Monday, March 31, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 2: Test scores?)

This is part two of my series examining various criteria people (e.g. the public, teachers, administrators, government officials) seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

As I said previously, there's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. And saying "I know a good teacher when I see one," is woefully inadequate, at least with regards to official designation.

Today's topic is a contentious one: test scores.

Are good teachers those whose students get the highest test scores?

Almost any teacher would say absolutely not!

It seems government leaders think so.

The general public seems to lack consensus, as well they should, being caught between propaganda machines.

Let's ask some questions:
  • How high would those test scores need to be for a teacher to be good? Would the evaluation be based on what the scores were before that teacher began teaching those students? Would it take into consideration yearly variation of students? Would evaluation take into consideration regression to the mean? (I.e. Excellent years are most likely followed by less performance, and terrible years are most likely followed by better performance.)
  • Given that poverty is one of the best predictors of academic success (see references below), would the test score litmus test control for poverty?
  • Should a good teacher be able to teach well regardless of the school and regardless of the students? That is, should a teacher in a poverty-stricken urban school be able to teach equally well in a wealthy suburban school? Should teachers be required to teach in both so as to "prove" they're good teachers?
  • If a teacher is consistently able to get students to attain the highest test scores in a school or state, but that same teacher destroys the students' desire to ever study the subject again in the future, is that a true success? Is that a good teacher?
  • Are the best teachers those who teach students to pass the tests or to understand the content? (I hope there's no debate over that question.) Could both be done?
  • Who should make the tests? Educators? Administrator? Education policy makers? Academic organizations? Universities and colleges? Government leaders? Here's an idea: What about having business and industry create exams to test for life and job preparedness?
  • Who is to say the exams are written well? Should teacher or students be punished for poorly written or designed tests?

I am not a proponent of increased testing. That's an understatement. I don't really like testing at all, as a student or a teacher. Only two tests ever really motivated me. One was the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Chinese test. But, even that was born out of a love for learning Chinese. The other was an oral exam in a contemporary Chinese society during university. The novelty of an oral exam was simply intriguing.

More often than not, however, I felt as if exams got in the way of actually learning new material and new skills. I just wanted to learn. As a teacher, I just want to teach.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 3: Student evaluation?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

References (from Krashen)
Ananat, E., Gassman-Pines, A., Francis, D., and Gibson-Davis, C. 2011. Children left behind: The effects of statewide job less on student achievement. NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) Working Paper No. 17104, JEL No. 12,16.

Baker, K. 2007. Are international tests worth anything? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104.

Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential:  Out-of-School Factors and School Success.  Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.

Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership  55(4): 18-22.

Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 1: Inspiration?)

What is a good teacher? With all the debate over how teachers should be evaluated and compensated, perhaps it's important to remember that there's no universal standard by which to define a good, or even great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures, rubrics, or checklists.

It's not enough to say "I know a good teacher when I see one." Recall the proverb: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Over the next few posts, I'll discuss a aspects that could potentially be of use. Today's topic: inspiration.

Are good teachers those who inspire?

I commonly hear people remark that good teachers inspire their students. Is this a good measure?

How many kids would a teacher have to inspire to be considered a good teacher? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 10? At least 5% per year? A full 100% of the students?

Should the results of that inspiration be taken into account? Do we assign greater significance to those teachers who inspired people like Bill Gates over those who inspired some woman working full time at a supermarket and a second job at a hotel to support her family? What if the inspired student eventually became a homeless drug addict? In any of these cases, inspiration happened, but the end result differed.

Do we assign greater significance to teachers if they inspire those from less ideal social backgrounds? Is it more important to inspire students of certain economic backgrounds? Do we assign greater weight to those who inspire students of disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups? Should we assign greater weight to teachers who are able to inspire students of a racial or ethnic background different from his or her own?

What if a teacher inspired only one student his or her entire career? Would that be considered a god or great teacher?

What if that one student was Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Helen Keller?

What if that one student was you?

Other posts in the series:
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 3: Student evaluation?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 24, 2014

Teachers need high-quality feedback

During university I changed my major to education after becoming enamored with the process of learning and acquisition I saw in children. I've been a teacher ever since. All told, including teacher training, I've probably spent over 9000 hours in the classroom, and hundreds of others in one-on-one tutoring and the like.

I don't consider myself an expert teacher. I'm always learning more about my craft (an impetus for taking this course as well). Neither, however, do I consider myself a novice teacher.

I can't speak for people of all countries, but here in the US it seems like open season on teachers. It seems increasingly common to blame teachers for the problems in US education. It seems increasingly common for people to say teachers are just people who can't do other things well, so they teach. It seems many people think they could teach just as well as any teacher in today's schools.

Some of this criticism is surely justified. There surely are many poor teachers.

Yet as Kahneman describes, people with lots of experience teaching are really the only ones who really could have adequate expertise. Teachers who've spent 20,000 hours in the classroom, for example, would in theory be much better judges of what makes for good education. Better than students, parents, legislators, etc.

Perhaps the weakness, however, is that teachers do not often get rapid, high-quality feedback. They may know a lesson "worked" or not, but may not have time to inquire of students why it worked or didn't work. If teachers are too busy, they may not have time to reflect on those lessons that went well or went poorly. Teachers rarely have other teachers observe their classes to provide feedback: perhaps once or twice a semester, and that's being generous. Standardized tests give the illusion of teacher feedback, but that's really an availability heuristic, not a true measure of teaching effectiveness.

I wonder if more feedback (welcome or not) would be effective for bettering teaching quality. I wonder if it would be valuable for teachers to be observed by colleagues on a daily basis. What other ways could teachers get rapid, high-quality feedback so as to increase expertise?
Any thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Could we stealthily help students be happier?

Do you ever wonder how we think? I do.

I've been completing the lessons from Think101x: The of Everyday Thinking from edX. I've also been reading through the suggested textbooks: How we know what isn't so by Thomas Gilovich and Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman. I've just finished the coursework and readings for week 3. There is so much to process; it's really quite astounding in every regard.

However, three recommended additional video posts (TED talks) have got me thinking about the concept of happiness and how schools do or do not or could help students' happiness. Perhaps it sticks in my minds because my 7-year-old nephew remarked Sunday that he hated school.

Below are the Think101x recommended extra video posts:

TED Talk by Dan Gilbert on The surprising science of happiness: "66% of the students choose to be in the course in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied... because they do no know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows."

TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman on The riddle of experience: "We really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being; it is a completely different notion."

TED Talk by Dan Ariely who asks, "Are we in control of our own decisions?": "The option that was useless in the middle was useless in the sense that nobody wanted it, but it wasn't useless in the sense that it helped people figure out what they wanted."

I'm not sure whether it's the educator in me or sheer curiosity, but theses are some of the questions that began to come to mind as I watched these videos and as they connected with the ideas already in my mind from the readings and Think101x course content:
  1. How can students understand that getting what one wants is not a determinant of happiness?
  2. Does giving students more options and more choices actually decrease their happiness?
  3. Would students make better food choices and be happier with them if their options were reduced?
  4. Should we not allow people to change their minds? Should we make more decisions irreversible?
  5. Could lessons be rewritten or redesigned or reorganized in such a way that students remember the lesson in a more positive light and are, thus, happier with their lessons?
  6. Do we tell students to do what makes them happy or teach them to do the things that will statistically lead to greater happiness, regardless of what they believe about the future?
  7. What implications does Ariely's discussion of organ donation have on the way we design exam questions, seek volunteers, etc.?
  8. Are students and teachers (regardless of what they say they think) more comfortable when decisions are made for them?
  9. How often do policy makers and curriculum designers choose more extreme positions simply due to having too many choices?
Feel free to chime with any of your thoughts. And check out Think101x!

Friday, March 14, 2014

US complaints of Chinese students: Discrimination? Legitimate? Both?

This will be my last entry on research by Mollie Dollinger summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

I continue to think through two questions I first posed last week: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?
Students also cited barriers between themselves and American students when they were asked to work in groups for class. They frequently reported that the first few times participating in the group was a stressful experience for them, as their American classmates often criticized their English, so some students thought that American classmates did not believe they added value to group projects, which ultimately made it difficult for them to participate actively. One student explained that it wasn’t only his classmates who treated him differently but also his professors. He said, “I see the professors joking with the American students all the time. But they never joke with me before or after class. They ask me where I am from, and when I say China they say okay, and that’s the end of the conversation.”

There are some disappointing aspects going on here.

Observation: If true...

If it is true that Chinese are being selectively ignored or marginalized by professors, that's a fairly damning critique.

If American students are unfairly criticizing Chinese students' English and are simply unwilling to work with them, that too is a sad state of affairs.

Questions: What else could be going on here?

Could there be other ways to look at this?

Though I have known many Chinese with excellent English, I have also know many Chinese who just want to "go abroad" and don't want to "waste time" improving their English, so long as they can pass the IELTS or TOEFL and be accepted by a university. Could some students' (and perhaps their families') impatience result in having English abilities that contribute to these criticisms?

Did the American students really think the Chinese students didn't add value or was is merely the Chinese students' perception?

Given the nature of collectivist society, and the fact that it's more important to look after each member of the group than it is to make sure each person contributes well or equally, could the Chinese students have been ill-prepared for the demands of individualist society group work?

 “I see the professors joking with the American students all the time." Really? All the time? I also wonder who initiates these joking conversations? Do the American students initiate or do the professors? Also, given that humor often doesn't translate well across languages and cultures, is it possible that neither the professors nor the students know how to joke with each other? Rather than disliking the Chinese students, could professors be avoiding such interaction out of the embarrassment or the discomfort of not knowing how to interact with them?

Final Comments

Some of the aspects noted here remind me of why I advise most Chinese students to enroll on preparatory programs before studying in the US or UK. I don't mean language preparation only, but rather programs than include courses in mathematics, economics, sciences, etc. I believe that except for a few students who have excellent English and fairly advanced social skills, the benefits of such programs far outweigh the benefits of getting abroad quickly.

Programs such as USPP and IFY (both Kaplan China programs for which I've worked) and others engage students in fairly rigorous academic work while also helping students learn the study habits and interactional requirements of US and/or UK educational culture. And it's all done in English. I'm a strong advocate of such programs. It's also why I suggest that US universities foster more relationships with these types of programs, rather than focusing on agents alone.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 10, 2014

False friends

This week I continue to think through two questions I first posed last week: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?

Again I'll  discuss observations and ask questions based on research by Mollie Dollinger summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

On the other hand, self-segregation is common. One Chinese student reported that after making friends with Americans freshman year she had decided to pursue friendships only with Chinese classmates.  She said, “I was close with my roommate freshman year, she was from America, but after freshman year ended she never called me anymore.  She was actually quite fake.  My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

Oh my! There is so much here!

Observation: over-applying experiences

Of course, if a person decides to pursue friendship with only classmates from ones own background (in this case ethnic and cultural) it will be difficult to build friendships with people from other groups.

It's an unfortunate characteristic that human nature/the brain is such that individual, anecdotal situations get applied to a broad spectrum of situations. The Chinese girl here mentioned only the situation of the roommate. Perhaps there were other situations as well, but these were not mentioned. It is a mistake to to base opinions of all American on an experience with one roommate.

Observation: rose-tinted glasses

"My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

This is hyperbole on a grand scale. There are "fake" people in every society, and by nature we are more inclined to identify the "fakeness" of people from other cultures. This is because (a) they are foreign, which is always suspect to the brain; (b) we tend to hold biases against other groups, whether we realize this or not; and (c) we often simply do not understand people from other cultures very well.

Perhaps, although the Chinese girl thought she and her roommate were close, and American roommate may have known that the relationship was not close. Cultural cues may have been missed by the Chinese student.

On a personal note, I would venture to say that I've met more "fake" Chinese friends than I have "fake" American friends. This is not because Chinese are more "fake", but rather because I've spent most of my adult life in China. Thus, by pure virtue of time, number, and proximity, I have met more false friends.

Of course, it could also be true that I didn't know how to read cultural signals very well. Chinese in China would know to avoid certain "friend" situations that I may not have known. Therefore, I made false friends that they may avoided more adeptly.

Comment: differing understandings of friendships

A major aspect I see between the lines here is a differing understanding of friendship between Chinese and American students. I touched on this in a previous post "Why don't Chinese hang out with other people?".
The Chinese view of friendship carries with it obligations and duties that would make most Americans uncomfortable. [Americans] might even conclude that Chinese friendships are superficial and selfish. (Indeed, even the words obligation and duty in English carry negative connotations.) In contrast, the lack of these obligations in US friendships likewise cause Chinese to often conclude that US friendships are superficial and selfish.
When the Chinese students remarks, "My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people,” she is using her cultural understanding of friendship to assess Americans. Likewise, by saying Chinese do know how to treat one another, she is making a statement based on a Chinese understanding of friendship behaviors.

There are both weaknesses and strengths in the way Chinese and Americans view friendship. These views are fundamentally different but neither incompatible nor irreconcilable. However, blanket statements and judgments won't help us work past these differences. Engagement in needed.

Final Questions

Chinese and international friends:
  • What do you find difficult about building friendships with Americans?
  • Have you encountered "fake" friendships in the US? Why do/did you consider them "fake"?
  • What do you think Americans should understand about your view of friendship?
US friends:
  • What concepts about US friendships do you think would be important for international students to know before beginning their social journeys in the US?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, March 07, 2014

Do politics really divide Chinese/international students and American students?

I started with two questions Monday: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?

Today I'll continue to discuss observations and ask questions based on 2012 or 2013 research dane at Indiana University with regards to Chinese students and their levels of integration into campus life. The information was done by Mollie Dollinger and was summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

When asked why they believed American students did not invite them more often to participate in campus life activities Chinese students cited possible political differences between China and the United States responsible for the underlying tensions between the two student populations. For instance, one student was quoted saying, “People are always asking me how I feel about Taiwan. They tell me that Taiwan is not China. I never say anything back. I am not political, this issue doesn’t concern me, so why is everyone asking me about it?”

Question: Really?

People are always asking? Really? Did this really happen? Could it have happened once or twice, and now the student assumes it is common?

Question: Assumptions?

Perhaps I am out of touch with current university students. Are today's university students really so politically sensitive that they don't want to hang out with Chinese due to political tensions? Could this be an impression based more on the impression Chinese get while in China?

Could it merely be an excuse for not getting involved in US life?

Comment: A legitimate complaint?

Granted, I am not living on a college campus, so I don't want to bring too much of my own expereince and assume it as universal. However, my wife has now been in the US for five months and here friends are almost completely local residents. Not once has anyone asked her a question about Taiwan. Not once has anyone even mentioned Taiwan to her. I find it hard to believe that people are "always" asking the quoted student about Taiwan.

Comment: political life in the US

The student said, "I am not political, this issue doesn’t concern me, so why is everyone asking me about it?"

This view likely became ingrained in China. People generally avoid discussing politics, especially anything that criticizes the government. In addition, as a culture that values harmony, people tend to avoid contentious issues if possible. Conflict is more uncomfortable for Chinese than it is for a typical American.

I don't know if this student's comment is representative of other Chinese students. Nevertheless, I'd like to remind my Chinese and international friends of a few things to know about US culture:

  1. As we are a voting society, political questions are common topics of conversation.
  2. Again, as we are a voting society, we don't generally think of politics as "not concerning us", even if we aren't very interested.
  3. Politics and activism tends to be strong on US university and college campuses, so you are probably more likely to face these topics on campus than you would be in general society.
  4. Political debate is a what could be called an American tradition, or "traditional American culture." It's in our history and in our blood.

Final Questions

Chinese and international friends:
  • Do you find that US college student often ask you political questions? What are your thoughts or feelings when this happens?
  • Do you think political tensions are a major reason for American students to give fewer invitations to international students?
  • What do you think could be the major reasons American students may give fewer invitations to international students?
US friends:
  • What would you add to my list of things international students might need to understand about US political culture?
  • What could our campuses and programs do to teach international (and domestic) students how to engage in healthy, respectful, productive debate?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chinese students in the US: It's an adjustment.

How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences? In 2012 or 2013, research was done at Indiana University with regards to Chinese students and their levels of integration into campus life. The research, done my Mollie Dollinger, was summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

The article is already a bit dated, being from July 2013, but it is still quite relevant. I'd like to take a few days to make observations from the article and ask some questions.

"According to this survey, Chinese students confirmed that many have few or no American friends and are often unaware of campus life activities such as sporting events or extracurricular clubs.  Instead, the surveyed Chinese students often reported spending their free time involved in Chinese Student associations or Chinese Christian events."

Observation #1

Having few or no American friends and being unaware of campus activities may be interrelated. That is, being unaware of campus activities would likely lead to fewer friends.

I'm not sure how many Chinese students realize that the onus is on them to be aware of activities and clubs and such. Unlike China, where activities are often announced and promoted by head teachers or department heads or both, where activities are often done as a class and organized by the class monitor, being completely responsible for their own social life is something for which many Chinese students are not prepared.

Observation #2

Spending most free time with Chinese student groups would likewise lead to fewer interactions with American students.

It obviously more comfortable for people to spend time with others who have the same general habits, worldviews, and ways of doing relationships. People have to be intentional.

My wife is a homemaker. She doesn't have the rich opportunities to meet people that university students are blessed to have. Yet she's meeting people. She attends a local mothers group. She meets people at the library during kids reading time. She's been invited to and attended a women's retreat. She doesn't expect that people will do things like they do in China. She spends a lot of time asking questions and learning to enjoy how American women do things. If she, a mother of two children, a woman who is not yet able to drive in the US, a woman who spends most of her time at home can meet other woman and form productive enjoyable relationships in three months, surely students on university campuses can as well.


  • What can the international student services (ISS) do to better keep international students informed  and aware of campus events, clubs, etc.?
  • What can ISS or teachers do to better prepare Chinese students about how to take more responsibility for their own social lives and to generally help them understand the social scene on US campuses (and how it differs from the social scene of Chinese campuses)?
  • What if anything can be done to help Chinese students step out and learn to enjoy how things are done in the US, rather than focusing on Chinese student groups?
  • Could more extensive training in cross-cultural skills (e.g. learning to ask questions and be a learner in social situations) be of value to these Chinese students in the US?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman