What do we actually do here, anyway? - Cranbrook School

What do we actually do here, anyway?

15 Aug 17 by Nick Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning

Imagine an umbrella factory.

There’s a point to this, I promise.

I reckon that it would be pretty easy to measure productivity in an umbrella factory. If you’re making twenty umbrellas a week in April, and then you somehow produce twenty-five a week in May, your productivity has increased. Your job is to make umbrellas, and if you’re making more of them – assuming their quality hasn’t degraded or your staff are falling asleep at their machines – then you’re unequivocally doing better.

An Economist will probably find some loophole in my analogy – there are no doubt subtleties to the umbrella industry that elude me - but my point is this:

In lots of industries, it’s not too difficult to ‘take the temperature’ of your business.

It’s a cliché of our business, though, that the terms of measurement are much tougher to articulate. At Cranbrook, for instance, how might we measure the efficiency of our ‘factory floor’? Especially when, instead of producing umbrellas, we’re trying to inspire and guide and mentor and challenge young men? We could point to HSC results, of course, and that’s usually fairly flattering.  But we only see those once a year, and only when the kids in question have left the school.

So how do we get a concrete sense of what the young brains we’re supposed to be inspiring are actually doing on a given day? How do we move beyond generalities and anecdotes (‘Year 8 were unsettled in Period 6) or subject-specific test results (‘Jordan’s class received an average mark of 72% in their Studies of Religion quiz’)?

Here are four options:

  • Employ about 75 itinerant workers to stand outside every classroom in the Senior School and interview every student as they leave their lesson. Ask the kids if they understand what they just learnt and note down their answers. Assume all the students are being honest.
  • Put heart-rate monitors in the students’ blazers, dopamine and cortisone detectors in the collars of their shirts and brain-wave scanners in the new, mandatory “learning hats” (a bit like the Cranbrook swimming cap). Have all the data flow back to a team of analysts hidden in a bunker beneath the oval. The information is collated on-the-spot and displayed on the inside of the contact lens Mr Sampson wears.
  • Film every student from the moment they arrive at school to when they leave. Deal with the privacy lawsuits later.
  • Give up. It’s too hard.

On Monday of last week, we tried something a bit different. A team of special staff operatives spent a whole day sneaking into classrooms across the school and recording the same stuff in each one. As well as noting down the time, year group and class activity, we asked as many kids as we could the same two questions, which – if you’re into your pedagogical theory – are pretty elemental questions to ask of any young man’s learning:

  1. Why are you doing this?
  2. How do you know if you’re any good at it?

The results were really interesting. We got around to nearly 140 classes over the course of the day, so our sample size wasn’t too bad. I discovered Cranbrook has a lot of stairs.

Some of the stuff the data revealed isn’t particularly profound. For instance, most students seemed to spend the start of their lessons listening to instructions from their teacher, then putting the instructions into practice in the second half of the period. I can’t imagine Reverend Perkins’ ghost spinning in wonder at that one. Similarly, the senior kids were more comfortable articulating why they were studying a given topic and what their success criteria was than the junior kids (who sometimes said things like “I’m doing it because my teacher told me to”).

However, there were some numbers that made us sit up and take notice.

  1. Boys were writing in nearly a quarter of all the classrooms we visited. By this I mean that they weren’t listening to a teacher talking, they weren’t doing group-work, they weren’t researching on their laptops; they were writing stuff down by themselves. Cranbrook teachers made a pact at the start of this year to give primacy to this elemental stuff in their classrooms, and it was visible on Monday. Apologies if the notion of writing something in a classroom doesn’t seem particularly mind-blowing to you; the key to understanding our reaction is remembering that – in the HSC at least - students are not assessed on what they think, but are judged on how they transfer that information to paper. A lot of schools forget this.
  2. The thing students were doing least was watching a film or documentary – this was only the case in 6% of classrooms we visited. I wonder if this is a function of us being terrified of being the stereotypical ‘bad’ teacher who simply plays videos instead of explaining content. Is this limiting us as professionals? There is huge value in moving pictures – movies aren’t necessarily time-fillers. Hmmmm.
  3. Most students were pretty good at articulating precisely why they were doing a certain exercise (beyond it being mandatory) – nearly 70% of boys surveyed were confident in their answer to this question. That number was higher than the percentage of kids able to explain exactly how they would measure their own success. It’s usually around the other way in my experience. That result made me feel warm and fuzzy inside; teachers hate the idea of a teenager thinking their subject exists only within the walls of the classroom. Still, though, we need to get better at tapping that remaining 30%; everyone needs to understand this stuff.

We noticed some fascinating things that don’t fit so easily onto an Excel spreadsheet, too.

  1. Kids at Cranbrook are full of personality and ‘sass’, but they seem to be terribly well-behaved. I couldn’t find a single discipline issue in my travels. Seriously. 140 classes. Is this a function of really good teaching, or do Cranbrook parents simply teach their boys manners? Are our boys naturally nicer humans than their peers at other institutions? Is there some ineffable Cranbrookian quality of decorum that kids ‘catch’ when they walk through the gates, like a virus? Do students all repeat the Co-Mission like a mantra at the dinner table?
  2. In case anyone has been living under a rock since the dawn of human history, the operation reminded me of what an enormous impact teachers have. If a teacher was full of positivity and passion, the boys seemed to mimic these qualities. It works the other way, of course… I was reminded that my attitude to the content I’m teaching is just as important as my knowledge of it.

This last one reminded me of an article Mr Scott Davis showed me last week, detailing what a team of researchers from Melbourne University, Boston College and the University of Toronto had discovered about teaching and learning. Their most important finding? The research so ground-breaking that a national newspaper saw fit to publish it? Prepare yourself:

Teachers can have a huge impact on their students.

Mr Davis has learnt more than a few things about educating young people in his career, so we can excuse him for raising his eyebrow ironically at this one. Seriously – does anyone in our community doubt this? Are we in some way special because we acknowledge the magical dynamic that can exist between a really good teacher and a bunch of students?

The research is more complex and revealing than this, of course, and it’s easy to poke fun at the idea of ivory-towered academics who have forgotten what it’s like to try and inspire Year 9 in Period 6 on a 40 degree day. Nevertheless, we should be proud of the fact that we take this stuff for granted at Cranbrook. Perhaps we need to start proclaiming it more audibly, though; if the general public aren’t aware of the importance of good teaching, we need to let them know.