Teach Us All, Netflix documentary

I’ve just finished watching Teach Us All, the new release documentary on Netflix on the US education system. The film makes the case for ending de facto segregation in the US, which has grown and replaced de jure segregation. The film argues that education would be fairer on disadvantaged students (mainly Latino and black students) if schools were diverse. The film’s case for ending de facto segregation relies heavily on the following premise: that getting black and Latino students into white schools would increase the funding that goes to the black and Latino students.

The funding issue is a real issue. Wealthier families have better funded schools, and these tend to be majority white schools. I’ve seen how better funding can improve outcomes and opportunities. However, the statistical data don’t support this on a wider scale. This leads to the second reason made by the film for ending segregation (this reason is not really explicitly made but is revealed nonetheless): that black and Latino students would benefit from mixing with white students. What the film is implicitly saying is that the behaviour or culture of the black and Latino students is holding them back. This gets to why achievement is not necessarily linked to spending: it does not consider what attitude and application the child brings to the classroom – the discipline and diligence the student has, the respect for the teacher and school rules, their respect for their peers and the learning process. This matters a whole lot more than spending, and it is the ignored factor in schooling today. It is not something the government can control, and it is politically incorrect to talk about it in this non-judgmental culture. But such non-judgmentalism is a form of relativism, which does not work for an organisation (a school) or an activity (learning) with a specific purpose. Some approaches are better than others.

The film occasionally touches on the lack of sophistication of the poorer kids parents, their behavioural difficulties, their neighbourhood issues, their basic lack of hygiene and life skills. When these issues are present, learning takes a back step, and the student’s time horizon shortens. Individual investment in education is lower as they’re not sure what the payoff will be and they have shorter-term issues to attend to. The film chooses some great students to interview, who inspire excitement in the audience about the potential of education. But what they are not showing are the students that do not care or do not fit into the current schooling system. The portrait painted by the film is one of earnestly working students who are being deprived by a lack of opportunity and the presence of segregation. That is, they are let down by their schooling system. I’ve got my issues with the system, whether it be the Australian or US systems, but the fact remains that we get the students when they enter the school gates in the morning, and we send them home in the afternoon. What goes on outside is of tremendous importance but is not subject to the control of the school. It is therefore ignored. The thing parents can control most is their own actions, thoughts and attitudes, and that of their children. Start making a change there and they may find that the school system is not as broken as they think.



Match the type of school to the prevailing culture

I hypothesise that autocratic school systems are more suitable for cultures that have greater reverence for authority figures, and democratic school systems are more suitable for cultures with less reverence for authority figures. Trying to impose teaching on a student that does not respect you or your profession is difficult, while democratic or liberal schooling systems that are child-centred will likely not work so well if students are overly concerned with the authority figures. A democratic/liberal schooling environment relies on the student taking advantage of the conditions/rules, while the autocratic system relies on subservience.

Australia’s educational culture has shifted towards less reverence for teachers, while maintaining a coercive, autocratic schooling environment. The result is constant conflict in the classroom, or passive disengagement.

In our current society of relative freedom and opportunity, I think subservience and excessive reverence for authority is not something to be desired. You need to dictate your own life, and reverence for authority in your formative years will likely leave you unprepared for adulthood. Fostering a sense of empowerment and responsibility is much more likely to equip a student for life. Therefore, we should be increasingly aiming for students to direct their own learning, and to engage with teachers in voluntary ways rather than coercive ways. A democratic/liberal school is most suitable to achieve these goals.

The lost authority of teachers

One of the lamentations of modern day schooling is the decline in the authority of teachers. While cultural change explains part of this, there are other causes, and I’d like to focus on a major one.

First, we need to distinguish between authority and power. Power relates to coercion or force. Authority pertains to that important aspect of a consensual organisation or association, where the leader, or a person in a position of responsibility, assumes a position of influence and responsibility, in an organisation or association that is voluntary. The authority is granted by the consent of those governed or influenced by the agent of this organisation.

A long time ago, a school and school teachers had authority, because they were in existence due to the demands of a community. The current education system is one of power and coercion, a compulsory system where decisions are made far from where they are enacted. The people carrying out the decisions do not have the authority to implement them because they do not have the respect or consent of those they are overseeing. The result is a chaotic classroom where many students disrespect the teacher.

Emergent forms of schooling that are more localised, diverse and personal, will allow teachers to regain some lost authority and deliver more effective education. Until then, we will continue to see defiance and a lack of respect from many students towards their teachers and schools.

A case for streaming

Consider my two Year 10 classes. One is a streamed class, the top class (class A). The other is mixed ability (class B). Some of the top students in the mixed class are also in the streamed class (the classes are for different subjects).

Today, and for the whole week, class A has worked mostly productively and cooperatively with substantial freedom. I gave them a broad topic and question to answer, and they were able to choose their specific topic and direct their research from there. They worked beautifully.

Class B was a battle today. They’re often a battle and today was one of the worst lessons. I attempted to step them through the assessment task I had just handed them. I was effectively giving them the keys to the door, which the could convert to easy marks. It was a gift. But not only were about a quarter of the students disrupting the class, they weren’t even paying attention or writing notes. They flatly refused easy marks. This is entirely irrational behaviour, some supporting evidence against the rationality thesis.

The looks of frustration on the faces of the strong students in class B was deeply saddening. I was trying my best but today I just couldn’t create the environment that they deserve.

Let’s compare productivity between the two classes:

  • Class B: the disruptive students did not get much from the class, nor did the presence of strong students seem to improve their attitudes. Meanwhile, the strong students were constantly waiting for us to proceed so that they could get the information they needed. The net result: the disruptive students have not benefited from being in a mixed class. But the top students have suffered.
  • Class A had no impediments to productivity, and was so functional and mature that they were able to work independently,  a welcome deviation from our typical, more traditional lessons. They were working at capacity.

The conclusion? Top students gained from streaming. The top students suffer from mixed ability, while the disruptive students have not gained. Given the level of disengagement in the mixed class, I can’t imagine worse behaviour in their streamed class will have much of a negative impact compared to the mixed class. They simply weren’t paying adequate attention in the mixed class for the presence of top students to have any positive effect. These students got very little to nothing from this lesson.

From this small sample, I conclude: streaming is better.




Professionalism in the public system

It was a shocking sight – teachers flagrantly having a conversation in front of the Principal and Deputy as another Deputy presented a session of professional learning. Just flat out having a chat, blatantly, in front of the boss. Surely this wouldn’t happen in a private organisation. I asked my small business owner housemate about this. She has run several successful businesses over decades. She said it wouldn’t fly in her business, and she was shocked that this would be the behaviour of our public school teachers. Yet the Principal seemed to accept the state of affairs and was apparently powerless to change it. It’s a sign that teachers have too much power, and executive staff not enough. And it’s a sign of the lack of professionalism in the system. I suspect that the levels of power and the level of professionalism are related – you get away with what you can get away with, unless you have very strong principle and self-restraint. With my perspective on the decline in standards in our society,  I don’t have great faith in principles and self-restraint. We need to change ourselves, and we need a better, more incentive-compatible system.

Action research: are students rational?

I’m conducting action research in the classroom in a couple of different projects. This post is about my rationality project. Some time ago, I speculated that some students may be rationally disengaged – that they are maximising their outcomes by disengaging. I wanted to test this, and today I set out to do so. I surveyed my students to try to gauge their values, attitudes, goals, etc., and then compare their responses to their behaviour to see if their actions aligned with their mindsets. Some interesting initial results emerged. All students report that they value their education and want to do well at school, and most provided very strong responses on these questions. Even the misbehaved and disengaged students. This supported previous surveys I’ve conducted, but nonetheless I was surprised, because some of the students appear like they just don’t care. How do I square this circle?

Further, many students, particularly the more disengaged and chatty students, see little to no value in off-task talking with their classmates. Yet these are the ones that do it most. The better behaved students reported greater perception of value in off-task talking with classmates, yet they engage in this behaviour to a far lesser extent. The results for the disengaged and engaged students were true even when they saw little value in the teaching. That is, there is little value in talking to friends in class, even when the teaching is bad. This shocked me. I could totally relate to the perspective that disengaged students want to disengage when the teaching is bad, but, at least in their perceptions, they don’t actually want to do this.

What do I make of all of this? A few things:

*The more disengaged students tend to be the lower ability students. Quite often these students concede they they don’t understand what is going on. Perhaps the classroom for them is a place of not so quiet desperation – they want to do well but it goes over their heads.

*Lower ability students tend to have less self-control and less foresight. They are less capable of sticking it out in difficult circumstances, and see less future value for doing so. Despite this, these students did think about their futures and wanted to do well in them.

*Engaged students may feel confident enough to talk to their peers in class and not feel left behind. They are on top of things, and may be so ahead that they talk to their friends either about the topic or because they are waiting for the rest of the class.

So, are my students rational?

I need more information, but my sense is that the more able students are more rational (this is seen in research), have better foresight and can better connect current action with future goals. Less able students are less rational and have less self-control, but they are also responding to their environment, and if the environment is too difficult, this increases the return to slacking off – at least in the short run. Short run considerations will be relatively more important for these kids compared to top kids, at least in their perceptions. There may also be a difference in mindsets – whether they have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. This will determine their perceptions of value and returns from doing hard work to overcome the knowledge gap. If they don’t think they can improve, they will slack off when something is difficult.

The teaching take-away is to simplify the lesson, provide glossaries for all students, assume a basic level of understanding and slowly build in complexity from there. And for students with less self-control, a seating plan will help. Engaging teaching will also help too, but it must be accessible to all. Keeping the lesson more concrete and less theoretical or abstract will also help. More able students can be given extension exercises involving abstraction and theory. In other words, start basic and build the complexity. Don’t assume even a basic knowledge of your topic.

These findings, and the related project I am running alongside this one, both point to the power of great teaching. I knew it was important but the research indicates that it is more important than I gave it credit for. I’ll discuss this next time and discuss more results as they come in.

Productivity amid compliance or compulsion

The problems with the current educational mindset were on show today during staff development day at my school. The morning was spent doing what the executive thought would be useful. But this turned out to be not only a waste of time, but counterproductive (it sapped morale on the first day back – the day when it should be at its highest). The teachers found little value in what was presented, and some resented being lectured to. Yet teachers do not seem to consider that this is exactly how many students feel in the classroom everyday. (Well, either they do not realise it, or they battle on anyway, which must be a difficult and frustrating state to be in.) Both yesterday’s professional learning, and the classroom, are products of people in authority deciding what is best for others, without regard for the wishes, dreams and desires of the people they are affecting.  Getting people to be productive is a challenge under any circumstance. It is even more difficult when work and activities are undertaken for compliance reasons (in the case of the teaching profession), or without the voluntary consent of those involved (in the case of students and their schooling). This is something we should reflect on.



The plight of the classroom teacher in a bureaucratising world

This week I spent a few days with fellow secondary school teaching colleagues partaking in professional development sessions, and over this time I got to know them like never before. I’d previously heard their whingeing and gripes in the staff room, but in these few days I had extended discussions with them, and boy did they unload.

Picture two male teachers: around 60 years old, well-meaning, hard-working, but fairly average Joes. They’ve worked their whole careers in state schools and seen the transformation of the kids and the system before their eyes. Their frustrations are many and varied. They strike me as people who would vote for a Trump-like figure because of the changing nature of their society and the system in which they work. It is not the ideology that they care about, it is someone who respects the impact of the elites on the mainstream. For it is management, bureaucrats and politicians, in well-meaning or self-interested career progression actions, that impede, disrupt and frustrate the everyday working lives of the ordinary teacher. These ideas, management practices and procedures lack common sense and respect for the people who implement them, and stink of political correctness, and underneath the PC undercurrent that so influences the school is a weakness to stand up and fight for what needs to be done to make the school run effectively.  I hear from these, and other men just like them, the phrase: “why weren’t we consulted?” “Who made that decision, and on what information?” They feel like they are being managed by people who do not bear the costs of their decisions, who do not have to implement them, and who do not care about their impact on the worker or the student. It is not a shift to Democrat or Republican, Labor or Liberal, that will satisfy these men. It is a move to something different, something not based around the status quo. Because both sides of politics have picked up and run with the status quo, and it is this that these men are fighting against. They are just trying to do their job, and managers and elites make their life much more difficult than it needs to be. It is the legalistic nature of compliance work, the lack of courage in standing up to parents, the overly soft approach to students, the shift to making classroom teachers increasingly responsible for disorganised school students. There is not enough time in the day, and this is not the work they signed up for. Where is the time for teaching great lessons in all of this bureaucracy? And cui bono – who benefits?

I understand their frustration and see the system as reflecting a belief that no harm should be done to anyone, anywhere, at any time. That we should try to mitigate everything. That we should excessively manage risk. Again, it is a symptom of weakness, a lack of character, vision and values in our society. Nassim Taleb sums this up beautifully: the Soviet Harvard fragilitas. They run a society devoid of a guiding philosophy except for harm minimisation, increasing comfort, to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Combine that ideology with a system of distant and central control, weak accountability mechanisms, and inefficient transfer and use of relevant knowledge. In other words, combine the progressive ideology with a bureaucratic, centrally-controlled system and you get the current system with the current gripes. This type of issue is probably applicable across different sectors in the economy.


These men I write about are old school, and boy is it refreshing. They don’t get on board fads. They are focused on their work and what actually helps the student. They are not ‘song and dance’ people – they don’t care about appearing to be a certain way. They just get the job done, and unfortunately, it’s these men that the elites can exploit for their own gain. Like students in classrooms, these men perform everyday acts of resistance. In the case of students and workers, it is the system forcing it’s values and processes on them, and they naturally fight back, in rational ways.

Unfortunately, things will not change, because elites have not learnt the recent lessons that are so palpably on display. They are in a bubble, and it won’t be until we see a crisis or they are put in a system where they are more accountable for their decisions that we will see change. And that is a long way off.

Culture and bad behaviour

In order to discuss culture as a cause of bad behaviour in classrooms, we’d have to be more judgmental about behaviour, have higher standards, and get over the fact that we cannot measure culture. But we don’t want to be more judgmental because we ultimately we have become weak – too empathetic. We do not like to see any pain. We are risk averse, or as Tyler Cowen describes it, we are complacent. We fail to realise that it is challenge, adversity and the presence of stressors that make us grow, not cotton wool. It is judgment that sears into our memory the lesson that we should not disrupt class. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

To have higher standards would mean to ditch relativism, which holds that whatever someone chooses to do is fine. But in relativism we fail to have values, and without values we are rudderless, drifting in a sea of self-expression cum narcissism.

Finally, we have a tendency to try to improve what we can measure, and if we cannot measure, we think we can’t improve it. At least this is how public policy goes. This mindset distracts us from the true causes of problems. The positivist epistemology of objective fact through data and measurement dominates, at the expense of qualitative methods that actually describe human behaviour. One can see how the dominance of positivism and the bureaucrats’ obsession with measurement, and employing consultants who like to measure things, can lead us astray, down the path of standardised testing, for example, or away from the true cause of the problem in our classrooms – our declining culture.


Bad behaviour in the classroom

There’s growing focus on the issue of behaviour in the classroom, with the Grattan Institute’s report  on student engagement and recent articles in the media, such as in The Australian today. This is appropriate, but one thing that is missing is the issue of personal responsibility and parenting. Again, it should be less of a case of ‘what can we [schools, governments] do about it?’ and more of a case of ‘what can the individual and the parent do about it?’. Recall that I consider student disengagement to be rational behaviour, given the culture and incentives in which they live. I also consider that complacency is a key missing ingredient behind the fall in educational attainment.

While it’s true that the school can improve it’s environment by changing the rules of the game that the form the students’ incentives to which they respond, good manners, consideration of others and some self-discipline are important aspects of maturity, and can be developed without action from the school. Therefore, the parental/individual and school/government responses need to come from a shift in cultural attitudes, and indeed, it seems that the current malaise stems from a cultural deficit. Currently, narcissism, complacency and distraction rule the day while perspective and wisdom often flounder. Similarly, teachers’ standards have dropped, a reflection of broader society. Of course, this stems from the loss of judgementalism that has occurred in recent decades, which, we should acknowledge, has had some emancipatory benefits.  Ideally that would not come at the expense of manners, but perhaps that is asking too much.