The difference between teaching and learning

I once read that taxi-drivers in centrally-planned communist Russia were incentivised by rewarding them per mile driven. It stands to reason – after all, the further a taxi has driven, the better it must be serving the passengers, correct? Not correct. The taxi-drivers jacked up their cars, put a brick on the accelerator, and went for a smoke. It is hard to think of a worse outcome for the passengers, the taxpayers, the environment and even the taxi-drivers who ended up going through more cigarettes due to more time and money. This simple incentive seems to have ended up benefiting no-one other than the petrol and tobacco companies.

This admittedly extreme example shows that people respond to incentives by changing their behaviour, but not always in ways that are predictable or desirable. Of course that’s not to say that the taxi drivers were stupid; we all respond to the incentives we have in ways that makes sense to us – but when people have different agendas, what is considered a reasonable response may differ from one person to the next. And that’s probably familiar to anyone who has ever been appraised at work. If you know that your boss is looking for a certain result (miles for the taxi drivers) then you may feel compelled to do whatever it takes to get that result – even if that’s not really the best thing to do. The problem is when there is a misalignment between your overall purpose and what you are being held accountable for, and incentivised to do. That’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals; in the UK, when the Government started publishing exam results in a particular way, some schools sent students home if they thought they would score poorly. When surgeons were assessed according to the death rates of patients under their care, they started accepting only patients with easy to treat conditions. Others found it very hard to get treatment at all.  These two examples are aligned with the incentives, but radically opposed to the nobler purposes of education and medicine.

While this is clearly problematic,  there are two things which actually make a lot of sense. First; it is a good thing that we are trying to measure the things that are important. Would we really want to undergo an operation if we thought no-one was counting how many people died during similar procedures? Would we really want to send our children to schools whose academic results are secret? Second; it is a good thing that people respond to the incentives they have. If this were not true, how could we even try to change behaviour and improve anything? The problem is not measurement, not changing behaviour. The problem is misalignment, as I have described is above.

So let’s turn to education and the incentives for teachers. Firstly, we should tread with care – we teachers love what we are doing, and we came into teaching to share our passion for our subject with students; unlike some taxi drivers, we won’t be off for a quick smoke. So that’s a great start – we teachers are intrinsically motivated to teach. But still, we are only human and cannot help but respond to the structures and systems the school puts in place (nor should we). Lesson observations are one such traditional school structure. In this system the routine, familiar across the world, is that a senior teacher visits a classroom, watches the teacher, does his or her best not to interrupt the lesson by distracting or otherwise interacting with students, perhaps looks at few books, makes some judgements and then meets with the teacher afterwards to tell them how it went.

That may sound sensible, but in fact it is misguided and has some undesirable consequences (here and here for two UK examples). Like measuring the taxi driver’s performance by how many miles he or she has driven, it is not measuring the right thing; it misaligns purpose and measurement. Why? Because, teaching is not the same as learning. The desired outcome of a lesson is better student knowledge, skills or understanding; that is, learning; some change in the student’s mind. Teaching is how we support learning, but it isn’t the same thing. Watching the teacher is at best a proxy for learning, and may in fact be unrelated. So an observer may see what he or she thinks is a wonderful explanation, a terrific activity, and the best use of technology he or she has ever seen; but if the students didn’t learn anything, then really, it was a bad lesson.

And what is tragic here is that by having observations systems like this, teachers are incentivised to focus on what they are doing, and how they are performing; when the focus should always be on what the students are learning; where the students currently are in their understanding, and how to best move students on to the next stage. With more than a handful in the class, that’s extremely difficult to do, and needs laser-like discipline to achieve. And that’s what we need to set up systems to encourage.

So across the Campus we have been working to use a system of lesson observation that does exactly that; it’s a very simple idea called Looking for Learning and it replaces the system I describe with one where teachers visit each other’s lessons and do not watch the teacher. In fact they do their best to ignore the teacher, and simply spend a few minutes talking to a few students, and asking them questions like what are you learning? Do you understand the lessons? What helps you learn? What gets in the way of learning? The observer notes down the responses, and these form the basis of a conversation between observer and teacher afterwards. The teacher thinks about what he or she thinks the students would say, and then considers what they actually said; the degree of convergence or divergence then informs a conversation desniged to deepen thinking about how best to help students learn in future.

So the lovely thing about this system is that it tries to measure exactly what is important (learning) and totally aligns with the purpose of the schools (learning). It is a tool about learning, not about teachers, and so provides teachers with good reasons to focus on that. It is completely in line with good classroom practice, and what we, as teachers, should always be doing for our students.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
This entry was posted in Nicholas Alchin. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The difference between teaching and learning

  1. James MacDonald says:

    Great article Nick – really like how you have described the distinction between T & L and the importance of putting this into practice. Favourite part (after, of course, the brick on the gas pedal): “The teacher thinks about what he or she thinks the students would say, and then considers what they actually said; the degree of convergence or divergence then informs a conversation desniged to deepen thinking about how best to help students learn in future.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *