Teaching is measurable [Guest post]

This is a guest post. To read about the author please be sure to read the bottom of the post. 

The other day somebody said to me that “teaching is measurable.” It’s not really important who said it and why; X simply needed some argument to support his viewpoint and thus paraphrased what somebody else believed. Anyway, this post is not an attempt at an academic piece of writing – I’m just one of those inquisitive teachers – so I hope the reader will excuse the impudent lack of references. In short, the main aim of this post is to share some of the reasoning that went on in my head after X cited Y’s assertion that we can measure whether a teacher’s instruction is good or bad.

 

abacus

The very first thing which occurred to me was that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is doing it vicariously, i.e. through the lens of our students’ learning. In other words, if there are satisfactory learning outcomes, we can assume that our teaching is/was good. Here pops up a problem that worries me though; how do we reliably measure someone’s learning outcomes? Obviously, what immediately springs to mind is testing, quizzing, exams and the like. We can, for example, count the number of words Student A remembers on a Monday morning. We can say with certainty that Student B can produce such and such number of language structures correctly. We can contentedly conclude that Student C can write a decent formal letter. So far so good. However, even if I accept the idea that we can measure somebody’s learning via tangible results, I can’t come to terms with the idea that learning is just about that. There are kids who always mess up tests, write clumsily and speak terribly, yet I’m convinced that some learning happens to them. And the other way around, there are learners who excel in taking tests, yet this may only prove they are good test takers.

Allow me to elaborate. Did a student with an excellent score learn more than just a few correct answers to more or less challenging problems? Is it demonstrable that this particular student learned more than the one with a low score? Only time will tell. The point is that there are some very important ‘side effects’ related to learning, or rather, to what one expects to be the only, ultimate learning outcome, e. g. the correct answer in a multiple-choice test or a well-written essay on global warming. What about all sorts of useful learning strategies acquired throughout the learning process, what about internal motivation stemming from participation in engaging lessons, critical thinking skills a student learns while working with thought-provoking material, what about the valuable learning experience itself? These are equally important outcomes which, I suspect, we are prone to overlook when judging the quality of our students’ overall performance. The irony is that they could provide clear evidence of the effectiveness of our teaching.

At the beginning I said that I believed that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is by observing what our students can do. Now I should add that I think it’s quite possible that we can be wonderful teachers even if our students are hopeless. Poor performance and lows scores of weak students are not hard pieces of evidence proving that our teaching is bad. And conversely, if we are lucky enough and teach exceptionally talented and motivated students, whose results are equally exceptional, does that say that we are exceptional teachers? How can we measure the quality of our teaching if we end up in an environment where the real nature of our teaching can’t manifest itself to the full; where nobody really cares about our great teaching abilities or, by contrast, where we can easily get away with very poor teaching skills?

What’s left then? What are some other measurable criteria which define the quality of our teaching? I’ve been observed several times by the administrators and their conclusions were generally very positive: “you are a born teacher, you can make a great lesson out of nothing, your classroom management skills are amazing”, etc. Does that make my teaching good? Does what somebody else thinks about my lessons turn me into a good teacher? What if that person is not exactly demanding? What if she knows nothing about the recent SLA research? What if her goals are different from mine?

Finally, what is it that makes us attempt to measure the immeasurable? Is it fear or a lack of confidence? Is it the need to label things and thus make them acceptable/unacceptable? My guess is that it’s the natural human desire to feel safe. The trouble is that teaching is fluid; at one point we’re doing great and in a matter of seconds the lesson goes south. As teaching is a multi-layered venture and there’s so much we can’t grasp and control, we tend to stick to anything that looks like concrete evidence, and we reject the intangible and seemingly insecure, perhaps in order to keep our balance as teachers and human beings.

 

The author of this post is Hana Ticháa teacher in the Czech Republic. Hana is a very proflic blogger and her posts come highly rated and highly recommended from me. To get a feel for her blog you can check out this post where she mentions a few of her posts on her blog anniversary.
I spent some time trying to think about some of my favorite posts of here but this was a challenge because all of her posts offered a lot. Thanks very much to Hana for taking the time to write this and to share it here. 

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15 comments

  1. Hana Tichá

    I liked the post because I like what Mike said about me and my blog :-) Also, I did so to express my gratitude for the opportunity to be here. It’s a great honor for me…. Thanks.

  2. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    Thought provoking! Measuring students has always been tricky, in my estimation. I do think that word tests and multiple choice exams constitute a small part of what measurement and assessment really is, but for some students, especially my Korean ones, it’s all they know. I’ve known several Korean English teachers who seem to do nothing but word tests, yet such tests strike me as ineffective. Sure, the students may memorize more words and might get a good score, but will they be able to use those words in conversation or contextualize them in their minds? The same holds true in the USA among “regular” English teachers: In Kylene Beers’ book When Kids Can’t Read, she writes of an exchange between English teachers about how ineffectual vocab tests are. One teacher even says, “Yes, but they won’t need to use the words…” She caught herself in the trap and changed her testing methods after that.

    Thanks for writing!

    • Hana Tichá

      Yes, I definitely agree that measuring of any kind is tricky; especially tests aimed at testing separate vocabulary items are quite controversial. But I’m sure we can come up with reliable and meaningful ways of assessment – the design is the key. Also, the way students prepare for such tests is important. I mean, allowing or even asking students to memorize long, alphabetical lists of words, for example, is not very effective. I believe that first of all, we should encourage students to acquire effective learning strategies; we are there to show them how to learn to get the coveted results. The design of the test should then correspond with how students learned. I know teachers who avoid or prohibit using L1 in the lessons and then they expect their students to be able to translate sentences. This is obviously confusing.
      Thanks for the comment and the tip, Kylene Beers’ book seems to be an interesting read.
      Hana

  3. Rose Bard

    Hi Mike and Haná!

    I wish I could share the post and the last very bit of it with it: “As teaching is a multi-layered venture and there’s so much we can’t grasp and control, we tend to stick to anything that looks like concrete evidence, and we reject the intangible and seemingly insecure, perhaps in order to keep our balance as teachers and human beings.” Because it’s a huge spoiler, I won’t.

    I love what is built by the learners during the class interactions with whatever is presented to them (not just by me, but by everything that happens) and I’m so aware that most of it, It’ll not really even be perceived. Neither by me or even by themselves as just as so many things I seem to miss myself. All my attempts to keep a diary means just a fraction of what is going on. Although realizing that helped me stopping being such a control freak and become more exploratory in practice and reflective, it also directed me in a way to learn more about something that puzzled me…

    Working with a joke with some of my learners this week we ended up with stereotyping, bullying, the concept of dumb and smart being brought up during the activity. They are fourteen and their idea of being smart is being good at math, having good grades at school, being able to understand things easily and express themselves well. Here comes the measuring that learners are so used to and know how to categorize themselves and others. A pity!

    Thanks for the reflection on the topic.

    • Hana Tichá

      Dear Rose,
      I agree that there is so much going on in the lessons we can easily miss. And my point was that we WILL keep missing it if we only stick to the measurable. Yes, there are things which are not perceived because we’re preoccupied with the tangible and material. I think you make a great point when you mention reflection; it is definitely something that will help us become better teachers. Yet I don’t think it is a measurable criterion, especially because it’s so personal and subjective. However, this subjective approach may finally lead to a very objective outcome, i.e. progress and development on the teacher’s part.
      I’m not surprised that students have become accustomed to being measured because over time we have made them believe it is important. We (parents and teachers) are responsible for what they believe in. And because we have taught them, they will expect the same from others in the future (unless we change our priorities) – they will expect concrete evidence such as grades, certificates and diplomas. The problem is that education is too ‚product‘-oriented, thus we prevent our students and ourselves from enjoying and appreciating the progress itself. That was the implicit message of my post and I feel you implied some of it too in your response.
      Thanks for commenting.
      Hana

  4. geoffjordan

    Hi Mike and Haná,

    I wasn’t going to comment on your post, Haná , but then I read Rose’s comment. Now I just want to say that I agree with the general thrust of what Rose says.

    Of course we need assessment; everybody involved needs to know if “real progress” is being made in attempts to learn a second language. But, as Rose suggests, tests of proficiency are still too harsh, and attempts to measure the contribution of teachers are either misguided or insensitive or both. We simply can’t extrapolate from our students’ performance to the efficacy of our teaching: too many variables, impossible to pin down, are in play. New stats techniques might do it: as a DoS, I looked at the results of 1000s of students over the years and there was clear evidence that some teachers’ students got better results than others, to a “significant” extent. Even if we allow for the poor measurement of students’ proficiency, we “know”, don’t we, that some teachers are better than others and that some students are better at language learning than others. As the stats formula get better, maybe we’ll make better sense of the data, but right now, although we can make some reasonable statements about teaching which go towards an explanation, those statements remain very tentative: we haven’t got far, yet.

    I applaud your attempt to talk about measuring teaching, Haná, but, like Rose, I think the best we teachers can do right now is to stop being “control freaks” and become “more exploratory in practice and reflective.”

    • Hana Tichá

      Hi Geoffrey,
      I’m happy to hear Rose’s comment encouraged you to respond to my guest post. :-)
      You argue that we need assessment; we need to know if real progress is being made in attempts to learn a second language. I see your point. But honestly, I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to make progress of any kind without explicit assessment. When I look at small kids, I notice that at first their natural desire to explore and learn is not dependent on what others want them to do. They simply love the process of discovering no matter what others think. Yes, we motivate them and encourage them but we don’t give them marks and points for every new word they pronounce correctly. I try to capture the moment when their internal motivation changes into something which needs to be fed with constant assessment and judgement. And I think we are to blame for this ‘turning point’ in their lives. By the way, are we better parents when our kids do well at school?
      As you point out, and I totally agree, there are too many variables in play in the education process and thus it’s difficult to draw definite conclusions about one’s quality of teaching. And that was one of the points of my post. Yes, there seem to be better teachers and better students. But I ask: Who judges this? Who decides what good teaching is? Who can say with absolute certainty that Student A is better than Student B? Who can claim that Teacher A is more hopeless than Teacher B? I don’t deny that good results are concrete evidence of success; I just doubt the belief that they are the most important gauge against which we should judge how successful a teacher is.
      Hana

      • geoffjordan

        Well Hana, I’m sorry, but I can’t make any sense of this.

        You say: “I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to make progress of any kind without explicit assessment”. And then you go on about how kids learn and how parents might mess them up, and – WHAT??

        The second para. is similarly illusive if we try to follow any argument that might be seen as a reply to Rose’s or my comments.
        You’ve lost me: I have no idea what point of view you’re trying to argue.

  5. Hana Tichá

    Dear Geoffrey,

    I’m sorry you find my point of view confusing. My point was not that parents might mess kids up; I just wanted to draw a parallel between teachers and parents and point to the fact that we rarely judge the quality of parenting based on how well a kid can speak or walk, for example.

    In the second paragraph, I elaborate on your idea that there are better students and better teachers, and I try to explain that one of the problems is subjectivity with which we perceive quality in general.

    Hana

  6. Anna

    Hi all,
    I do agree with the point all of you make that in fact, teaching is not measurable or even if there are some things that can be assessed, there are still many which cannot.
    And dear Geoff, I suppose that the point Hana is trying to make in her post as well as in her comments is something along the lines of “the best we teachers can do right now is to stop being “control freaks” and become “more exploratory in practice and reflective.” Maybe the title of the post Teaching is measurable is taken as irony and should have been in quotes, don´t you think?

    Anna

    • Hana Tichá

      Dear Anna,

      Many thanks for trying to bridge the gap in understanding. You read my lines exactly as I intended them to be read. I’m really grateful for your comment :-)

      Hana

      • geoffjordan

        My thanks to both Hana (in being patient and trying to explain AGAIN) and to Anna. Between you, I finally get it, and appreciate that I had misunderstood.

  7. stevebrown70

    I really liked this post, Hana – thanks for writing it and thanks to Mike for posting it. I agree completely that teaching is very difficult to measure, but the interesting thing part is why we feel we have to measure it anyway. Maybe it is “the natural human desire to feel safe”, as you suggest. But there also seems to be a growing need these days to quantify everything, to reduce everything you do to a set of numbers that can easily be understood by non-academic managers, that can be used by your school’s marketing department, that demonstrate that you are meeting criteria as required by some inspecting body or other, etc. It’s in every educational institution’s interest to be able to say something like “90% of our teachers have the DELTA” or “90% of our students find places at university” or “We received 8 points of excellence for Teaching and Learning in our last British Council inspection”, or whatever – and then to use this information to conclude that the teaching at that institution is good. These are the kinds of things that people want to hear, and therefore we are pushed into producing facts like this as evidence of how good we are. But these snappy “fast facts” are too simplistic – it’s a lot more complex than that, as you say. It would be nice if everyone could just acknowledge this, but I doubt that will happen.

    • Hana Tichá

      Hi Steve,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You’ve come up with some important points which seem to be the core of the problem. Although we probably work in totally different environments, the obsession with producing numbers, tables and graphs is the same. What is worse, and I know this because I’m encouraged to produce numbers, tables and graphs myself, these do not always reflect reality. They are manipulated to meet various criteria of the inspecting body. Also, I’ve noticed that, despite the empirical nature of statistics, the data can be interpreted in various ways, depending on the perspective and purpose of the interpreter. This can easily be abused. I remember a class I taught got two different scores in two different standardized tests taken a couple of months apart: one indicating I was a very bad teacher (and I was blamed directly) and the subsequent one disproving it (the same students got excellent scores). I’m simply not convinced that my students improved so dramatically over such a short period of time (even though I’d love to believe). The tests simply focused on different areas but the administrator didn’t take this into account when drawing the conclusions. Now you can see why I’m sceptical.

      Hana

  8. mikecorea

    Thanks everyone (especially Hana!) for the comments here. I didn’t have too much to add to the conversation and since I am on vacation I figured I’d just let it ride. Nice discussion! Thanks all for reading and commenting and thanks again to Hana.

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