I remember when my primary school teacher praised me for being able to read. “Martin can probably read the Wall Street Journal”. After that, nobody ever helped me read the Wall Street Journal. Praise is empty without good follow up.
We should catch ourselves every time we pick out a student and say, “Oh, what a smart child.” Natural abilities don’t always continue to develop on their own. It takes a bit of cultivating. The bigger danger is the child, being told they’re smart, ending up with more attitude than skills. The point is that we are all too quick to pick out the quick students. For teachers and program developers, these are the students that make us look good. They give us the scores and justify our work. Our real work, however, are with those for which learning is not easy. After all, we’re educators.
Quick students are survivors. They can jump through hoops and over obstacles that the average learner stumbles on. The system often acts as a lid and only those with the strongest heads can pop off the top. The rest will suffocate under the pressure. Recently, I was able to observe how many children calculate. Calculating is something that happens in the head, but deaf kids use their fingers so it was easy to see what was happening. To calculate 8 subtracted from 9, they counted off each finger until only one was left, giving them the answer. This took around 12 seconds whereas it should take one. Nobody had shown them another way. When calculations get bigger, they’ll only get slower and more trapped.
We used pebbles from the yard. The game was to name a number and quickly pull the pebbles from the pile. After pulling nine stones into their personal piles, they quickly learned to subtract eight if the next number called was one. Again, the physical manipulation of stones showed us what they were doing in their heads. It was one of the simplest but most triumphant advances achieved in 10 minutes.
Children learn from understanding consistencies in patterns. It’s obvious with math, but the same case with language. There’s a consistency found when spelling “cat” and “bat”. There are inconsistencies when spelling “fish” and “physics”, but these are still rule bound. What is not consistent is when a teacher misspells words on the board. I’ve seen the quicker students jump over these inconsistencies with confidence, but the emerging learner gets confused.
Slack teachers become slacker when they depend on the quick students to sort out their inconsistencies. Teachers depend on students who can answer a question. Otherwise, they’re exposed. If there is no answer from a class of 80, it is clear that by majority rule, the teacher hasn’t done his or her job. Just one answer from the smarty gives justification to dismiss the rest of the students as ignorant.
The heavy dependence on choral drilling works in the same way. If we had technology to record individual students’ responses through audio processing, we’d probably find out that 10% are saying “physics” while 90% are saying “pisssh” but in a choral response, an aural illusion makes us believe everyone can respond and we are doing an awesome job as a teacher.
We will always need the quicker students. Not because they will help us believe we’re all actually teaching, but because the 10% of the 10% of the 10% might question if there might be a better way so that the 90% of their classmates can learn with confidence. Someday, I hope they’ll be teachers or better yet, educators.
Example sentences from English grammar texts tend to orbit in outer space. For example, how often would you say, “The leg was bitten by a dog.” It is not necessarily incorrect, but it is also not anything you’d expect someone to say. Granted, we can work from the abstract and figure out the specifics, but if our species originated on this earth, it’s not a bad thing to start where our once amphibious feet hit the ground. With that in mind, let’s find ways to tether odd sentences to our somewhat everyday lives.
In textbook dialogues, someone is always earnestly asking about this and that. “What is this? What is that? This is a pencil case. That is a pencil case.” If it puzzles you why someone needs to ask and be told, be reminded that it is a conversation with a visually impaired customer in a stationary store. Likewise, the disabled participate in the conversation, Where’s the bed? It’s in the bedroom,” though I think the answer is insensitive. If someone can’t find the bed, why would they know where the bedroom is?
Some examples are for creepy situations. “What’s this? It’s an eye.” This is a dialogue used in a bad restaurant when foreign objects are found in the stew. “It’s an eye,” can also be used when playing guessing games in a dark morgue. “What are these? They are hands.” Say it with disinterested inflections for best results.
For the present continuous we have, “What are you wearing? I am wearing a white shirt.” This conversation existed before Skype, though the answer wouldn’t be very titillating. It could be stretched with prepositions to the effect of, “What are you wearing under your white shirt?” but why bother at that point? The conversation probably requires the proper inflection of, “What are you WEARing?” followed by, “We’re at the beach,” and ending with, “What were you thinking?” That would be a fun lesson.
Practicing prepositions is a textbook favorite, so we have questions asking if the stove is in the kitchen, if the TV is on the chair and if the washing machine is between the buckets. The stove sentence works in Laos because a hibachi is something that can be picked up and taken out to the back yard. This sentence expresses relief when someone finds that the stove is where it should be. For the washing machine, the buckets need to be as big as the washing machine if the explanation is to be useful enough to really help someone find the missing washer.
Asking about daily habits is very earthbound, but I’ve never met a Lao person precise enough to have to ask, “What time do you feed the chickens?” The one asking is either the manager at a large poultry farm or a member of a busy household that that operates without Google calendars.
Conjunctions are de rigueur for basic grammar so we have, “I like papaya salad but I don’t like fried eggs,” but who could possibly not like fried eggs if they like papaya salad? This one would make an alien linguist think twice. We have categories and contrasts for a reason. “I like seafood, but I don’t like squid,” makes more sense to me.
No matter how hard we try to use gravitational force to root our language lessons, the quintessential questions of, “What’s this? What’s that?” are by default most useful for the visiting ET, but as visitors makes repeat visits, it’s up to us to offer good service and learn their language. English is gravity bound.
Now, the next high profile education survey has come our way. What should we do with this one? The recently released “Global Teacher Status Index” (2013) by Varkey GEMS Foundation aims to measure and compare the “level of respect for teachers and their social standing.” Questions on the survey include the comparative ranking of teachers against other professions, the amount that the public thinks teachers should be paid, the degree of trust that teachers can deliver a quality education and if a parent would want their child to be a teacher. Surveyed in 21 countries, this blender mix is supposed to tell us something.
What we find is that in China, teachers are considered equal in status to doctors. China is number one, followed by Greece, Turkey and South Korea. Finland, so famous for their high level of teachers, comes in a distant 13th. Germany is 16th and Japan ranks 17th. The immediate response is to wonder what we should do with these numbers other than just award medals. It’s a loose assumption if we think these rankings are related to student achievement and motivated by salaries. It sounds good, but it’s probably not true.
Peter Dolton and Oscar Marcanero-Gutierrez, two economics professors at the University of London and the University of Malga make this very claim, basing their findings on data from OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).
They say that a 10% increase in pay increases PISA scores by 5-10% because higher pay attracts new teachers and improves the status of teachers.
This is kind of true since the Varkey GEMS survey determines that the average of the 5 countries with the highest wages rank at 6.2 in PISA scores while the average of the 5 countries with the lowest earnings rank at 13.4. Considering the wealth of South Korea, Singapore, US, Japan and Germany, this should come as no surprise. Isn’t this more about the wealth available for educational infrastructure rather than simply the salaries of teachers?
The pay/performance correlation does not apply in the case of Chinese teachers since they are the second lowest paid even after PPP adjustments. Despite their small salaries, they produce the third highest PISA scores. We might think there’s a relationship between China’s high respect and high PISA scores, but Greece and Turkey quickly dispel this hope. Respectively silver and bronze in teacher status, they rank a distant 17th and 19th in achievement scores.
The PISA gold, silver and bronze go respectively to Singapore, Finland and China. For teacher status, China is awarded 100, Singapore 46 and Finland a disrespectfully low 28. Pay also is all over the charts even after PPP adjustments with China $17,730, Singapore $45,755 and Finland $28,780. We have failed at any attempt to triangulate status, pay and performance.
This might be because of the ill-defined index of “teacher status.” What if we use “power distance,” one of the four indices in Hofstede’s landmark study on cultural value dimensions? Power distance measures the degree that less powerful people accept the unequal distribution of social power and status and can be applied to what we could call respectful and deferential behavior toward teachers.
Looking at the numbers again, there is a definite correlation between the Varkey GEMS survey on teacher status and Hofstede’s mapping of power distance. Comparing teacher status with power distance, we have; China 100/80, Singapore 46.3/74 and Finland 28.9 / 33. Most of the other countries in the survey follow this pattern. Defining “status” and “respect” as a power relationship explains better why China and Finland, on the opposite extremes of this spectrum, can both deliver results. It explains why unquestioning obeisance wins good grades in one system while critical questioning wins points in another. The vertical structure of a Confucian society has always produced top scholars. In contrast, progressive and egalitarian societies are created through progressive and egalitarian schools.
There is a danger in conducting too many award ceremonies for the international gold, silver and bronze, especially when we might be comparing apples and oranges. At the end of the day, let’s think what these surveys really say.
Now that we get easy information with the swipe of a finger, we have more data to compare countries. Who is ahead? Who is behind? Who needs the Olympics? Yet another report tells us that Finland tops the chart, but why Shanghai? How about the monolith of China and its success in improving education so quickly? There’s got to be a secret. According to a New York Times column, “The Shanghai Secret”, by Thomas Friedman, October 22, 2013, there is no secret. Educators are simply doing what they should be doing and then it all works.
The claim is that China is already reaping the rewards of 30 years of investments in infrastructure and education. Shanghai’s public secondary schools rated near the top in 2009 for the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment) comparing 15 year-olds in 65 countries. The tests cover reading, science and math skills. The reason the columnist claims there is no secret is because everything that appears to be in place and working are the basics of a functional education system, namely committed teacher training, professional development, peer learning, parental involvement and the earnest pursuit of quality. In a nutshell.
While 70 percent of a workweek is spent teaching, 30 percent is devoted to developing teaching skills and planning lessons. Training includes work online or collaborating with peers. Teachers watch each other, give feedback and share ideas. There are opportunities to observe master teachers in action.
There is even training for the parents who come three to five times in a semester to learn computer skills, enabling them to assist their children at home as well as follow their children’ progress online. Teachers chat by phone or online with parents two or three times a week to solidify their communication with parents.
The article summarizes, “The system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them.” The results are not from just urban privileged schools, but from across the board including the most challenging of conditions. The formula is to give teachers enough time to prepare and to give enough peer and master support to develop their expertise.
If the claim is that all of this is not a secret, it implies that everyone should be able to implement it. The constraints are not about budgets, about the lack of materials or the size of a classroom. Is the real dirty secret that we already have the solutions but don’t have the skills or the will to carry it out? We can imagine how a tiny rich country like Finland can do it, but Shanghai itself is already three times bigger in population.
30 years of investments in infrastructure and education is not a secret, but neither is it an easy solution for most countries. The idea of giving teachers more time to think and prepare lessons and support them with master trainers is not a TED talk, but neither is it something that most countries can do. Strapped for human resources and the money to pay teachers, we’re lucky to get them to saunter into the classroom.
There is no secret and no silver bullet that will shoot from every gun. We need to come up with solutions country by country, district by district, school by school and sometimes teacher by teacher. That may not be a comfortable revelation, but the sooner we resign ourselves to the hard work down the road, the sooner we can get where we want to go.