Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Environment for New Normals

New normals come out of left field and strike like thunderbolts. We don't see them coming, but they seem stunningly obvious in hindsight. Going into the 1968 Olympics, everyone thought that the best technique for the high jump was the straddle. All it took was the performance of a single high jumper with a radical new technique, the Fosbury Flop, to sweep the straddle into the dust bin of history. Four short years later, at the 1972 Olympics, the Fosbury Flop was the new normal.

Meanwhile, there hasn't been a new normal in teaching and learning in my lifetime. I don't think there's been one in centuries, maybe even millennia. Again, I'm not talking about the institution of schooling; I'm talking about the intimate interaction among teacher, student, and content as seen from one foot away. At that distance, a teacher working with a student on multi-digit multiplication in the middle of a busy class looks the same as a tutor working with a student after school, a parent working with a child at the kitchen table, or a teacher working with a student in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie in the 1870s. The tools may be different, but the basic strategies and techniques remain the same.

Is it possible to pull off a Fosbury Flop in education? I'm not sure, but I sure hope so. I think there are better techniques in teaching that are still undiscovered, and we need something that can shake our understanding of both teaching and learning to the core. Comparing the landscape of high jumping in the 1960s with the landscape of education today may help us understand how to bring about the new normal we need.

Variation and Experimentation

To arrive at a new normal, there needs to be some level of variation and experimentation that occurs at the bottom and bubbles up to the top. In the 1960s, all of the best high jumpers were busy refining the straddle technique, and it is very doubtful that any of them were going to break away to try something radically different. It took Dick Fosbury, an unknown high schooler at the time, to gamble and invest five years in a completely unproven technique.

If Dick Fosbury had experimented with the wrong technique, the flop would have failed. If Dick Fosbury had quit after four years before perfecting his technique, the flop would have failed. If Dick Fosbury had suffered a career-ending injury, the flop would have failed. If Dick Fosbury had lacked the physical gifts to jump higher than 2.13 meters (7 feet), the flop would have failed. New normals emerge because of individuals, but relying on a single individual for a new normal is not a good bet. Ideally, you want a thousand high jumpers working to perfect the straddle technique, and you want a thousand high jumpers working to find the next technique to replace the straddle.

It is hard for me to evaluate the level of variation and experimentation in high jumping in the 1960s because I don't know how many other kids were perfecting radical high jumping techniques in their backyards. What I do know is that the level of variation and experimentation in public schools has decreased significantly since I became a teacher in the 1990s. The standards movement led to a number of top-down reforms. Curriculum standards were removed from local control and transferred first to the state, and now to the national level. There has been a massive drive for consistency. It is now considered unacceptable for two fifth-grade science teachers in neighboring classrooms to each be doing their own thing. The goal is for everyone to collaborate and standardize curriculum and practices. Twenty years ago, half of the math teachers in Massachusetts were using math programs that were either home grown or cobbled together from multiple sources; today, virtually everyone uses a monolithic math program purchased from a major publisher.

To be fair, the variation that existed before the standards movement wasn't very productive. New normals didn't arise from this experimentation, and many of the experiments were pointless and yielded poor results. But you can't discover new normals without variation and experimentation, and those experiments cannot be centrally curated. After Dick Fosbury won the US Olympic Trials in 1968, the trials were held again because the US Olympic Committee still didn't believe in the flop and didn't want Fosbury on the team. If every high jumper on Dick Fosbury's high school track team had to standardize on a single technique, I don't think that Fosbury could have persuaded anyone in 1963 that his technique was superior and should be adopted by everyone.

Supervision and Coaching

When Dick Fosbury began working on the flop, he was a member of his high school track team. This means that his coaches and teammates were watching him jump. They could see both his technique and the heights he was clearing. Initially, his coaches wanted him to switch back to the straddle. But at some point, they could see that the flop was working for him (Fosbury eventually broke his high school's high jump record and placed second at the state meet) and started to give him tips and feedback to improve his technique as best they could.

On the other hand, teaching in schools largely happens behind closed doors. No adult really knows what you are doing. One of the motives behind the push for consistency across classrooms is to de-privatize teaching and to get teachers talking and sharing strategies and practices. Past efforts to break down walls include lesson studies and the formation of professional learning communities, but none of these efforts have been successful. Very few school districts employ coaches, and most teachers view coaches as nuisances rather than helps. Supervision consists of the principal coming by to observe a lesson twice a year every two years.

To get a sense of what supervision and coaching looks like in schools, imagine a high school track team where every member of the team practices in isolation. Twice a year, the athletic director, a former javelin thrower, swings by to check on you and to write a report for your file. Four times a year, the whole team gathers, but you may not do any high jumping on those days. And in October, you finally receive your scores from the state meet (the one formal competition of the year) that was held in April.

A Single Metric for Performance

Dick Fosbury made a lot of adjustments to the flop before he won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1968. One of them was learning that he had to adjust his point-of-takeoff as the high jump bar was raised. While making these adjustments, Fosbury was able to gauge whether his technique was improving or getting worse by observing the heights he was clearing. He was also able to compare his performance against established benchmarks, such as the high school high jump record and the world record. Without this data, would Fosbury have been able to improve the flop? Would he have persevered for five years? Would the US Olympic Committee have allowed him on the team? Would he have convinced the world his technique was better?

We don't have a single metric for performance in education. Even the most ardent supporter of standardized testing wouldn't argue for a single metric. Instead of adjusting our technique to jump higher, we are forced to adjust our technique to optimize the vertical force we exert at the point-of-takeoff or the curve of our back. We hope that will translate to higher jumps, but we don't really know. We also have no idea how our performance compares with the teacher across the hall, the teacher in the next town over, or the teachers in Shanghai.

Noisy Feedback

Feedback in educational systems tends to be extremely noisy. Part of that is because there isn't a single metric for performance, so one metric may indicate that you are improving, while another may indicate that you are getting worse. But feedback also suffers from lag and the number of variables in play. When you experiment with a new technique, it can take days, weeks, months, or even years before measurable student outcomes emerge. This makes it difficult to tease out the effect of the new technique from the effect of other intervening factors. It's like sitting at a console and mashing on buttons. After a few hours, you start to see some things happen, and you have to figure out which button, or sequence of buttons, caused which thing to happen.

The existence of numerous variables that are difficult to control for also contributes to noisy feedback and makes it hard to compare results across multiple trials. It's as though some high jumping competitions are occurring in sand with a strong headwind, while others are on spongy surfaces indoors. Because of this, research studies often contradict each other and we have to rely on meta-analyses across studies that often draw faulty conclusions. Many of these studies conclude that procedural techniques are more effective for teaching math. But drilling down, you will find that most teachers in these studies had more experience using procedural techniques and were ill-equipped to use the conceptual technique being studied. The longer, more in-depth studies that may tease out those effects carry much less weight in a meta-analysis, and these meta-analyses drive policy decisions.

The Olympic Stage

Dick Fosbury had the opportunity to win and demonstrate the Fosbury Flop in front of an audience of millions, including thousands of his fellow high jumpers. I can't think of anything comparable in the educational world. There are TED talks, but those are curated and you don't really have the same opportunity to demonstrate the performance of a new technique. Finland shocked the world by finishing first or second in math, science, and reading on the 2006 PISA, which caused educational researchers and policymakers to flock to Finland. But the educational techniques used in Finland were selected by someone at some point. Dick Fosbury didn't have to pass through any similar gatekeepers. He just had to jump higher than anyone else.

Incentives and Competition

The best high jump recorded using the flop is less than 5% higher than the best high jump recorded using the straddle. Yet, that tiny performance gain was enough to convince the entire world to switch from the straddle to the flop. Teddy Rice would argue that competition creates a sense of urgency that causes us to seize on incremental performance gains, no matter how small. I don't disagree with him, but I don't agree that the failure of schools to seize on similar incremental improvements is evidence that schools don't compete. I just think that the basis for competition is a little different.

While Dick Fosbury was developing the flop, the rest of the world was engaged in an arms race to perfect the straddle. The world was shocked by the Fosbury Flop not because the world was complacent, but because it was suffering from a case of tunnel vision. Hundreds of high jumpers were competing to be the best, and it looked like perfecting and mastering the straddle was the way to get there. When Fosbury won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he showed everyone that there might be another way. A few high jumpers tried it and won. A few more tried it and won. New records were set, and soon the number of high jumpers trying the flop was a tidal wave. The transition was fast.

Let's contrast this with what happened when Finland topped the charts on the 2006 PISA. Finland didn't surprise the world because it used a new technique; it surprised the world because no one was expecting Finland to be at the top. Educational researchers and policymakers immediately flocked to Finland to see what they could learn, but the reports coming back were garbled. No one could tell which buttons Finland had pushed or if Finland's results could be duplicated by another country operating under another set of conditions.

I can guarantee you that if another country – such as Brazil – had taken lessons learned from Finland and started climbing up the rankings in 2009 and 2012, the world would have noticed and reacted urgently. But that didn't happen. Instead, Finland has fallen in the rankings and it is looking more and more like its performance in 2006 was more noise than signal.

The same thing happened in the 1990s with the TIMSS. This time the darlings were the Singapore math curriculum and lesson studies from Japan. Although widely adopted, neither technique has achieved much long-term success. The Fosbury Flop didn't become the new normal because Dick Fosbury won with it; it became the new normal because high jumpers across the world began to win with it. So far, there has been a disappointing pattern of that not happening when new techniques are adopted. This pattern of failure and the lack of a strong signal makes schools reluctant to jump on the next new thing.

Even worse, in education, we aren't making incremental progress on the techniques that we do have. In the United States, ideas such learning by doing, focusing on problem solving and critical thinking, cooperative learning, personalized education, community service and educating for social responsibility, and performance assessments were all widely practiced by the progressive education movement in the late nineteenth century. Our best teachers today are not practicing those techniques at a higher level than the best teachers were a hundred years ago. The state of the art has not moved much at all.

Instead of competing to raise the bar, it feels like we are competing to get more teachers to the bar. It makes sense when there are so many underperforming schools and teachers that could be doing so much better if we could just get them to apply the techniques we already have. And competing to be the best is pretty hard when there is so much noise in the system and we don't have a single metric for performance. But I still believe that schools will compete to be the best if something rises above the noise and they become convinced that a new normal is possible. Dick Fosbury did it with a 5% performance gain in high jumping in 1968. It is going to take more than that to do it in education in 2014. I guess it is up to us to figure out what that is and then to make it happen.

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