How do we increase challenge for the classes that we teach? That was the starting point for yesterday’s first session with a diverse and talented group of colleagues at my school.
I put the session together using ideas from the the excellent Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby. We began by looking at a short video clip: The Pygmalion Effect and the Power of Positive Expectations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTghEXKNj7g. Most people, I think, have heard of the Pygmalion effect – students will do better if you have high expectations of them.. There’s a “oh yes, we know that” reaction, and then it’s immediately dropped in the face of data stating expected progress, generally following a wry laugh. The intention to expect wonderful progress from them all withers in the blast of daily classroom reality. “Expectation” seems a weak and powerless word.
It reminds me of how we respond to the placebo effect. Everyone acknowledges that it exists, but hardly anyone takes their thinking to the next logical step, which is to say this: if our bodies can heal themselves when they “think” they’ve been given an effective drug and it’s only a sugar pill, then how can we train our minds to heal our own bodies? Because it must be possible, otherwise the placebo effect would simply not exist. With the Pygmalion effect, when teachers are told that certain students have high ability ( the Harvard study quoted in the video called them “late bloomers”) those students do indeed make better progress. What really interests me is the next step – the analysis of what exact ingredients create that change. Like the placebo effect, it’s how to make the effect happen that’s the fascinating part. The four factors that emerged from Rosenthal’s study were:
– response opportunity
In our session we had some really interesting discussion about how to improve these for the classes we are focusing on. One thing to emerge, which really rang true for me, is the embarrassment factor. When working with low ability students, lots of us don’t want to embarrass them with questions that will make their low ability really obvious – and so we avoid challenging them with questions. Another interesting observation was how students become habituated to teachers’ questioning strategies. Lower ability students get used to being asked the easier, low challenge questions – from the lower end of Blooms’s taxonomy – and switch off as the focus of the questioning moves higher up the taxonomy and is targeted at the more able students. It’s an established pattern which shuts them off from being challenged. We don’t fine tune to the question that they will be able to struggle to get. The “struggle zone” is not a comfortable country, and so we play safe.
Which brings me to Grosz. For the last month or so I have been loving Brainpickings – an accessible, delightful, stimulating blog that just lights me up every time I read it. Yesterday, after our session, it caught my attention with a piece about Stephen Grosz. The message is spot on – the key is “presence”. When we teach really well – when we enable progress through high challenge and low stress, we do so by being “present” – very precisely attuned to the individual needs of our students and paying them serious attention. The Pygmalion study found teachers giving their “more able” students longer to answer, helping them frame their ideas better – in other words, paying them more attention.
Shaun and Andy’s example of the imaginary but ubiquitous”Evie” in their book really resonated with our group. She’s conscientious and hard working, from a disadvantaged and unsupportive background. She’s always been placed in the bottom sets – and no one expects anything much from her. Collectively, we took all our Evies to our hearts and began working on how we can pay them the attention – be “present” – in a way that’s going to break them out of the cycle of low expectation and low achievement. Questioning, feedback, seating and classroom climate all featured strongly in our discussion. Evie is set for a big step forward.