Teacher Reflection Guards Against Unconscious Biases and Prejudice

One of the toughest things for any of us to admit to ourselves is that we have biases, whether those are conscious or unconscious. This becomes even more so as a parent or an educator because society has drilled in to our minds that we are duty bound to treat every child equally. As a result, research that demonstrates innate biases on the grounds of race or gender always make slightly uncomfortable reading.

here’s a recent article that demonstrates this in a big way. It concerns evidence from the US about how, even in the very early years of schooling, teachers have biases in their perceptions of the Maths and ‘STEM’ competency of boys and girls. Further, it seems to carry strong evidence that those different teacher expectations actually impacted upon the girls’ future performance. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise too much – there have been lots of studies that have shown clear evidence that teacher expectations can affect student outcomes. However, it really highlights just how much this unconscious bias is having a very real impact.

Edweek – Teaching Now – Teachers Underestimate Girls’ Math Abilities

My belief is that as educators we do a massive disservice to the children in our care if we don’t first acknowledge that such biases and societal influenced opinions can be there. Once we’ve admitted the possibility to ourselves we can be alert to the possibility and looking out for clues. Ultimately, it requires that we are continuously reflecting on our actions, our practices and our words in a way that is as objective as possible to seek the clues and warning signs (and to challenge ourselves when necessary).

I believe that one of the best ways educators can do this is through journaling. As I’ve written on other occasions, i believe this process makes for better teachers in many ways, including awareness of how to differentiate effectively to meet the needs of each child in the class. I believe that journaling can also help in this area – it doesn’t entail continually trying to analyse, but simply writing the facts of what was done, what happened in class and things tried. over time, reading back through this information can reveal clues based on the interactions with students, reactions obtained and outcomes.

A problem doesn’t go away because we ignore it. At the same time, if teachers obsessed over every word spoken and every action in case of inadvertent bias the job would become impossible. Ignorance is not bliss and any processes that make the educator more reflective can only help to unearth the potential for bias and actions that don’t serve our students effectively.

Learning Styles

The concept of ‘learning styles’ or ‘preferred learning styles’ has been with us for quite a long time and has become thoroughly built in to so many concepts of what are consdiered to be the most effective Twenty First Century teaching methodologies. For example, it forms a fundamental part of the concept of differentiation – the idea being that a teacher should determine from clues and classroom evidence what is the preferred learning style of each student in the room, and then should tailor the learning experiences for the different learners to match with their preferred style.

As the article shared here (link below) clearly states – the vast majority of both educators and students believe in the idea and don’t question it. There is therefore some degree of disquiet when educators are confronted with the reality – science can’t prove a causal link between matching preferred learning styles and effective learning.

Here’s the article;

British Psychological Society – Research Digest – Preferred Learning Style

The article goes on to share the outcomes of an interesting, though modest sized, research activity that suggested that we believe we have learned better when exposed to learning material through our preferred learning style, even though it actually makes no difference. It’s hardly the first piece of research suggesting that our expectations can play tricks with our minds.

However, it’s most certainly not time to throw out all the ideas of differentiation or the hard work that teachers put in to figure out learning styles of the students in their classrooms and to design and create different types of learning experiences to meet the needs of the variety of learning styles.

Two strong possibilities immediately come to my mind that mean we should still not abandon our ideas;

1) learning material presented and developed with different learning styles in mind (rather than just all the material delivered according to one style – probably the preferred style of the teacher) may well carry benefits for all learners simply because of the benefits of variety, change and avoidance of boredom.

2) Secondly – this was a simple piece of research with a small cohort of students on a short term memorizing activity. This doesn’t automatically correlate to anything related to long term learning (and that’s what we’re far more interested in in an educational context). For one thing, the extra motivation that flows from receiving learning in the preferred style might carry real long term benefits. In addition, as this article highlights – the belief that we’re learning better in the preferred style might be a self-fulfilling experience over a longer period of time.

To conclude, I believe there are still many reasons why teachers should incorporate material in to students’ learning that carries variety, originality and fuses elements of different learning style preferences.

Art Engagement

ALICE ANDERSON / MEMORY MOVEMENT MEMORY OBJECTS / WELCOME COLLECTION from Alice Anderson on Vimeo.

Back in 2015 my son, Thomas and i had the unique experience of becoming active participants in the creation of art. An exhibition of work by artist, Alice Anderson was taking place at the Wellcome Collection. The work entailed taking every day objects and wrapping them around with copper wire. The resultant pieces give a real sense of tranquility and peace. Whilst they are still discernibly recognisable as what they were previously, they have nevertheless taken on a new and much vaguer form.

Our names appear in the credits as contributors: Alice Anderson - Travelling Studio Archive

We spent an hour becoming part of the exhibition (and there are one or two photos in which Thomas can be seen (and my arm to the left of the picture!) Thomas wound his copper wire around a 12" record, I had a wooden alphabet letter. Now, you might think that carrying out such a task for an hour would get boring. However, it felt almost like a form of meditation. For me, everything slowed down and for long periods there were no outside thoughts disturbing my mind as the winding of the copper thread consumed my whole attention.

From Performance Management to Effective Feedback

Some time ago I wrote about the vulnerabilities and fragility of performance management systems in most organisations and how, especially in schools, both leaders and those lead tend to dread the performance management process and see it as demotivating.

So, I was interested to see this video from Bluepoint leadership Development that approached the process of sharing feedback from a coaching perspective and emphasises modelling by the leader to seek and elicit/ invite feedback from others so as to develop a culture within which people get comfortable with feedback.

There needs to be acknowledgement that feedback isn't easy to give or receive, is inevitably emotional and linked to feelings of self and identity. therefore, it takes concerted practice, but as leaders we have to be willing to put in the hard work on this. Further, we have to acknowledge that it's one of those areas of professional skills where you can 'never be too good.'

There's always scope for us to raise the bar on our skills. For example, one aspect that I've had to work on over the years (and can still improve further) is the temptation, especially when time might be limited, to offer advice or even to take over the responsibility for finding the solution to an issue or problem on behalf of the employee. To be honest on this, of course, quite often the other person is only too happy if we will do the speaking (relieving them of the need to make a full and complete commitment). And, this is really what happens - if the ideas don't come from them about how to address the issue, then often they don't fully engage and can excuse themselves the accountability when they don't act. To address this, one of the things I know i need to do is be much more comfortable with silence!

Too often, I've been told by people in leadership roles in education that they're uncomfortable having challenging conversations that involve the sharing of frank, direct feedback. What results is too many situations where individuals aren't producing the desired performance or addressing a performance weakness, but when they are finally told the situation has become extreme. further, having not been given the feedback earlier they feel cheated, betrayed and hurt - especially as when the feedback finally comes and the dam breaks, it comes very strong and very challenging.

If we are to have great learning organisations in which people learn, develop and fulfil their potential we have to get far better at this business of feedback. To do this, we have to see the truth as something that we all owe to each other if we are genuinely serious about seeing people flourish and having our organisations grow and be the best they can be. Educators who can be open, frank and honest in their feedback to each other can model the skills necessary for the children and this can only serve them well for the future.

Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?

 

Using Our Brains to Help Adolescents’ Brains

When I was fortunate to take a study tour of the US in April 2011 and meet some of the leading figures in the world of education, I had many memorable conversations. One that has stuck in my mind was with Ms Deborah Stipek, the Dean of Faculty of Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Among many interesting insights she told me that she was frankly embarrassed and felt it was a little shameful that only 6 months before (in late 2010) the Graduate School of Education had formalised a genuine relationship with the Department of Neurology in the Stanford Medical School. Sad to say, as the following article shows all too clearly, where Stanford may have been sluggish to acknowledge the reality and progress of neurological science, so the rest of the world is positively shameful in its slothfulness.

Education Week – Neuroscience Should Inform School Policies

If we stop and think for just a moment – the human brain is the very raw material, the plasticine with which educators work. If we care about how our pupils are learning (as opposed to what they are learning and in what quantity), then we have to be immeasurably fascinated by the new insights offered to us by the field on neurology in the last 15-20 years.

The article is interesting for many reasons, not least that it looks specifically at what neuroscience is telling us teachers should do more of (or less of) when working with adolescents. Inevitably, it suggests that a large part of how we continue to approach secondary education is working directly in opposition to what we now know about how teenage brains are working and developing. When our approaches to education take these issues on board, perhaps then we can tell pupils that we genuinely care more about them, their learning and their experience growing up than we do about the ‘stuff’ we teach.

The Death of Performance Management?

“Well that was a ***ing waste of time, as always. Why do we go through this stupid charade every year,” muttered my colleague as he slumped across his desk. He had just returned from his annual performance management meeting with ‘the boss’. That was in a private bank in the UK, circa 1986.

Whiz forward 25 years – it’s 2011 and I’m in New Delhi, India remembering that conversation as I sat through the umpteenth meeting where the leadership team of a very highly regarded group of schools wrestled with the question – could we introduce a performance management system that would be fair, viewed positively and make a positive contribution to standards of education delivery? These meetings and all the preparatory work for them went on for well over a year. We were not willing or prepared to do anything that had even the slightest risk of spoiling what was already good or great in the organisation. The result was we felt so much more comfortable staying on the fence rather than plunging in to something we could regret.

I sometimes compare performance management systems with formative assessment for pupils in schools – motivational for the few high achievers, demotivational for everyone else. We need to take a step back and think about why we’re doing it. It seems the starting premises is – people will only work hard if we drive them with sticks and carrots. If they’re not controlled, they won’t give good work. Today, this is not seen as the right approach to motivation for students, so why should we settle for this when it comes to how we lead our adult employees who are pivotal in the quality of what we deliver.

The problems with PM are many. For example, it’s a rare manager who, when citing evidence to an employee can quote examples that are more than a few weeks old – even when it’s supposed to be a review of their performance and contribution over a year. It’s not even just the case that those having their performance appraised get uncomfortable – I’ve also known so many managers who found it a very uncomfortable experience to go through.

If we want processes that motivate, inspire and guide people to give their best contributions to their work, to understand how best to contribute and what’s expected of them, then they have to be based on far more timely communication. We also need to have very firmly in our minds when looking at the systems we apply in schools that education establishments are not the same as other employment environments. By way of example, I think it was quite reasonable that a group of teachers once challenged me as to why schools have systems that focus on individual performance, at the same time as emphasizing the importance of teachers working together effectively in teams. There are arguments both ways on this, but we do need to be having such debates in an open and transparent manner.

In our schools today, we say that we want exceptional high calibre teachers to excel. However, by and large, we have tended to adopt populist approaches whereby the differential between how we reward the highest achievers and the rest are very marginal. Another debate we need to be having is whether we are prepared to have remuneration systems that significantly differentiate between high achievers and others. The reality right now is that when the remuneration is linked to the performance management system in our schools we’re spending a very large amount of time, work and effort in to making tiny differentiations between people. If what we want is a system that motivates and inspires stars, encourages others to significantly raise their performance levels and keep our best people – do we need to have more courage? Or, would our leaders be uncomfortable about whether staff would trust their judgements when identifying the top achievers? I often sense a steak of ‘socialist fervour’ running through educators. So, whilst they might know in their hearts that in the school there is a small handful of people whose contributions are massively bigger than the average, even the top achievers/ contributors favour an approach under which all are paid close to the mean. Standing out isn’t applauded.

The result is that we finish up with performance management systems where we seek to tease apart the 1 or 2% of difference in performance from the mean of the vast majority of employees. It’s almost certainly doomed to failure as most of those people want to be told that they’re amongst the 1 to 2% who are above the line, not the ones below. Further, the vast majority of the leaders are those who want to do the easier job of telling all their direct reports that they’re among that above average group (and, to be fair, haven;t really been trained or incentivized to do the harder task of frank, open and honest feedback).

here is a fascinating and detailed exploration of these key issues by McKinseys;

McKinsey – Ahead of the Curve – The Future of Performance Management

After you have read the McKinsey article you’re left with a full understanding of just how complex this issue is throughout business and how much remains to be done to find solutions that actually provide a positive contribution, let alone eliminate all the negative implications. When we move to the environment of schools and educators, i believe the issues are even more complex. For example, we’ve seen increasing trends in US and UK for part of remuneration of teachers to be lionked to student exam performance or ‘value added.’ However, these trends sit very uncomfortably with a lot of good, passionate and dedicated educators who even see them as inherently immoral – motivating short-termism, teaching to the tests and acts which are not in the best long term interests of the learners. Not only has this demotivated a lot of educators – it’s even driven some out of the profession. maybe worse, however hard you go and look, you’re hard pressed to find any positive improvements that the practice has brought.

Business people want to believe in a world where, if you can find a measure for something, you can get more of it, make systems more perfect and thereby raise standards (reducing or even striving to eliminate human imperfection). This is a hangover from industrial Taylorism and is a flat denial of the fact that, even in business, success and achievement are not all systematised and beautifully planned out in advance. Achievement is messy and inexact. it needs to flow from a combination of forward planning and intention with the ability to react and respond effectively and with skill and finesse to changes in circumstances.

As I write, i don’t believe I have the answers. Nor do i believe we will get to better answers without being prepared to challenge orthodoxy, challenge and question our own beliefs and test ourselves. What I am sure is that the best work will come from schools and workplaces where trust is in large supply, where integrity, honesty and a shared desire to fulfil vision and mission are the clues that each and every employee uses daily to determine where best to apply their efforts, their skills and their passion.