Atul Gawande is an American physician and surgeon who has, over the past 8 years, performed over 250 surgeries a year. This is not an unusual amount of surgeries, but what is a bit unusual is that Gawande also finds the time for his side-career as a journalist writing about medical issues for The New Yorker (and other publications). In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, he wrote a fascinating article about coaching in the medical profession.

You probably didn’t know that doctors were coached. Well, doctors aren’t commonly coached, since many believe it reflects poorly on their skills, abilities and professionalism. This is the genesis for Gawande’s article. As he notes in the article, Dr. Gawande thinks he has started to plateau as a surgeon.  After a a positive experience with a tennis coach, he enlists the help of a “surgery coach”, and looks at the role of coaching in other professions.

One example he points to is that of teachers. Teaching, like medicine (and other professions), is a job which seemingly relies on experience, and would be difficult to coach, due to it’s apparently freewheeling nature. It’s not as if you can practice being a teacher, then go out in the classroom and perform like you could with a piano. However, there is a program run by the University of Kansas called the Kansas Coaching Project that does just that. It pairs experienced teachers (the “coaches”) with classroom teachers to go over their teaching and see how it can be improved.

There is evidence that this type of mentoring helps teachers improve, as noted in the article:

California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.

The article gives an example of a coaching interaction between a teacher and her “coaches” (who are themselves experienced teachers). After the teacher goes through a lesson ( filled with ” “learning structures”—lecturing, problem-solving, cooperative learning, discussion.”), the coaches and teacher discuss the lesson – what went well, what didn’t, how to improve.

Teaching and coaching are very similar skills (I would argue two words which describe the same thing) so knowing the successful traits of a teacher can help one become a better coach (and vice versa). So what are the qualities of a good coach?   Being able to break down complicated tasks into their individual components, using a variety of approaches, including conversation:

They looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—which, Knight later explained, was part of what made the two coaches effective…Good coaches, [Knight] said, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Hobson and Harding “listened more than they talked,” Knight said. “They were one hundred per cent present in the conversation.” They also parcelled out their observations carefully. “It’s not a normal way of communicating—watching what your words are doing,” he said.

It’s clear from these descriptions (and Dr. Gawande’s own experience with a coach, which comes later in the article) that being a top performer requires lots of self-reflection, but this is not enough. A healthy dose of collaboration and mentorship from those around you can go a long way, something which I hope becomes more common in the teaching profession.


Today I was introduced to an act of cognitive dissonance called the “Benjamin Franklin Effect“. Cognitive dissonance is when you hold conflicting ideas in your mind,  and to reconcile these conflicing beliefs, you change your attitudes or beliefs to make sense of the conflict in your mind.

The Benjamin Franklin Effect is but one example of cognitive dissonance. Briefly, this effect says that you are unlikely to do a favour for someone you dislike. Therefore, if you do do something nice for that person, it must mean that you actually like the person (or that’s how reconcile this strange act of kindness in your mind). As for why it’s named after 18th century polymath Benjamin Franklin…well, I suggest you read the article, as it does a fine job of telling that story, as well as relating to other aspects of everyday life.

The reason this article interested me is it provides a little “trick “for dealing with people who may not be very keen on you, which I think might come in handy for the teachers out there. By asking for a favour from those students who give you grief in class, this may change that student’s attitude toward you. Of course, this little trick alone is by no means a panacea for dealing with those students (and should certainly not be the first thing you try), it’s an interesting strategy to think about.

As an aside, the author of the blog from the article I linked to is releasing a book at the end of the month. Based on the articles from his blog (which focuses on the delusion and irrational thoughts we deal with every day) it looks like it’ll be fascinating. Here’s a trailer for the book, which summarizes a chapter from the book (and an article from his site) about procrastination.

Education is serious business, especially for preschoolers. How much students learn in kindergarten can have an effect on their income for the rest of their life, according to economists from Harvard, UC-Berkeley and Northwestern University, so it’s no surprise that parents want the best prekindergarten education for their kids. A mother in New York City has taken this to the extreme by suing her child’s preschool for not providing the academic rigor expected for her daughter’s pre-pre-pre-Ivy League education. In fact, the preschool was “just one big playroom” according to the mother.

But as Jonah Lehrer points out, that is not necessarily a bad thing (although whether said playroom is worth $19,000 a year is debatable. I hope it at least had a ball pit for that price). As he mentions, a number of studies have concluded that unstructured play can actually have cognitive benefits for children (such as improvements in working memory and self-control). An article first published in Scientific American Mind in 2009 also highlights many of the emotional, social and cognitive benefits of “free play” (i.e. unstructured play), for animals and humans, and for teachers who are having a tough time managing their classroom of 8-year-olds, a study in Pediatrics shows students are better behaved in the classroom after given adequate time at recess to play.

Alison Gopnik also weighs in with an article on Slate suggesting that undirected play can help students learn better than being taught something in certain circumstances. She looks at two soon-to-be-published studies in the journal Cognition (including one by her lab at UC-Berkeley). In both studies, two groups of preschool aged children were given a toy: one group was told how the toy worked, while the other group was given the toy without any type of instruction. In both experiments, the children who were not instructed about how the toy worked were more likely to discover functions of the toy they were not told about, compared to the group who received explicit instructions about the toy.

These results may not be a surprise for advocates of Montessori education, where self-directed learning is one of the core tenets of the curriculum. But these experiments were performed on young children who had yet to enter formal education, so this begs the question: how applicable is this to older children or adults? I think how much one is able to “play” is really dependent on how much background knowledge one has. No background knowledge was required for the children to play with the toys in the experiment. However, a subject like calculus requires a substantial amount of background knowledge to learn, which is unlikely to be learned by a child left to their own devices. So when should direct instruction be used? Under what circumstances is undirected learning beneficial? The article in Slate touches on this by arguing there should be a balance between the two types of learning, but does not specify the best way this could be done.

I can actually relate to the type of unstructured play an adult might partake in. During my first week of graduate school, my supervisor gave me a computer program of a mathematical model and told me to “play” with it so I could understand the inner workings of the model. Having never worked with models like this in my life, I struggled with how to play with this model (and didn’t have very much fun). My lack of background knowledge in the subject prevented me from getting the most out of my undirected play with the model. As my knowledge of the subject matter increased, I was able to tinker with the model on my own and discover some new applications of the model that were useful and interesting (which I may yet write about some day). I think this highlights that for more advanced topics, direct instruction (for example, an assignment with right and wrong answers) is required before more creative ventures can be pursued, especially as the complexity of the subject increases.

An article in the New York Times last week looked at the statistical model for evaluating teachers known as value-added assessment. Value-added assessment is a way of assessing student performance by comparing a student’s current performance to their past performance to see how much they have improved; this is usually assessed using standardized tests. The belief is that since a teacher is responsible for most of the learning a student will have done within a given year, the value-added assessment is a way of determining how effective a teacher is at instilling knowledge in their students within a given year.

However, the article makes a couple points pretty clear. First, the statistical analysis is far from trivial.

As you can see, this equation is pretty complicated, and could potentially contain hundreds of variables. This is not a bad thing in itself, but for any statistical model like this to be valid, it must contain the correct quantity and quality of data. I’m sure with all those test scores, the quantity is not an issue. It’s the quality that I worry about.

While it seems they’ve taken some factors into account (such as “Student Characteristics” and “True Total Classroom Effect”), within those single factors are hundreds of hidden variables that aren’t taken into account: whether a student is tired or stressed that day, how much studying they do on their own, whether they’re eating properly, what their early childhood was like and many other variables that are completely unrelated to their classroom teacher.

The problem with using this statistical evaluation as the sole determinant of whether a teacher gets tenure or not is that it requires an immensely complicated model that attempts to embody a teacher’s sole worth within a single number. This evaluation can never be nuanced enough to contain the all-encompassing value of a teacher, and it will also be subject to corruption pressures, as embodied by Campbell’s Law:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

As a quantitative indicator becomes increasingly important, people will attempt to cheat the system and the quantitative indicator will lose it’s value; it will no longer measure what you think it is measuring. One way around this is to minimize the importance of any single quantitative indicator, as measures in the social sciences can never be as precise one would like; it’s hard to describe things in social sciences with just a number.

Which brings me to the second point. According to the article, this teacher is generally agreed by her peers, supervisors, students and parents to be outstanding. However, the numbers don’t agree with her, and she may lose her job as a result. This is the problem with using quantitative measures to make decisions in teaching (I don’t want to generalize to other social sciences, although it may be true there as well), as I described above. Unfortunately, this type of teacher evaluation appears to be the trend with teacher and school evaluations in the United States and (increasingly) in Canada.

Here’s a neat video describing a recent set of experiments designed to associate individual cells in the brain of a mouse to specific functions (in this case, how the mouse’s brain processes visual stimuli).

It’s a neat demonstration of how learning and memories can lead to changes in neuronal connections. Even though it was a relatively simple experiment (in design only; I imagine it was extremely difficult to implement), it shows how incredibly complex our brains are, for even the most seemingly mundane tasks.

(Here are links to the papers referred to at the end of the video: Network anatomy and in vivo physiology of visual cortical neurons and  Wiring specificity in the direction-selectivity circuit of the retina)

If you haven’t seen the immensely popular video yet, it’s embedded below:

And here are my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on this topic:

In schools, getting a high grade is a quantifiable demonstration of your knowledge, and is seen as validation of your ability and status. This is similar to the world of work, where making lots of money increases one’s status (or that’s how it appears, at least). In these cases, it’s the end that is the motivator, not the means.

Now, as he says, “once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward lead to poorer performance.”…which is basically every task done in school, even trades/industrial arts subjects. So external rewards aren’t a good incentive and in schools, the rewards are grades.

Now, in lieu of getting rid of grades (which would be a logistical nightmare), what can be done? He says once people don’t have to worry about money (or grades) anymore (i.e. they have the minimum amount to be comfortable), 3 factors become important: autonomy, mastery and purpose. In schools, how do these factors translate?

Autonomy – independence and self-directed work. He uses the example of Atlassian, which has the 24 hour independent project day (similar to Google’s 20% time). I think the obvious solution would be to allow children to work on independent projects, or to do independent study. For elementary aged kids, just allowing them room to explore any topic of their choosing would be good. As they students get older, you must place restrictions on what type of projects they can work on (because of the curriculum), but this still allows a lot of freedom. Here in Canada, a teacher was recently nationally recognized for her teaching and she alllows her students a whole month to work on an independent project. So using the Atlassian model (a chunk of time all at once) or the Google time (1 day a week, say) to allow students to work on their own thing might work (As for how to implement this…I don’t have much insight there)

Mastery – Students should associate the work they put in with improvement. I think this is hard to accomplish with giant packed curriculums, and can lead to learned helplessness when students don’t see the results expected, in mathematics especially. Again, I think working on independent projects would give students the opportunity to master a certain area, which may motivate them to believe in their abilities. In addition, associating the work they do with concrete results that demonstrate their mastery (i.e. better grades) could provide that extra motivation. By seeing an increase in their grades as they work (or study) harder, they become motivated to work harder; they see the result of their work. But once they do poorly on a test, there’s no motivation to learn that material anymore, since why bother learning that stuff anymore?

There’s an assessment scheme called standards-based assessment (SBA) which might help with this. In essence, there are certain standards students must reach (e.g. learn a certain concept), and students are given the opportunity to demonstrate mastery as many times as they want (if they fail a test, they get as many chances to re-take it as possible). Unfortunately in SBA, grades are still used as a motivator, but students have more opportunities to master topics (and may become more engaged in actually learning, as opposed to becoming resigned to their fate if they fail a test). In addition, this deals with the problem of grades: in a system where students are given essentially unlimited opportunities to improve, students know they can have basically the minimum grade they desire as long as they make an effort to improve, and therefore the motivation moves away from external rewards (grades) and more towards intrinsic motivation of the student. Here’s a teacher who blogs about his use of this type of grading.

Purpose – He suggests when the profit motive (i.e. grades) become the primary driver, bad things happen; there must be a greater purpose. What’s the greater purpose for learning in class? This could be partially addressed by an independent project (make something useful), or perhaps through other school-related activities, such as charity work, peer tutoring, commmunity activites, etc.

I guess, to summarize:

  • Get rid of grades as an incentive by essentially guaranteeing all students the minimum grade they desire (without telling them, of course because (i) you’d get in trouble from the administration and (ii) even though it’s been shown it’s not the best motivator, some students are still driven by grades).
  • Have two separate portions of the class: the traditional curriculum, which relies on subject mastery and testing, and a project portion, where students have the chance to work independently on projects that are meaningful to them.

This is what I got from this talk, so there may be issues and better ways to go about things, but that’s my perspective.

I discovered some interesting books on my travels through the internet last week, so I made a trip to the bookstore.

I drifted to the teaching/education section of the store, and was flipping through John Taylor Gatto’s book “Weapons of Mass Instruction”, a critique of modern compulsory schooling. After reading a few passages, a tiny spark of doubt entered my mind. Is this really what I want to do? Contribute to a system of education that is so unhealthy? (Of course, those were just my first impressions. I ended up buying the book, so I’ll post a review when I am finished).

As I was checking out some books in a different section of the store, I happened to overhear a conversation between two very fashionable, I’m assuming upper-class women in their 30s or 40s. One woman, carrying 4 or 5 books, walked up to the other woman, and the following short dialogue ensued:

“I found this book, which looks pretty interesting”. (The book was”Defy Gravity: Healing Beyond the Bounds of Reason“*)

“I read a book like this recently, which talked about cellular levels”.

” Interesting. I’ve been meaning to look into this”…

And so it went. I had to walk away from that section, as I had the overwhelming urge to enter a conversation which I wasn’t invited to.

As I walked away, that tiny flicker of doubt that entered my mind about working in education was extinguished.

*In case you are wondering about the source of my frustration, here is a brief synopsis of the book from Amazon:
“Integral to this mystical healing approach is the engagement of the soul, which we experience through exploring our seven shadow passions, building an empowered inner self around our seven inherent graces, and learning how to work with the mystical laws that govern it. This knowledge holds the key to understanding what it means to defy gravity and break through the boundaries of ordinary thought.  You can heal any illness. You can channel grace. And you can learn to live fearlessly.”