Bill Gates on Teacher Feedback

Feedback For Bill

Bill Gates’ most recent Ted Talk already has over a million views and has made its rounds through the interwebs in a variety of ways. The theme of this Gates talk is on teacher feedback and the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) which his Gates Foundation has developed. He identifies the key elements of MET:

  • Video recordings of lessons
  • Identification of effective teaching practices like deep questioning and providing multiple ways of explaining or demonstrating an idea
  • Student surveys of their teachers

I am currently in the middle of the clinical portion of the Teach-Now teacher certification program. This is a unique, all online certification program and as a result it requires us to record our lessons during our student-teaching clinical practicum. I am pleased to say that the teacher preparation program has asked me to do all three of the key elements of MET system. I have developed and implemented two student feedback and goal-setting surveys. I record one lesson per week to be evaluated by myself, my Korean co-teacher and my Teach-Now instructor. We use the District of Columbia’s IMPACT Teaching and Learning Framework to identify and develop my effective teaching practices, or those that are lacking at this point.

Without getting too much into what has become Gates’ controversial role in education, I would like to point out a few flaws and misconceptions he presents in his talk. Like many big-picture ed policy players, he is quite focused on the failings of the US education system when compared to those of other developed or developing nations. He displays a graphic that shows that 11 out of 14 countries who are ahead of the US in terms of student reading proficiency have a formal teacher feedback system in place already. Interestingly, Finland, which is often held up as the exemplar education system for how they prepare teachers, the quality of education for all students, and the test results they have as a nation, does not have a formal teacher feedback system.

At minute 3:05, Gates uses the much bandied buzzword in education over the past 15 years, ‘failing’, as in the US education system is failing, among many other things, to give teachers adequate feedback to grow as effective educators. He implicitly makes the specious correlation between anemic or absent formal teacher feedback systems and our student achievement rates in reading, math and science. More questionably, he is also implying that Shanghai’s and South Korea’s student achievement scores on international standardized tests like the PISA is due in large part to the development of effective teachers through robust teacher feedback systems.

I say that these are specious implications because I am unaware of any research which makes the correlation between a good teacher feedback system and student achievement results. Nor am I aware of any research that indicates that a certain teacher feedback system has developed better teachers who get better results in their students. Maybe I am ignorant to this body of research. Please let me know!

However, he is also positing an utterly simplistic notion that teacher feedback systems are at the root of student achievement in Shanghai, South Korea and elsewhere. I work as an English teacher in Yeosu, South Korea. From my experience of the South Korean education system’s professional development this seems like a specious argument in many ways. One South Korean commenter on the Ted Talk site put forward another reason for student achievement in his country, one of many contributing factors:

Gates cites Shanghai’s teacher feedback system as exemplary and says it includes:

  • Younger teachers have the opportunity to watch master teachers at work
  • Weekly study groups where teachers talk about best practices
  • Peer observation and feedback among teachers within a school

Well, this interesting because the last US school I worked in had a professional development system which included weekly Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s), learning walks where teachers did peer observations based on the Danielson Framework, and we had Board Certified teachers mentoring University of Washington student-teachers in their classrooms. It had room for improvement as a formal ‘system’, but it had the components and I believe many other schools and school districts already have this in place.

Gates makes the claim that, “If today’s average teachers could become as good as those (highly effective) teachers, then our students would be blowing away the rest of the world.” I am not obsessed with the achievement results of American students compared with their international counterparts. I know that I don’t want American children to have the same childhood and student pressures that a South Korean student has, even if that means we are below them in the math and reading PISA rankings. I am concerned with my students’ growth as learners and people from the day they first enter my classroom. That is a personal evaluation which is much more valuable and relevant to both the teacher and student, but less so for policymakers.

Despite some of these critiques, I think that teacher feedback as a part of professional growth is an inherent good for the education field. Every teacher should want to develop and grow their practice and I think student surveys, observation of master teachers and recording one’s own lessons are certainly integral parts of that feedback formula. If Bill Gates is desirous to put his considerable clout and force behind an effort to improve and professionalize teacher feedback, kudos to him, I’m confident some good will come of that effort. In fact, you can read about 6 tools for teacher feedback on the Gates Notes blog, where he surveys how ed tech apps and services like Edmodo and ThinkCERCA are helping teachers better evaluate themselves and their students along with developing better lesson plans. There are some very interesting sounding tools there that I will have to do further research on later.

The absolute best part of the entire Ted Talk does not include Gates, but instead a teacher, and not just any teacher. Sarah Brown Wessling is a superstar teacher featured regularly on the Teaching Channel site. Her comment about capturing video of her classes is the key takeaway from the entire Ted Talk, “I think it is a way to exemplify and illustrate things that we cannot convey in a lesson plan, things you cannot convey in a standard…or book of pedagogy.” And I furthermore agree with Gates’ conclusion following the Wessling interlude, that, “You should be able to watch a video of the best teacher in the world teaching fractions.” The Teaching Channel is good start to such a resource, but I am sure there is more and better to come.

 

 

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Booyeong Elementary ESL Open Class

Where: Booyeong Elementary, Yeosu, Jeonnam, SK

When: 2:20pm on Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Who: Melody Peters & Jeong Hang-i

What: 4th Grade ESL, Present Progressive

Purpose:

Last week I participated in my first formal professional development workshop as a Native English Teacher in Korea. From my understanding principle way, and possibly the only way, that administrators and teachers ever observe a teacher’s class is during a formal ‘open class’. There are two types of open classes in my school district, the first comes during the first semester of the school and is primarily an opportunity for parents to come and see their child’s teachers in action. Although, a principal or vice principal may also pop in to observe then as well. The second type of open class comes in the second semester of the school year and it is a formal observation and evaluation by your administrators and colleagues.

Melody Peters, a native of South Africa and a Native English Teacher with six years of experience teaching in multiple school districts at the elementary level, suggested a third type of open class when approached by district officials. She suggested a demonstration class for fellow Native English Teachers and their Korean co-teachers to come observe, discuss and identify strategies and best practices that they could use in their own classroom. Based on her previous experience with professional development in Korea, Peters was eager to create a more positive observation and evaluation experience for herself and other teachers. It was her hope that with an appreciative inquiry method of observing and analyzing the lesson all the teachers in attendance would experience more growth in their teaching practice. I am going to do my best to honor Peters’ vision in my analysis of her lesson here.

Procedure:

My Korean co-teacher, Hana, and I arrived at Booyeong Elementary and found a stack of lesson plans for us to refer to while we watched the lesson. The students filed in, already knowing why there were twenty or so teachers sitting in the back of the room, Melody and her co-teacher, Jeong Hang-i, taught their lesson. I recorded the lesson on my iPad as requested by Peters and took notes in the margins of the lesson plan. The students filed out at the end of the forty minute lesson and all the teachers went downstairs to debrief.

In the lesson debrief we are asked to comment on the following three positive statements; I saw a good method of co-teaching, I learned a new idea, I will put this idea into a lesson plan. These were the terms of our discussion, along with any questions or clarifications anyone had about the lesson planning.

Following the debrief discussion, we were asked to fill out and submit an evaluation of the lesson. The evaluation form was broken into three sections; 1) Planning, 2) Management, 3) Instruction. I was glad to see that “Identifies and plans for individual differences” was in the planning section. Usually there are few management issues in open classes in Korea because the students know that it is important to behave well and participate in these important, twice-a-year classes. Also, most non-homeroom teachers strategically select the class that they will use as their open class, based on the usual behavior of the students. participation and possibly, level of English. Last, “Adjusts lesson when appropriate” was in the Instruction section of the evaluation. Responding to the students needs in real time is a challenge for any teacher and I’m not sure I’ve seen a good example of that here in Korea. Peters and Jeong were given the results of the evaluations and noted the interesting remarks for further reflection.

Lesson Video Annotation:

Minute 1:15: The verbal cue to start English is when the teacher says, “Let’s study English” and the children respond, “We are ready!”, I love this! I use a drum in my after school third grade group to get their attention and signal the start of class, but this is better because it is a procedure which uses the content, i.e. the English language.

Minute 2:56 – You can see the regular use of Total Physical Response and physical cues for the target language right from the start.

Minute 3:30 – The review of past lessons begins and all the physical cues for the key expressions can be observed. You can see how the physical cues used by the students scaffolds the learning, providing an access point for future use of past learning. This is a definite strength of Peters’ ESL classes, chants and physical cues.

Minute 6:20 – Teacher Hang-i leads the class in the Korean recitation of the lesson objective. This is a Korean teaching emphasis in our district currently, emphasizing the big picture of what and why we are learning today.

Minute 7:30 – The unit’s present progressive song begins. Peters and Jeong design all their unit plans around an English song that provides musical practice of the target language of the unit.

Minute 9:25 – Peters has asked the students to tell the class what verbs they heard in the song. The procedure for student responses is to raise their hand and say “I can do it!” just once and then wait to be called on. Another procedure which contains English content. Great stuff!

Minute 12:37 – Peters and Jeong provide the students with a basic first person sentence formula, “I am verb-ing”. They then add a clap and chant routine to provide kinesthetic and musical practice for multiple intelligences. They model this as co-teachers, they provide guided practice for the whole class, then guided partner practice, and finally, independent partner practice. This gradual release is so practiced and so smooth. Watching this makes me realize that I often forget the middle steps of guided practice. I model many activities for my students, but I often skip a step and jump to independent practice. This is a good reflection point for me.

One of the only areas of improvement that I identified for this lesson was at this point. I would have like to see the students practice in pairs in front of the class while also manipulating the “I am verb-ing” visual cue cards on the board. Physically making connections, matching and categorization are high-impact learning strategies that could have been utilized well to consolidate this section of the lesson following the independent speaking practice in pairs. Also, a preview of the addition of prepositional phrase to the end of the present progressive verb formula would have helped students to better understand the listening comprehension activity that comes later in the lesson and becomes the target language later in the unit. For example, “I am fishing in Yeosu.” Although, I imagine Peters and Jeong thought of this and decided against it because this is an introductory lesson for this unit.

Minute 19:30 – Peters and Jeong use the curriculum for some listening comprehension practice. But it is a minimal amount compared to most English classes in Korea, or most subject classes, for that matter, in my experience.  Peters said in the debrief, “If we can do it better than the textbook, then we do it better.” Believe it or not, this is a controversial statement to make in Korea, but one that sparks a very healthy and needed conversation about the use of instructional materials.

Minute 21:11 – Peters and Jeong use the ‘X’, meaning yes or correct, and ‘O’, meaning no or incorrect, paddles to check for understanding of the listening exercise. In a class of 30 or more students, with only 40 minutes to teach, this a very efficient way to gage student learning. You can get a very clear pulse of the general level of understanding and learning from the whole class. However, it can mask individual student learning challenges, it can be tough to tell when and how a student is struggling with a specific piece of the content.
Peters and Jeong respond the pulse of the class based on the ‘X’, ‘O’ responses they get. The particular listening comprehension question at this point in the lesson is touching on the previously learned prepositions of place, ‘in’, ‘on’, and ‘under’. There are a mix of ‘X’ and ‘O’ answers from the students, which makes it clear to the teachers that the students require a bit of review and reinforcement on the prepositions. Peters immediately invokes the physical cue and chant for the prepositions of place from the previous learning and makes the connection with the current comprehension question.

Minute 22:47 – Peters and Jeong take turns using visual cues (images) of present progressive verbs and asking the students the key target language question, “What are you doing?” This is a fantastic display of co-teaching, as they are in rhythm and taking turns. They look very well practiced at complementing and spelling each other throughout the class.

Minute 25:10 – Here they are again modeling the Heads Up 7Up game which is going to ask the students to both produce comprehend the target language. The students are already familiar with this game and its procedures, but they make sure to scaffold it once again for those learners who may need it.

Minute 25:52 – Is such a good randomizer, the students love the visual and audio action. This is an appropriate way to randomly check for understanding with different students leading into a game. While pull sticks, self-assessment stop lights and exit tickets might be more appropriate for many activities in a traditional homeroom in the US, this kind of graphics-based randomizer can get students really excited about an activity and their participation in it, even if they are unsure of the knowledge or skill level.

Minute 33:47 – They end the Heads Up 7Up game after about eight minutes or so. The students were engaged and focused on the game the whole time. A variety of students were required to produce the target language during the game. There were not management issues and the required language of the game matched the lesson objectives. They only played four rounds of the game, it was appropriately paced and provided good practice.

Minute 33:50 – Peters starts the review by previewing the upcoming lessons in the present progressive unit asking “What are we doing?” and having students guess at a slowly revealed picture on the board. The pictures present the students with interesting images of their teachers doing relevant activities. Good preview. And again you see many hands in the air and hear many students saying just once, “I can do it!”

The pacing and planning of this lesson was excellent. They had a good amount of time to review the “I am verb-ing” formula sentence at the end and preview the next lesson, consolidating the learning for the students. Nothing felt rushed and they did at a couple points, deviate from the lesson plan, respond to the students learning needs and reinforce previous learning.

Minute 37:10 – Of course this co-teaching pair have a verbal and physical cue for the end of class, as well. The teacher motions and says “It’s time to….” and the students yell “It’s time to go home!” Great content embedded procedure to finish up.

Debrief Discussion:

  • Peters and Jeong divide and conquer the lesson planning, Jeong takes the textbook activities because she is most familiar with those instructional materials. Peters usually plans the reading activities because that is an instructional strength for her. Together they decide the unit’s key expression chant and physical cue, along with the unit song. Peters explained the importance of the song this way, “The lessons and unit are built around a song because the textbook curriculum changes often.” This is very true in Korea, more so than in America from my experience. My English textbook is changing next year, which will be my third set of textbooks in three school years here in Korea. Peters and Jeong have struck on a very flexible and sustainable planning model, where the procedures, the verbal and physical cues, the musical practice and other structures of a unit or lesson can be easily transferred or incorporated into a new curriculum and textbook.
  • Jeong Hang-i encouraged her Korean counterparts to rely on the Native English Teachers to teach the natural language of English, not the textbook. She said, “I want to teach the natural thing they say in America.”
  • Speaking about how they incorporate review into every lesson, Peters compared the units to a big spiralling circle and said, “We come back and make the circle bigger. We leave no lesson behind.” This paralleled the philosophy of a few reading and math curriculums I have worked with back in the U.S.
  • The debrief was primarily done in English by both the foreign Native English Teachers, of course, but also by the Korean co-teachers, which is a rarity for professional development in Korea, even for English open classes. However, for those who felt more comfortable Korean was certainly allowed and I noticed that Jeong translated every word of the discussion for Peters. Their relationship as co-teachers appears to be very strong, very collaborative and very effective.