Category Archives: educational management

Big isn’t always best (but neither is small)

Classroom with students and teachers - NARA - ...
Classroom with students and teachers – NARA – 285702 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having watched many lessons in state schools in South Korea, I can safely say that too many students in a classroom equals less learning for a fair percentage of the class.   Classrooms with 30+ students, especially where students are of very mixed ability, are difficult to manage in anything other than a teacher-centred way.  Students, especially weaker ones, are often marginalized and become anonymous, causing them to misbehave and lose motivation.  Bigger, quite definitely is not better in this case.

The conventional wisdom, especially amongst wealthier language students, is that small classes are better than big classes.  Some schools even use their low teacher to student ratio as their USP (unique selling point).  The idea being that less students in the classroom means a higher quality of learning.  This all sounds quite logical, but is it actually true?

In “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”, Malcolm Gladwell argues that smaller classes do not result in improved academic results.  In fact, having more people in the classroom results in a better learning environment, or to put it another way “it is a strange thing, isn’t it, to have an education philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom…as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?”

So what is the ideal class size?  The answer to this question, as to so many other questions of this kind, is somewhere in the middle.  Anything less than 10 is probably too small and anything more than 25 is probably too big.  A lot of teachers would doubtless say that 12 is the perfect number, but I would counter that this is a good minimum number.  I much prefer classes of 16 to 18 students.  This allows for students to mix with lots of other students, it allows for good classroom dynamics, and generates lots of discussion and constructive “noise”.  It’s not so intimate that students feel intimidated, nor is it so big that students can hide and become anonymous.

For school managers (and designers) this presents an interesting conundrum.  Should you build smaller classrooms to accommodate fewer students, which would mean hiring more teachers and charging students more money for the privilege?  Or should you build bigger classrooms and have a minimum number of students set at 12, which in turn would necessitate hiring fewer teachers (or firing more teachers) and opening fewer classrooms (which may also in turn result in less specialized courses).

From a financial point of view, wouldn’t it make sense to do the latter?  Aren’t teachers and classrooms the biggest expense and should therefore be exploited to their fullest capacity?  Wouldn’t it be more financially prudent to put more students into fewer classrooms thus maximising profits?

From a pedagogical point of view also, wouldn’t it make sense to do the latter?  Students learn better in an environment where there are lots of other people to talk to, rather than one other person to talk to?  Teachers (let’s not forget that they are stakeholders, too) also, by and large, prefer to teach medium-sized classes.

The only problem with this theory is that as long as paying customers perceive small classrooms to be an advantage, and until schools are brave enough to admit that smaller is not better, then schools will continue to charge students extra for the dubious benefits of a low student to teacher to ratio.

What do the teachers think?  Do you like teaching small classes?  Is 18 students in a class too many?  What is the ideal class size for you?

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true confessions of an introvert

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d’Albert Einstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

Albert Einstein

First of all, I’m no Einstein, but we do have some things in common.  For example I don’t like to worry about what I wear to work (apparently, and probably apocryphally, Einstein didn’t like to waste valuable thinking time on wardrobe decisions).  Also, we are both INTPs (according to most MBTI-type websites).  For those of you who don’t know about MBTI, there is something called a  Briggs Myers Personality Indicator which categories people into 16 personality types.  I stands for Introverted, and if Jungian archetypes are to be believed, everyone is either an introvert or an extrovert.  In other words, roughly half of the world’s population is introverted.

Introversion, as I understand it means looking inward, rather than outwards.  Introverts prefer quiet places to noisy places, prefer the company of a few rather than the company of many, they need to recharge their batteries with quiet walks, reading books, etc.  Extroverts like meeting new people, doing noisy and exciting things like going to parties and nightclubs, they get their energy from other people (a bit like vampires).  Introverts get their energy from themselves or from their close friends and relatives.

As Susan Cain says in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking“, introversion seems to carry a negative connotation these days – to some it means shyness, social awkwardness, even misanthropy, but it wasn’t always viewed so negatively.  In Steven Covey’s seminal book “7 habits of Highly Effective People” he describes the current obsession with personality over character.  We admire good looks, a winning smile, the ability to speak well in front of an audience; we are told to be assertive, confident and pro-active, qualities normally associated with extroversion.  In the past people were more concerned with character – stoicism, moral fortitude, and temperance, etc, qualities often more associated with introversion – think: the strong silent type, silence is golden, still waters run deep, etc.

The fashion these days seems to be that extroverted is better – open plan offices, brainstorming, motivational talks by people with great hair and beautiful white teeth, and team working, all favour extroverts.  It’s as if extroverts have taken over the world – they design our workspaces to suit their way of working, they measure people against competencies that come more naturally to extroverts, e.g. the ability to network, to work in groups, to share information, etc.  They rule the airwaves and occupy managerial positions (but apparently a large number of CEOs are actually introverts).  They must be stopped! (now I sound like David Icke).

Personally, I don’t much like working in groups and it’s not because I’m socially awkward, or shy, or behaviourally challenged.  I simply work better on my own most of the time.  I get more work done, more quickly.  I don’t like meetings.  Meetings are invariably an opportunity for the office gasbag to vent their spleen or for a manager to lay down the law – very rarely are meetings productive.  When I go to conferences I don’t want to walk around introducing myself to strangers, I prefer to cultivate one or two relationships with important contacts.  I think brainstorming is a waste of time, studies have shown that decision-making is best done  independently and then crowd-sourced, rather than getting everybody in a room to reach a consensus driven by one or two dominant actors.

When people get into groups they typically allow one or two people to dominate the discussion (usually the extroverts) and this somehow gets translated into a consensus view. This also happens in the classroom, the prevailing ELT pedagogy is based on Vygotskian ideas of socio-constructivism, i.e. we learn from each other, hence the preponderance of group activities in modern English language classrooms.  But do students actually like working in groups, or do they work in groups simply because their teacher tells them to?

There are all sorts of problems with forcing people to study or work in groups – it may well go against the grain for a lot of people.  Whenever I work in a group I find that I can’t speak as well, my ideas are not as forthcoming and I allow other people to lead the discussion.  My wife recently expressed a similar dissatisfaction with her training course bemoaning the fact that “we always work in groups.  It’s really hard. I have to compromise, or agree with something that I know is wrong, for the sake of group unity.”  And that says it all really.

Are infographics taking over the world?

infographic-us-facebook-statistics-demopgrahic-data

KPI -key performance indicators – a set of quantifiable (my emphasis) measures that a company or industry uses to gauge or compare performance in terms of meeting their strategic and operational goals. KPIs vary between companies and industries, depending on their priorities or performance criteria. Also referred to as “key success indicators (KSI)”.

From Investopedia.com

 performance:

  1. The act of performing; carrying into execution or action; execution; achievement; accomplishment; representation by action; as, the performance of an undertaking of a duty.
  2. That which is performed or accomplished; a thing done or carried through; an achievement; a deed; an act; a feat; especially, an action of an elaborate or public character.

    From wikipedia

When I was at secondary school, my friend, John, would often receive 50 or 60 christmas cards from friends every year. John was often invited to parties, he was well liked and was never without a girl at his side (very often a different one each month). John was funny, but something of a class clown and was often at trouble at school. He liked sport more than study, he would hang out with his friends after school rather than do his homework. Sometimes John would fail to turn up, have other engagements, he would drop friends just as quickly as he would make them. And the girls were interchangeable. My other friend, let’s call him Jack was not a popular guy at school he had few friends and only one girlfriend all through secondary school. He was quiet, not much fun at parties, in fact hardly ever invited. He was conscientious and loyal, though, and we’d often have long conversations about books, films and music. The friends he made at school remained his friends well into his adult life.

Now lets talk about KPIs. A KPI is a key performance indicator, a way of measuring success, and there are two main types – quantitive and qualitative. If we measure John’s success at relationships on a purely quantitive basis, then he is obviously more successful than Jack – he has more friends. This simple kind of mental arithmetic is what Daniel Kahnemann calls system 1 thinking, it’s quick, surface thinking and it’s the kind of thinking we do most of the time. It’s also a convenient shortcut to the concept of success, e.g. If your business makes more money at the end of the year than you had projected at the beginning of the year, your business is successful.

System 2 thinking, however, is deeper and slower. Lets take an example from Daniel Kahnemann’s book “Thinking Fast, and Slow”. Let’s do some mental arithmetic:

2+2 = ?

How long did it take you to come up with the correct answer? Hopefully not too long. Alright, a more difficult one now:

7×5=?

Still not causing you too much of a strain, is it?

How about:

36 x 312?

Can you do it in your head? Do you need a pen and paper or a calculator? If, like me, you were not able to do this in your head immediately, you are using a different kind of thinking – what Kahnemann calls system 2 thinking, or slow thinking.

Let’s take another example – when you are walking down the street and you see someone coming the other way – he has his hood up, he looks pretty big, and he’s swaying a little bit, he might be carrying something in his hand, could be a beer bottle. What do you do? Probably you put your head down and walk a little more quickly, you might cross the street to avoid him. You might scan the environment for exit routes or other people. What you don’t do is sit down to think about it, you probably don’t waste time wondering if he is a university professor down on his luck. You use your fast and intuitive system 1 thinking to stay out of trouble. Using system 2 thinking here would slow you down and may result in injury or even death.

What about a job interview? Which system of thinking should you use and which do you actually use? If you want the right person for the job you should probably weigh up the pros and cons of each applicant carefully, you should go through their applications with a fine toothed comb, interview them rigorously to find out what kind of people they are, are they right for the job, right for your organization? But you have 2000 applicants, so you go through the applications and immediately throw out all the handwritten ones – you figure, if someone couldn’t be bothered to type it why should I bother to read it. You’re now down to 1500. You then throw out any that don’t meet the exact specifications of the job, maybe they don’t have the requisite number of years experience, have a bachelors degree rather than a masters, etc. You might read a few in more detail, but your more likely to disregard people whose schools you haven’t heard of, or who studied subjects you don’t have much interest in. You might value team sports above solitary pursuits such as reading, and so on until you have your shortlist. So far so easy – all we’re really doing is matching candidates to our pre-defined perfect candidate – so far, so system 1.

Surely the recruiter will take more time and thought over the interview. According to many studies on heuristics and biases, however, most successful candidates are chosen within the first few minutes of an interview, regardless of their qualifications or experience. A lot of people are chosen because of their socio-economic background, their race or gender, the way they talk, how confident they are, how much they fidget, or even how tall they are (over 60 percent of CEOs are well above average height, apparently, not to mention, white, middle-class and male). Even when we should use system 2, we use system 1, and even when we think we are using system 2, we are, in fact using system 1. This is because system 2 thinking is slow and lazy (and works in the background) – it’s our fallback position and we only use it when we absolutely must, whereas system 1 is our default position, it’s what gets us through the day, it’s faster and more convenient.

Back to John and Jack. Who is the better friend? Who would you like to be your friend? Do you base your decision purely on the statistical data? If lots of other people like John, then surely he’s the safer bet? And in fact, John will have a lot of friends, purely because he has a lot of friends, irregardless of his personal qualities. And here is where it gets difficult and where we have to start using our system 2 thinking. What is a friend? What qualities are important to us when choosing friends? Is it always consistent? Do we want a fun-loving friend? Do we want our friend to introduce us to lots of other people? Or do we choose someone who is loyal but who might be moody, someone who probably doesn’t really want or need us as a friend? These are difficult questions – questions which require a deeper level of thinking – but how many of us actually choose our friends – Jack and John are both friends of mine, but when you ask me why, I can’t really say. I’d probably have to sit down and think about it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that quantitive data, such as how many friends I have, how much income I generate, how many students I get in my class on a regular basis, or how many likes I get on Facebook, are all easy to measure and appeal to our quick and convenient system 1 way of thinking. Quantitive data, the kind that is appearing more and more these days in metrics, infographics, on spreadsheets and colourful graphs, provide us with a convenient shortcut to a success story, a shared definition of success. Anybody, and I mean, anybody, can look at a graph and see immediately what success looks like, even if they don’t exactly understand what the numbers mean. More often than not, the presenter of this information has carefully selected the data to present a clear narrative of success with obvious causes and effects.

Qualitative KPIs are much more difficult to analyze and present – they cannot be turned so easily into colourful visual aids (although many companies try and turn this information into something quantitive – this is the purpose of scorecards), and their causes and effects are not so readily available or explicable. They require system 2 thinking both to collate and present the information and it requires system 2 thinking to process it (and ask questions about it).

Obviously we need to look at both types of KPI to judge whether something is successful or not, especially when we are talking about abstract things such as education.

Let’s take an example from our context and test it out. Let’s say that we run a large scale teacher training program – we have 2,000 teachers on the program and they all get something that they probably haven’t received before, some training in learner-centred teaching, for example. The Ministry of Education pays about 2,000 pounds per teacher. When we measure the success of this project we can look at the reach, we can look at the return on investment, we can look at income generated, in other words, the numbers, the quantitive data. Purely in numerical terms, this is a successful project, especially if the contract is renewed.

Let’s take another example. A teacher has a difficult student. Instead of giving up on this student, the teacher takes extra time to counsel the student, s/he gives the student extra homework, extra support, etc. S/he listens attentively to this student, finds out that they are having problems at home and offers some guidance for how to turn their life around. The student starts to perform better at school and the student is very happy and buys her teacher a gift at the end of term. In purely qualitative terms, this is a success.

Now let’s go forward in time, let’s say 10 years. Let’s revisit the teachers on our large scale teacher training project to see if they transformed the way they teach. Now let’s be honest here, I’ve been training teachers on projects like these for the past 8 years and I can say that I may have helped a few teachers transform the way that they teach (I hope), but let’s give it a number to help our system 1 thinking, let’s give an optimistic estimate of 30%. That’s 70% of the teachers that I have trained on such a project who probably didn’t transform the way that they teach. That’s a pretty poor return on investment, isn’t it? It won’t look very good on a graph.

Let’s revisit our problem student. Instead of dropping out of school, she went to university and completed a PhD, she became a Minister of Education, and helped transform the education system in her country. The return on investment here is massive, but how much of it is actually due to the teacher’s involvement? We don’t know how much of this success was due to other factors, there’s too much “noise” surrounding the data. This kind of success is too difficult to measure, and most of the time we don’t bother, especially as it takes a long time for this success to manifest itself. The teacher and the teacher’s manager will not even be aware of this long-term success.

So the next time you read an article about success, ask yourself how they are measuring this success. It’s highly likely that, in order to appeal to your system 1 thinking and to appeal to your sense of narrative, they will “show you the money”. They will talk about numbers, they may talk about transformation but not in qualitative terms, only in numerical terms, and you should be very skeptical of this.

You should be skeptical when your manager only talks to you about quantity and not about quality, especially when talking about your performance. Ask your manager to watch you teach, to assess the quality of your materials, to get feedback from your students, but don’t just rely on your manager to do this – remember that he will probably be using his system 1 way of thinking (he might be busy managing lots of other people, for example). The onus is on you to swing the conversation back to quality – and in order to do that you need to use your system 2 way of thinking and you’ll also need evidence to support your claims, because our system 2 is lazy and slow and often in need of a convincing argument.

situational leadership – is your manager mature enough?

The theory of situational leadership (Hershey, Blanchard) is simply thus – if you have employees with low maturity (M1), i.e. they are new to the job, then chances are they need a leader to show them the ropes, a leader who can tell them what to do (S1).  Conversely, an M4 person is capable, knows what to do, can be left alone to get on with the job and so requires a leader who can delegate, a person who trusts (S4).  However, there’s a major flaw in this theory, as far as I’m concerned – it assumes that the leader himself has progressed through the maturity ranks from M1 to M4 and and can alter his leadership style to suit the situation; it requires a mature manager to delegate, after all – but management and leadership, like anything else is a set of skills that one acquires over time.

Managers don’t automatically become mature when they put on a suit and learn how to use Excel (despite what they might think) – i’m pretty sure that managers go through the same experiential learning cycle as any other employee.  When I started teaching I was pretty hopeless – I know because my student (actually my girlfriend at the time) told me so.  I also knew that I wanted to get better at teaching, so I took the Diploma, got a job as a Director of Studies and became an M2 teacher and M0.5 DoS.  I got better (I hope) and after 13 years (or over 10,000 hours) of teaching and training I feel fairly confident that I’m an M4 teacher and maybe even an M4 teacher trainer. This competency and level of maturity took time, trial and error to achieve.

So, what happens when M4 teachers are managed by M1 or M2 managers?  Well, the M1/M2 manager has some choices to make (we’ll talk about M4 teachers’ choices later) – either he gets mature real quick so that he can support and delegate and set targets and do all the things that mature managers do, or he doesn’t, i.e. he simply tells people what to do – the M4 people under his supervision might not like it, but so what.  Another thing our M1 managers can do is to get rid of the M4 people – the primadonnas, the moaners, the ones who ask for autonomy, for support, for more training, etc and replace them with M1 employees, eager to learn, eager to please and who don’t complain and who don’t know any better.

But what about the poor M4 teachers?  What choices do they have?  They can of course, moan about it -they can go to the pub with all the other M4 teachers and whinge about their managers, how crap they are, how they don’t know what they are doing, and so on.  But there is another way to think about this – you M4 teachers (you know who you are) – aren’t you the mature ones?  Flip this situation on its head and demand S4 leadership from your manager – get him up to speed, teach and train him how to be mature, how to delegate and set targets.  Don’t just assume that he knows that’s what he should be doing.  Remember what it was like for you when you started teaching – how many of your students went to the pub after your lesson and complained about how crap you were? But you got better, didn’t you.  You got better because you kind of knew you were crap and you wanted to change, but you also needed help, you needed feedback and training and so on.  And so it is with your manager – your manager needs your help, not your animosity.  Give your manager the kind of feedback that you would like to receive from him – honest, forthright and constructive – use the same tools that your managers use to evaluate you.  It is your only recourse, your only weapon.  Oh, I nearly forgot, there is one other choice.  Find yourself a job where there are no M1 managers – good luck with that.

Why good teachers make good managers (but don’t become managers) and why bad teachers make bad managers (and become managers)

What is a teacher and what is a manager?  Are the two things necessarily different?  The more I study current management theories, about motivation, performance management, the more I see direct correlations between good teaching practice and good management practice.  But  what does it mean to be a good teacher?

First and foremost, I am a humanist.  I believe in personal growth, self-actualization, autonomy and these are the things I value in education.  I am not a dogmatist, nor am I an autocrat (i hope).  I value what my students bring with them into my classroom.  Good teachers are not necessarily the ones with the most knowledge, nor are they the funniest, nor are they the most gifted orators (or bullshitters).  Good teachers listen.  Good teachers believe in autonomy and empowerment.  Good teachers set up achievable tasks for their students, they make sure that students have the necessary language in order to achieve these tasks.  Good teachers monitor their students discreetly, and only step in when they are needed.  Students achieve because their teacher trusts them.  A good teacher believes in the abilities of the students, sets high standards and expectations and gives them the know-how, the wherewithal to meet them, and most importantly of all, gives them constant feedback, both positive and constructive.  Does it sound familiar?  These are also the qualities of a good manager, but perhaps you don’t recognise these qualities in your management team, perhaps you are surrounded by bad managers.  

What is a bad teacher (bad manager)?  Well, simply put, it is the opposite of the above.  A bad teacher has low expectations, a bad teacher thinks that he students are lazy, incapable and need to be told what do while they are doing it.  As a matter of fact, a bad teacher will not even know if his students are capable but will merely assume that they aren’t.  A bad teacher will micro-manage your learning, he will not give you the tools to your success, he may even take credit for your work and say things like “I’m responsible for the success of my students”.  His students will be utterly dependent on him.  Sound familiar?  Chances are you are managed by such a person.  

But why is this?  Surely those of us who work in education, those of us who teach should be surrounded by Y-style managers – democratic, humanistic facilitators who value humanistic approaches to teaching, but more often than not we are managed by X-style managers – autocratic and didactic bullies).

The answer to this conundrum is simple and depressing.  Good teachers like teaching and want to remain in the classroom where they think they belong.  Bad teachers often know that they are bad teachers and look for the first opportunity to escape the classroom.  These people, and we all know instinctively who they are, have two options, one is to leave education and the second is to move into “educational management”.  Given that ELT teachers have often tried to survive in the real world of cutthroat business and failed, we cannot be surprised that bad teachers choose the simpler but less noble option of moving out of the classroom and into the meeting room.  Or, to put it another way, those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, move into educational management.

I’d like to finish this post with a call to arms.  If you are a good teacher and you look around your office and see only bad management – instead of leaving the organisation in the hope that you’ll find a good manager somewhere, become a manager.  If you are a practicing humanistic teacher, good at getting the most out of your students at making them feel 10 feet tall, then you will be an excellent manager – your organization still needs you to manage your students, but it also needs you to manage your colleagues.