In this article I want to focus on some small incremental changes that individual educators can make.
Feedback shows us the way
In my 13 years of schooling I was never asked to give any feedback on teachers, subjects, topics or anything else. My fellow students and I knew the strengths and weaknesses of every teacher, and we knew which subjects and topics were engaging and which weren’t. We were full of information that would have been incredibly useful to the school. The school could have found out the areas in which each teacher was strong, and where each needed to improve. They could have found out which learning strategies engaged the students, and which didn’t… but they never asked. And that was the norm.
Businesses, these days, are desperate for customer feedback. They have whole teams devoted to discovering what customers like and what they don’t, and inundate us with surveys and questionnaires. I received a parcel recently, then got an email asking me to rate my ‘parcel delivery experience’! What do you say? ‘Well, it got here, so you didn’t stuff it up.’
Businesses must be so jealous of the customer feedback available to educators. Educators can get as much customer feedback as they want whenever they want to. All they have to do is ask their students.
For example, when an English teacher finishes a unit on ‘Macbeth’ they could spend five minutes writing out a short questionnaire like this;
- How much did you enjoy studying ‘Macbeth’? ‘5’ for ‘loved it’, ‘0’ for ‘hated it’.
- What was the most interesting class we had on ‘Macbeth’ and why?
- What was the least interesting class we had on ‘Macbeth’ and why?
- If ‘Macbeth’ was being taught again, how would you do it differently to make it more engaging?
- Were you bored in any of our ‘Macbeth’ classes? If so, when?
- If we were doing the unit again, how could we avoid that boredom?
It would take students five minutes to answer, and then the teacher would have a treasure chest of information they can use to improve the way they teach ‘Macbeth’ next time. Sure, you’d get some smart-alecs and a few ‘I was bored ALL the time’ answers, but you’d also get useful information and some insightful suggestions.
If you discovered that the average enjoyment score for ‘Macbeth’ was 4 out of 5, you’d know you were doing well. If the average was ‘1 out of 5’, you’d know you needed to do things differently to better engage students. (Yes, learning isn’t all about enjoyment, but if students are enjoying what they’re doing then they are going to learn better)
Why don’t educators get more feedback from students?
I know schools have started to ask students to fill out questionnaires a couple of times a year, but too often it’s a standard set of questions that’s rolled out to everyone and then it all goes back to head office. That may be useful for developing large scale education policy, but the more specific the questions are to a particular class and a particular teacher, the more useful they will be in helping to improve the performance of that class and that teacher. For example, if you are teaching ‘Macbeth’ to year 10, knowing that 34% of Australian students say they are ‘highly engaged’ in Shakespeare classes isn’t helpful. What you need to know is how many of YOUR students are highly engaged.
How many teachers would be brave enough to ask their students this question; ‘Do I shout too much in class?’
If you’re alone in a class with students all day, it’s probably hard to know if you shout too much. If you are shouting too much, and as a result causing the students to tune out, isn’t it better to find out? Once you know what the problem is, then you can solve it.
Change your class before you change the world
I’m always been told how hard it is to change the way we educate, but sometimes that’s because people focus on changing the whole system, rather than just their class.
For example, an educator might ask ‘How can I improve the way that we teach literature in schools’ – that’s an important question, but also a big and intimidating one.
What about this question; ‘How can I improve the way I teach ‘Macbeth’ to my year 10 class tomorrow’ – that’s more achievable, right? All you need to do is to think of a couple of new strategies or methods, try them and see if they work. If a new method works, get some feedback from students, improve it and do it again. If it doesn’t work, learn what you can from the failure and move onto something else. Once you have a new teaching strategy that’s working, spread the word to fellow teachers and encourage them to try it.
Start small scale, do small experiments, get feedback and learn from both success and failure.
Educators don’t have to wait for the big education bureaucracy to slowly lead them into the future – instead, they can help to lead us all there.