TouchPaper Problem #6 – Teacher Perceptions of Behaviour

This is the sixth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #6 – What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?

Teachers are often asked to describe student behaviour: to their parents, on report cards, even to students themselves. But is it the child’s behaviour only that determines how teachers rate the pupil or are there other factors at play?

There are two ways that it might be possible other factors matter:

1. Something about a teacher means they perceive student behaviours in different ways. For example, perhaps I hold a belief that it isn’t “ladylike” for girls to be loud. If I teach a female student with a particularly booming voice, might I therefore (however subconsciously) give her a lower behavior rating than a female student of similar behaviour patterns but with a quieter voice? (And is that because her behaviour is actually worse?)

2. Could it be that something about a teacher means the students actually behave differently? Sticking with the volume example, is a teacher with a naturally booming voice more likely to have a loud class, who they then perceive as chatty, and so mark down for behaviour?

Clearly, these factors will be different for different people. This is why the problem ask what best predicts the rating. We’re not saying that knowing something about a person will always tell you how they will perceive behaviour, but what is it about us that gets us closer to the answer.

Other thoughts that come to mind for me are:

– Does a teacher’s level of optimism matter? Do more optimistic people rate students more highly? Are students better behaved for more optimistic teachers?

– Does a teacher’s own experience of education matter? If they were taught in chattery classrooms and nevertheless did well, perhaps they don’t mark down chattery students. If, on the other hand, the chatterboxes of their youth are the ones they think destroyed their chances, do they then take this as an opportunity to “right the wrong” and mark such students down?

At this point, I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to having people think about how we might figure this out, and what sort of information we would need to do so.

TouchPaper Problem #5 – Getting Classes To Enter Rooms Effectively

This is the fifth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #5 – What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Education is a zero sum game. We have a finite amount of time and once it’s used up, there’s no more. Every second a student is doing something they shouldn’t be in a lesson, we are losing them. This sounds harsh, I know. Children do have the right to daydream, rebel, fight us, make friends, and so on. BUT, as teachers, our job is to try our best to rein in those inclinations, or even use them purposefully, for the few short hours we get each day and push as much energy as possible into the pursuit of expanding knowledge and skills. That expansion should leave students less afraid in the future of new things, and may even open areas of passion and interest. It’s a good power that we yield.

But, we don’t always do it effectively.

In particular, the starts of lessons can be tough. Thirty individual learners, each with their own pathway to your door, each bringing their own anxieties and excitements, all need to come together within a few minutes and be operating as one body. We are basically trying to perform a magic trick of turning lone wolves to turn into an ant colony.

It is this analogy – wolves into ants – that made me first think about TouchPaper Problem 5. Question is: How do we do it?

Over the years I have seen some very effective techniques for getting students into their lessons and calmed down. Greeting at the door is sometimes considered important. But what if this means taking attention away from students inside the room who then start thumping ten bells out of each other? Other teachers have books already laid out on desks, but how long does this take? Does it mean the students are out in the corridor longer? And does that even matter? (After all, if 10 seconds longer on the corridor means the lesson starts 30 seconds more quickly than otherwise, we have ourselves a winning situation).

Furthermore, I’m not sure any of these techniques is necessary. I’ve seen great lessons that started with a teacher who didn’t say a single word. They didn’t greet. They didn’t move. They didn’t speak. So what did this classroom have? Arguably, it had trust. But how do I know that? Can I measure it? Could any observer see it?

Of all the problems in the series I think this might have the most unpacking to do and could yield the most specific answers. If it did, it would provide a very useful “rule of thumb” for teachers when they meet their. It’s also possible that there are differential points for types of room, age, frequency of being in the room, etc. I suspect it will also be a topic area with very little written about it – so if we want a solution we must think carefully, how will we find it?

It’s not an easy one Question Number 5. But it’s fascinating. I look forward to hearing what people think.

TouchPaper Problem #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

This is the fourth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

In my estimation, this is the hardest of all the problems, but it’s also really important.

As a teacher I was constantly trying to figure out “how difficult is this material?” and gauging whether I needed to edge it up or scale it down depending on the students I was teaching. But: how do we know if something is complex?

I remember working with a history revision class who were learning about the appeasement. I didn’t think appeasement would be a difficult concept. I mean, kids appease each other all the time in the playground when they, say, allow an older bullying set of kids to play football with them, even if they don’t really want to, in order to avoid a conflict. Problem is, appeasement actually turned out to be quite complex. “To appease” is easy to understand. “Appeasement”, however, is a strategy, a non-concrete object, and it’s quite difficult to talk about accurately without practice. My students kept saying things like “Britain wanted to appeasement Hitler” or “the appeasement happened in Munich” – and while both are in a ballpark I could understand, they were inaccurate enough that they couldn’t go uncorrected.

A second thing led me to create this problem. Earlier the year national curriculum levels were “abolished” and schools are now being encouraged to create their own. Many vocal opponents of levels complained that the stages did not adequately follow on from one another, with some actions described at Level 8 not necessarily seeming more difficult than those at Level 7. Others suggested that what we should have instead are lists of knowledge that students will have and that this should get progressively more difficult as we go forward.

But: how do we know which knowledge is the most difficult? To go back to the issue of appeasement, I’m fairly certain I could get a 7 year old to understand much of it. There also people who write their PhDs about it. So what is the essential difference between the types of concept the 7 year old and the PhD are using when discussing appeasement?

As with the other problems, I am certain there has been lots of study on this. Taxonomies of knowledge exist. Philosophers of knowledge have hierarchied such things on occasion. But what I want to know is how these tools can help a teacher know the complexity of a concept. Because if we can answer that question then we can start to construct assessments and curriculum on the basis of some collective understanding.

Getting to that point, however, seems like will be far from easy. Any suggestions?

TouchPaper Problem #3 – Effective Homeworks for Memorizing Things

This is the third blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #3 – If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?

One of the most frustrating moments as a teacher is when you ask students to recap something from a previous lesson and there is silence. “Come you!” you say, “We went over this yesterday! None of you remember the dates of WWI/Hamlet’s occupation/the word for salad in Spanish?!”

Thing is, human minds are not brilliant at remembering things from one point in time to another. We need to (a) pay attention to the item in the first place, and (b) turn it over in our minds enough that it moves from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. Classrooms are not always good for attention. I cannot be the only teacher who has had the experience of teaching a class packed full of knowledge for the students to only remember, often in precise detail, the part of the lesson when a bee came into the room. They can tell you which window it entered, who spotted it, the look on Miss’ face when she realised her lesson was shot, how the subsequent screams and chase sequence went, and even where mr bumblebee met his death. But the rest of the lesson – GONE.

One way to get around this is we set homework I used to set vocabulary tests all the time. “Here, learn these words I would say”, passing out a leaflet with information from our lesson and hoping that somehow the motivation to do well in a subsequent vocabulary test was enough. But: is “learn these words” really the best I could do?

Was there not, perhaps, something more specific I could have set students?

What if I had said: Every day between now and next week say these words every morning when you wake up and every night when you go to bed. Would that have been better?

On the one hand it is more specific, so students who don’t really know how to just “learn this” would at least have something to do. But on the other hand, would it actually motivate students? If I didn’t test them, would they really have learned it? And would it even have worked? Would it have actually increased their memory between the two?

I don’t know is the honest answer. It’s why I set this as one of the problems.

There’s also the additional factor that many people think rote learning isn’t enough. Some people will say that they can’t just say words every day, they need to do something with them. If so, might it be better if I get my students to select an activity – rewrite the words, say the words, or do actions for the words. [Yes, that’s the old visual-auditory-kinaesthetic idea that I know deeply divides people. Stick with me though, we’re just thinking through the possibilities….]

In the end, it is a puzzle. We have things we learn in one lesson and we will learn them through a variety of activities depending on the lesson plans, resources, textbooks, etc, that we have. And then we have homework. And then we have another lesson that builds on that original knowledge. The solution to the puzzle lies in figuring out how that homework part of the equation can most effectively bridge the other two parts.

Any answers? Let us have them in the comments!