students.

KIPP Academy's Frank Corcoran: Captain Hook from KIPP NYC on Vimeo.

He is also a potentially disastrous role model.

As I said in the last post:
In order for a best practices approach to make any sense whatsoever, the optimal level of the factors in question must remain basically the same from person to person, location to location, and sometimes even job to job. Those are extremely strong and in some cases wildly counterintuitive assumptions and yet they go unquestioned all the time.
For a young teacher, there is tremendous appeal to the idea of winning kids over with the big show. Today, they're ignoring your lessons, rolling their eyes at your advice and occasionally nodding off while you're talking; tomorrow, they're hanging on your every word. It hardly  ever works that way. One lesson almost never makes you anyone's favorite teacher.

On top of the question of effectiveness, there's often a real risk associated with the 'fun' lesson or hook. Not only does it break the normal structure and routine; it gives the students a relatively legitimate argument for non-cooperation ("if this is supposed to be fun and I'm not having fun, why can't I do something else?"). With time, teachers generally learn how to read classes and situations and discover ways of framing and executing these activities, but for an inexperienced teacher with a problem class, things can go badly.

Check out this passage from Michael Winerip's 2010 NYT article on Teach for America and keep in mind that there is an extremely high degree of overlap between the pedagogical methods taught by TFA and those taught by Relay.
The 774 new recruits who are training here are housed in Rice University dorms. Many are up past midnight doing lesson plans and by 6:30 a.m. are on a bus to teach summer school to students making up failed classes. It’s a tough lesson for those who’ve come to do battle with the achievement gap. 
Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, dressed formally in high heels, was trying to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers. She’d prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken. 
She’d also created a fun math game, giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive, but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game. 
“Why is there talking?” Ms. Nguyen said. “There should be no talking.” 
“Do I have to play?” asked the boy. 
“Do you want to pass summer school?” Ms. Nguyen answered. 
The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order. 
“This is your third warning,” Ms. Nguyen said. “Do not speak out in my class.”
This is really bad. The lesson was not great to begin with -- there are better ways to get the concept across and the fun potential of lining up silently is limited -- but with the disruptions the time was almost entirely wasted (and wasting students' time is one of the worst things a teacher or administrator can do). And the damage almost certainly wasn't be limited to that one day. The teacher had her authority challenged, made empty threats, lost control of her classroom.

But it could have been worse. Kids have a natural tendency to push boundaries and the boundaries here were relatively tight. Now think about an activity that requires shouting and striking martial arts poses. In the video clip, we had an experienced and charismatic teacher with a medium sized class of well-behaved students in a school with strict discipline and a student body self-selected to be compliant and cooperative. Imagine what might have happened if someone like Ms. Nguyen had tried this in a tough school with thirty or forty students.

At the risk of oversimplifying, you can basically break this Relay clip down into two parts:

The dull content-driven part -- making concepts understandable, intriguing them with a challenging problems, getting them to make connections and engage in higher-order thinking -- plays an insignificant role in this clip. Corcoran may have done all of these things later in the lesson, he may even have done them very well, but in this clip there is simply nothing along these lines worth noting, let alone imitating;

Then there's the exciting performance-driven part. Corcoran is remarkably talented and he puts on an exceptional show, but like a lot of other impressive acts, you probably shouldn't try this on your own.

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