on the dangers of self-herding and the importance of lesson observations


I guess we all know about the concept of herding; we follow trends, we try to keep up with the Joneses, we do things in a group that we’d never do if were are on our own, but have you heard of self-herding?  

According to Dan Ariely in “The Upside to Irrationality”, not only do we copy the behaviour of the people around us, but we also copy our own behavioural history.  In other words, if we do something in a situation which seems to work for us then we’ll remember it (or rather our subconscious will remember). We’ll then copy that behaviour in subsequent and similar situations, even if the behaviour is unhealthy or destructive.  

For example if I have an argument with my wife and I storm out the door, after 20 minutes or so I might feel better, but I’m pretty sure my wife is feeling shut out and possibly abandoned.  But I don’t remember how she felt, I only remember how I felt.  So the next time I have an argument, rationally I might think “last time I walked out the door, and that wasn’t very mature, so I’m going to speak in a calm and rational voice and listen carefully to my wife.”  When we are rational, we can slow things down and act on this kind of intelligence, but in a fight, who acts rationally?  In these situations we don’t rationalise, but act on instinct, so instead of talking calmly with my wife, I’m more likely to act on my behavioural instincts and do what seemed to work for me last time; walk out the door.

Generally, people don’t think before they act every single minute of the day, this would be impractical and possibly dangerous (don’t stop and think when you’re see a 10 ton truck hurtling towards you, for god’s sake). We survive in this world not because we are rational, but because we are irrational, we rely on our instincts and behavioural patterns, even when they are wrong.

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s book “Outliers” he seems to have found the secret to success.  If you want to be good at something you need to do it for 10,000 hours.  In studies of violin players, it was found that what separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, was the amount of hours they spent practicing, not necessarily because of their innate talent.  We can probably think of other domains where this is true  –  top tennis players spend inordinate amounts of time hitting a tennis ball back and forth, Bill Gates spent hours and hours laboriously programming computers, etc.  If you spend 10,000 hours doing something does it automatically make you good at it?  I’ve watched plenty of teachers with 10, 20 even 30 years of experience and I’ve watched teachers with no experience,  and I’ve yet to see any correlation between x number  of hours teaching and quality of teaching.

Which reminds me of the question ‘Have you got 1o years experience, or do you have one year’s experience repeated 10 times?  I think it’s quite possible for anyone in teaching to repeat their mistakes year on year, especially if we take into account our propensity for self-herding.  Teaching can be quite a solitary business in a sense.  Yes teachers spend lots of time with their students, so they don’t do things in a total vacuum, and good teachers will act on feedback from their students in order to develop their craft.  However, it is solitary in the sense that our peers, the people who know about teaching, don’t often watch us teach.  So it is very easy for us to fall back on the tried and tested, on our self-herding instinct.  

Being observed and observing others is really the only way to avoid self-herding, it’s all well and good reading books and doing research and undertaking your own professional development, no doubt these things are important, but again our irrationality tends to take over – we seek things which confirm our views, we read books which support our arguments and justify our behaviour.  Reflection tasks are useful in the sense that you think about how you teach, but it’s really difficult to be objective about ourselves – we are very good at being blind to our weaknesses and we are very good at rationalising our choices, even when they are plainly wrong. 

Change means intervention – just ask any addict.  It’s incredibly hard to change oneself without an external agent to point out the flaws in our reasoning and behaviour.  Teachers need to observe and be observed in order to avoid the trap of repeating their one year’s experience for 10 or 20 or 30 years, if only to keep them sane. Watching other people teach is not a chore it’s a duty of care to your fellow professionals.

Getting teachers to observe each other (and be observed) isn’t easy and it requires a lot of support from educational institutions – if they truly care about teaching quality then they will give teachers time to observe each other and not expect them to undertake it in their own time. It should be part of the timetable, part of the ethos of a school. Any school which says it’s interested in teaching quality but doesn’t give its teachers a structured observation schedule is merely paying lip service to the idea of professional development.

If you ask most teachers why they don’t want to be observed, it’s because they don’t want to be evaluated or judged. It is not the observer’s role to pass judgement on the observee, it is their responsibility to provide data which the teacher can interpret for themselves. Observers and observees need to agree on the parameters of their observation, rather like an experiment in a lab. The more successful observations avoid value judgements and stick to observable facts, such as how did the teacher set up the task, what language did he/she use? Did she check her instructions? Did students look confused or do the wrong thing? Did the teacher interact with certain students more than others, How much student interaction was there in the lesson. How much time did the teacher spend at the board, sitting in is chair, talking to students, staring out the window? And so on.

Observation is a bit daunting, nobody really enjoys it, and you certainly shouldn’t be doing it all the time, but it is an incredibly powerful agent for change when done properly, just as it can be hurtful and damaging when done badly. Observers need structured and pre-arranged observation tasks that focus on observable data and avoid judgements. Those people who are paid to observe need proper training to avoid wreaking havoc on teacher’s fragile egos, and teachers and institutions that are serious about professional development need to have observations as an integral part of their teachers’ daily schedules.


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