A cynic’s guide to improving education

I spend more of my time than I would like to reading papers in education journals. Most of the time this is pretty unrewarding, but occasionally one comes across an idea that makes some of the problems one faces as a teacher come into focus. (At some point I’ll post a summary of some of these ideas: there aren’t many of them but they have been startlingly useful.) At other times, one comes across a gem like section 3 of this. [R. Coe (2009) School improvement: reality and illusion. Brit. J. Educ. Stud. 57(4): 363–379.]

A few snippets:

Take on any initiative, and ask everyone who put effort into it whether they feel it worked. Pay money to a consultant. Then to say it hasn’t worked would mean admitting that you’ve wasted your time and money; no-one wants to think that.

Define ‘improvement’ in terms of perceptions and ratings of teachers and students. DO NOT conduct any objective assessments — they may disappoint.

Conduct some kind of evaluation, but don’t let the design be too good. Avoid any kind of comparison group of schools if possible, but if you have to, make sure you allow some important (but unmeasured) differences between the ‘comparison’ and ‘intervention’ schools to remain.

This should be compulsory reading for any of us trying to promulgate a Great New Idea for improving education.

More generally still, I’d offer the following principle for assessing innovative ideas in teaching and learning: almost every innovation seems to work at first. This may be because the teachers who drive innovations are disproportionately enthusiastic and committed; it may be because extra resources are thrown at the novelty which aren’t available to normal practice; it may simply be that when students are told that something new and exciting is being done for them they prick up their ears and pay attention. To be properly validated a new idea should be roadtested by a cynical and over-worked teacher, using material nobody’s had the time to update for a couple of years, on a class who basically don’t give a stuff. If it can hold its own in these conditions then it might just be fit to join the handful of techniques that have made it down the centuries battle-scarred but still in working order.

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One Response to A cynic’s guide to improving education

  1. Pingback: Metaphors, myths and state religions | New-cleckit dominie

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