All posts by 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 (13), Millie (16) and Ruth (19); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.

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.

Testing, Exams, Karate, Newton

When my wife did karate at school, the instructors made a point of promoting gender equality.   With all the authority of a fourth dan, sensei confidently declared in a deep voice there’s no place for sexism in the dojo.  He glared challengingly at the boys, and said girls and boys can both go karate, and some girls are actually quite good at it.

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Sometimes, our deepest assumptions are unknown even to ourselves

This is easy to laugh at, or perhaps easy to get angry about; but at least there is a gesture towards equality here.  And this is a well-known phenomenon – that when there is a social change, those who see the change can speak about it, and even believe in it, but somehow, they cannot quite leave behind the old values. The most extreme example of this that I know about is Isaac Newton; despite being a key driver towards the modern scientific outlook, he still pursued the occult with a passion (there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to it!).  Perhaps he was, therefore, more the last man of the old generation, rather than the first man of the new.  The thing is here that we all have cognitive ‘deep structures’ that we do not even know about.  Under this model cognition is commonly depicted as an iceberg, whereby we are only conscious of behaviours above the waterline, and not of the assumptions, norms and beliefs below it.

We sometimes see the same thing in education.  We know that we do not want for our children what we had; authoritarian, top-down, narrow academic learning.  We want an values-based education that prioritises learning to think over narrower, multiple-choice measures.  We want a system that develops creativity, that can deal with ambiguity and that focuses on deep understanding (these are, after all, the things that are needed after school life).  But then we sometimes ask why we don’t give more ‘rigorous’ testing with clear outcomes, like percentages, so we can compare students with each other.    There is a place for tests, for sure, but less than we sometimes think.  It’s not an accident that our most complex, intellectually demanding course (Theory of Knowledge) has no exams whatsoever  – and really, when you look at the work an average class produces you can see why an exam is simply the wrong way to assess here.  Let’s be a bit more nuanced than that.

I am not against traditional exams per se.  My argument is that we need to align our school practices with our modern understanding of education –  and that means better testing, not more testing.  In fact, it may well mean less.   To want modern, progressive education and then to always reach for tests, regardless of context or purpose is like sensei and his dojo, or Newton and his alchemy.

Brexit: People and Perspectives

Like so many other issues, Brexit was essentially a matter of identity; who do the British people want to be?

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What can we learn form the Brexit fiasco?

The Leave side was seen as taking the higher ground by appealing to the identity of the British as proud and independent.  The Remain side forgot it’s own story, and ended up appearing to quibble about numbers, laws and details. As we know, the narrative about identity prevailed.  It usually does, and the result was a staggering and perhaps historic result.

Writing as a staunchly Remain British citizen, I feel pretty glum about the whole affair.  Not (just!) because I was on the losing side, and not (just!) because of the total lack of respect on both sides for reason and facts; but more because I realize how little effort we have put over recent years into the ‘United’ bit of United Kingdom.   That, of course, is why there was so much surprise from markets, media and politicians who did not look outside the London bubble.  So while it was impossible for me to imagine ourselves as anything but increasingly integrated with our neighbours, that really reflects more about my own identity and perspective than it does about anything else.  Others felt exactly the opposite for similar reasons of identity.   Regardless of whether Article 50 is ever triggered or not, both sides probably still do not really understand each other’s attitudes and feelings.

Understanding is, of course, the business of education, and there are important reminders here for teachers and parents, regardless of nationality (the same issues play out in many, many countries –  most obviously the USA at the moment).  Not just that the content of what we teach our students has to be relevant, but also that to have a lasting and profound effect the learning has to be more than academic learning; it has to resonate with our students’ values and identities.   Having an explicit and consistent focus on school Missions helps; so does talking to students (in an open, not didactic way) about who they want to be and what they see as important in life and how we need to better understand people with different views to work together.  If we get it right, they will be able to engage in important issues in an informed, positive way that seeks to connect constructively with others.  The many commentaries that insult the Leave voters’ intelligence or motivation reflect a failure of imagination in some parts of the Remain camp.  We must avoid this polarisation, and schools have to play their part.

The Joy of Text

I’ve argued in the past that the evolution of languages – including texting –  is an inevitable feature of human societies and we need to adapt and educate, rather than deny or lament (Like, get over it!).

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.34.29 amI had imagined that adaption means being aware of the choices we make when we use different discourses; and choosing the right ones for the right occasions and the right people.  But I have recently come to see that while this is an important aspect of language, some new media present genuinely different opportunities for conversation.  I’m thinking of texting here – and I surprise myself because my skepticism of the value of texting for anything beyond the trivial was only slightly less than my in-principle irritation of Twitter.

I remain a Twitter-skeptic, but this TED talk from Nancy Lublin was, for me, totally compelling.  She points out that the apparent vices of anonymity, distance, and facelessness of texting can be virtues; that they can be precisely the reasons that we can sometimes open up new, profound and vital conversations; conversations that are otherwise too intimate, painful and hard to face.  In particular, she is talking about conversations that are not mediated by embarrassment, tears, or fears when they are conducted by texted rather than in person.  You see, Ms Lublin runs texting helplines across the USA, and has been collecting data about who texts for help when, in what circumstances.  She noteswe spike everyday at lunch time — kids are sitting at the lunch table and you think that she’s texting the cute boy across the hall, but she’s actually texting us about her bulimia. And we don’t get the word “like” or “um” or hyperventilating or crying. We just get facts.

So it seems that people may be more likely to seek help by text than by phone, or in person.  Perhaps it’s the lack of the need to speak; perhaps it’s simply the pared-down nature of texting language; or the tech-mediated character that mobile technology brings. In any case, it’s a crucial difference, and  the reason doesn’t really matter.   We have to meet people where they are, not where we are.

I’ve learnt that perhaps foregrounding face-to-face conversations over other modes of communication isn’t always as good a principle as I had thought, and I’m trying to be a little more flexible.  Now when a student emails (emails are a little different, but I think the same may apply) I’ll try not to react with my usual please come and see me in person until I have made some space for disclosures that might not otherwise emerge.  Similarly for my own kids.

I wonder if our doubt over the roles of new media in conversations will seem quaint in years to come.  In Victorian times, folk wondered if it was disgraceful to chat on the telephone while improperly dressed.  For me, that’s salutary.  I may even re-visit Twitter.

Choking for words, she just asked “Why?”

One of my daughters was reading a powerful novel set in WWII, and had followed the protagonist though appalling circumstances; his compassion, warmth and courage made him an immensely likeable character whom she felt she somehow really knew. His sudden brutal, quick and surprising death came as a shock; and Millie was powerfully moved, almost to tears.

Not the most cheering of sentiments, but important ideas emerge, and we owe them due consideration. I have been reflecting on many of our schools Mission statements about leaving the world a better place, and the extent to which this goal can be addressed when our days are largely taken up with a fairly traditional academic curriculum. If we want to educate for peace then should we rip and throw away the regular academic classes? Should we join those who see traditional academic education as prolonging an outdated system that was really set up for the industrial era?

I think you will see where I am going; that I am somewhat skeptical of the need to start again. Not, of course, that we cannot do better – we can, we must, and we are always striving to do so. But in our unswerving dedication to improvement, I sometimes see a tendency to take for granted the goods that we already have. And having students clearly moved, emotionally connected to far away situations and people – who are very different to them – has to be one of these goods; and a small but powerful step towards educating for peace.

So I am seeing the value in traditional literature, though that runs contrary to some Departments of Education around the world which seem only interested in more obvious and quantifiable returns on investment. Not that there is not a place for the quantifiable – I also believe that maths and science can help us understand possibilities and probabilities in the widest arena of human affairs; and that history, psychology, politics and so on should help an engaged citizenry weigh up the costs and benefits of war. But short of experiencing war itself, perhaps the arts of literature and drama are the closest we can ever get to understanding what those costs truly are. I can attest to the profound effect it had on my daughter.

That seems to be a defence of an intelligently designed, passionately delivered, broad and balanced traditional academic curriculum, with a central place for the Arts. Academics are not everything, for sure, but properly done, they contribute as much to the holistic and emotional growth of students as anything else.