Countdown to the DML Competition Winners' Showcase: Day 26 Are you relevant?

In an article about improving teacher performance, Tom Kane, Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard, was quoted as saying, "We are trying to get people to quit smoking by taking them into their closet to smell their own clothes."

Kane suggests that teachers need to see themselves on video and receive feedback (smelling their own clothes) in order to improve their impact on student achievement. (Not a great metaphor, that. See "nicotine addiction.")

As head of the Measure of Effective Teaching project, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative, Kane wants to provide better professional development by evaluating the relationship between teacher performance and student achievement. In general, K-12 public school teachers are evaluated by classroom visits from their principals, to which Kane responds, "It's common to have 98 or 99 percent of teachers in a district receive the same satisfactory rating from such visits, so it's clearly a perfunctory exercise."

Meaning that it means nothing, I gather. To better understand teacher performance and impact on student achievement, Kane and his colleagues assessed students' conceptual comprehension of class material and student performance on state tests. At the heart of the study are video recordings of teachers in action. (Findings of the video study to be released this spring).

The article does not reveal what characteristics are being evaluated for teacher performance, but I would hope they include relevance. Referring in a recent blog post to relevance and educational success, Cathy Davidson wrote, "In all studies of educational success, K-20, one of the single most important motivators is 'relevance.' Relevance is defined as that feature of education which speaks to the student in urgent, personal, meaningful ways."

Relevance means many things to today's learner, and is to a great extent what makes digital media and learning innovations so compelling. But teachers have to be relevant, too, an arguably more meaningful and relationship-based characteristic that should be the foundation for evaluating teacher performance.

Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL), a 2010 DML Competition winner, has recently put this idea of relevance to the test. In the British Journal of Education Technology, researcher and HiWEL founder Sugata Mitra asked, What and how much can children learn without subject teachers?

In the journal abstract, Sugata Mitra and Ritu Dangwal summarized their study: "In an attempt to find a limit to self organized learning, we explored the capacity of 1014 year old Tamil-speaking children in a remote Indian village to learn basic molecular biology, initially on their own with a Hole-in-the-Wall public computer facility, and later with the help of a mediator without knowledge of this subject. We then compared these learning outcomes with those of similarly-aged children at a nearby average-below average performing state government school who were not fluent in English but were taught this subject and another group of children at a high-performing private school in New Delhi who were fluent in English and had been taught this subject by qualified teachers."

Mitra and Danwal found compelling results in the learning outcomes, "The village children who only had access to computers and Internet-based resources in the Hole-in-the-Wall learning stations achieved test scores comparable with those at the local state school and, with the support of the mediator, equal to their peers in the privileged private urban school."

What does a study like Mitra's say about teacher performance? Mediator, mentor, coach, Granny Cloud, teacher, whatever you want to call them, they are relevant to learning. But how? Maybe Kane's study and others like it will tease out some answers, but we should be putting digital media in the equation, and looking at ways both the teachers and the technology are relevant to students, and how it impacts their learning.

Sure, it is easy to use state achievement tests to triangulate teacher performance, as done in Kane's study, but we should think -- and can think -- bigger than that. Without looking at the role of relevance, both in digital media and learning and in teachers, we will set the bar for what's possible too low.

 


Countdown to the 2010 DML Competition Showcase features Where Are They Now? updates on the 2008, 2009, and 2010 winners. The 2010 DML Competition winners will showcase their projects at the Designing Learning Futures DML Conference on March 4, 2011 in Long Beach, California.

 

Visit our DML Countdown page to view more updates from featured projects.