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Monday, July 26, 2010

Creating the environment, a culture of continuous improvement

As I've mentioned earlier, I am a mathematics teacher and have been teaching the subject in one way or another with varying levels of intensity since 1983. As a teacher, I've never been able to open a student's head and just pour knowledge in. Lately, I've had fantasies of surgically implanting a USB port in the skull of each student and just plugging him in so that he can slurp up the knowledge. That is unlikely to happen any time soon.

My method of teaching is to structure my classes with a time-line. I set learning goals and embed those goals in a calendar. I then organize the material and try to personalize the presentation of it to the needs of each class collectively and each individual within that class as much as possible by using language that the class understands, using a suitable idiom.

This is a learning environment. Within this environment, the student must apply his own efforts and abilities if he is to learn. There are students who are better at this than others, and I am not necessarily talking about students who are more intelligent. What I mean, is there are students who have cultivated habits which are conductive to the act of learning.

There are teachers as well who have, in an intentional way, acquired habits which improve their teaching. These people will be better teachers on the day they retire than on the day they started. They will be better teachers next year than they are this year.

Part of the business of a healthy educational institution is to create an environment which fosters that sort of teacher. We must create what is called "a culture of continuous improvement."

I use that phrase even though over the course of my career I've seen it misused extensively. Having been a mathematician, I'm not unfamiliar with folks who interpret words in a direct way, and I've seen that phrase taken to mean that there is an expectation that every class will improve its scores every year. This is, of course, idiotic. Because of random variation within each class, it is unreasonable to expect scores that are continually increasing.

It is not, by way of contrast, unreasonable to expect an environment where teachers are encouraged to improve their teaching and given the means, within the available resources, to do so. Indeed, far from being unreasonable, this is a natural expectation.

The creation of an institutional system of assessment is a part of that environment.

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