Books Every Teacher Should Read: The Global Achievement Gap

by Harry on June 8, 2010

Its a long time since the first installment, I know. At least I’m not embarrassed by having to post recommend another David Cohen book straightaway — that can wait till the third installment.

This recommendation is Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It The reason I read Wagner’s book has nothing to do with what I found so valuable about it. I was preparing a talk for teachers at a local high school on educational equity, and I knew that one of the teachers was obsessed with the “achievement gap” between American and foreign students, so wanted to learn more about it. And, indeed, Wagner is very clear about the kinds of things that our schools (and colleges) could be doing better for even our most advantaged students — in particular failing to create opportunities for higher order cognition, and structuring their learning to produce the traits and skills that will serve them well in a global economy. He includes a nice, and in my experience quite accurate, critique of the AP History exams (I don’t think my colleagues in English all agree with me, but AP English seems much better at eliciting the kind of curriculum in which students learn things that are valuable).

What grabbed me was none of that, but his description of the Change Leadership Group that he runs at Harvard.

The Harvard program is focused on k-12 teaching. At its core is a workshop, in which groups of teachers (most of whom are unacquainted with one another previously) discuss videos of other teachers teaching in the classroom, led by Wagner or one of his colleagues. The aim is to develop a language for discussing instruction — and to come to some sort of interpersonal agreement on standards of practice. Like most teachers, his participants have spent very little time observing other teachers do what they do, and are not practiced in rigorous detail-oriented discussion of what works and what doesn’t. Initially the reactions to what they are observing are very diverse — there is no agreement about whether what is being done is good or bad teaching. But over the course of the workshop the participants develop a common understanding, and a language for expressing it.

The idea is simple. If teachers were engaged in mutual observation and had resources to discuss what they were seeing and doing, they could begin to learn from one another, thus improving their practice. To use an analogy that Wagner doesn’t use, it’s like learning a musical instrument. You learn by watching and listening to others, noting what they do, mimicking it, practicing endlessly, subjecting your practice to your own critique and that of others, in the light of continued observations of others who are better than you are (or who are better in some particular way that you can improve). I suppose there are musical geniuses who learn some other way, and no doubt there’s a handful of teachers who are so naturally gifted that mutual observation wouldn’t improve things, but that’s not most of us. Reading Wagner, for the first time, I started to see how it could be that we could improve our teaching collectively, by deploying the kind of inter-subjective scrutiny of our efforts that we already apply to our research (you never publish anything unless it has been scrutinized by at least one other person, and you aim to get it scrutinized by as many people as feasible before committing it to publication).

My wife consistently points out to me that the schools which actually adopt Wagner’s process as part of their ongoing professional development are quite unusual — they tend to be schools in which teachers have a fair amount of discretionary time, and which are pretty well run. Not like most. Still, it seems to me that individual departments and even disparate groups of enterprising teachers could emulate the model, in small ways. And any school which is undergoing a school improvement process should get teachers to read the book (or at least chapter 4 of the book) and figure out what might be replicable.

The reason I was so impressed with this is that I teach in an environment which is reasonably well resourced and in which teachers have a certain amount of discretionary time: a major research university. We do seem to me to have the conditions in which a program like this could profitably be adopted. More on this in a moment.

The other natural worry about the Wagner method is whether the group is, in fact, learning the right things. Are they harnessing individual insights to develop group wisdom, or individual prejudice to develop an unquestioned orthodoxy? What they are not observing within the group is whether any students are actually learning anything which is, after all, what actually constitutes success in teaching.

Learning is hard to measure, and it’s especially hard to measure the aspects of learning which really matter (the development of skills, enthusiasm for, and long-term retention of the material). In college, at least in the humanities, we make no effort at all to gauge learning — we reward students for and celebrate their performance rather than their learning. We don’t even have common interpersonal standards for what counts as quality performance — we grade our own students’ work, not one another’s, and rarely sit down with a set of papers and discuss with one another what we value in the papers (and what we don’t).

So there’s a leap of faith in adopting a model like Wagner’s, based on confidence in i) the capacity of the people involved for judgment and ii) the deliberative value of interpersonal discussion. I’d like to see something like Wagner’s model adopted in a few places, ideally alongside some experiments in aligning standards and curriculum across classes within particular departments. Anyway, I’m recommending the book, and curious whether anyone knows similar models operating in higher education. I’m aiming to pilot a program not completely unlike Wagner’s among a multidisciplinary group of faculty (see here) this coming Fall and will report on what we do.

(cross posted, more or less, at In Socrates’ Wake)



gaddeswarup 06.08.10 at 10:35 pm

I think that there are similar experiments from MIT:
Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians edited by Joel Segel


Laurel 06.09.10 at 12:29 am

I was an Outward Bound instructor for several years, and the major tool for learning to be an outdoor instructor is mutual observation and apprenticeship. New instructors are paired with more experienced ones and the pairings rotate at the end of every expedition, so every week or two or three depending on the course length. It’s great for initial learning because you see a lot of different models of what an instructor should do and be, but it’s also great for experienced staff – you’re constantly getting questions about why you do something a particular way and getting fresh perspectives on how the expeditions should work.

When I became a high school math teacher, the professional isolation was striking. I had to learn substantially from written resources and informal exchange, a little from workshops and classes, and not at all from anyone who knew my actual professional situation intimately. Especially in a school like the one where I taught, which had minimal administrative oversight, there was essentially no usable feedback. Even people who wanted to offer feedback mostly just didn’t have the time or energy to do mutual observations more than once a semester at most.

I actually wrote a few pages outlining Outward Bound’s professional development model as vaguely Aristotelian character learning a couple of years ago, which I might dig up and look at again.


Rebecca 06.09.10 at 2:33 am

I was a behavior therapist for years before entering the legal profession. There is a fair amount of literature (research) on the efficacy of observation as an integral component of training new therapists working with students with disabilities. I suspect that the principles would remain the same, even if the target audience is typically developing individuals.


Marc 06.09.10 at 7:15 am

Peer teaching reviews, both on the receiving and giving end, have proven extremely valuable for me. This is in the context of the sciences in a research university. There are elements of style which simply vary, but certain elements really do fall into the craft of teaching and can be effectively identified as obstacles. Organization (e.g. do you have a clear goal in mind for the lecture; do the students know what it is); Flow (start at the beginning of a topic – don’t do a stream of consciousness approach where you ran out of time yesterday, so you just pick up again at a random point today; etc.


Luther Blissett 06.09.10 at 7:19 am

Harry, what you’re talking about seems to be what my education professors call “modeling.” Good teachers model good behaviors. This isn’t just about physical behavior, although it’s particularly effective there. For example, you don’t just ask a group of 9th graders to read about how to set up a bunsen burner. It’s far better to model the behavior, pointing out as you go what you’re doing and why you’re doing it that way step by step. It’s also effective, I’ve found, as an English teacher, in teaching how to perform close readings. At the beginning of sophomore English, I often begin my lengthy unit on Hugo’s *Les Miserables* by modeling what I do as a trained reader as I read the opening pages of the novel. I read out loud and stop to ask myself questions, posit possible answers, reflect back on the sorts of questions I tend to ask, etc. Students have told me it works. We then do it together. I read out loud, and students stop me with observations, questions, answers, etc. Afterwards, I give them a handout with all sorts of questions we tend to ask ourselves as we read novels. But still, they need practice, so those questions form the basis of their daily study guides, which they write out as they read at home.

This is what the Harvard program seems to offer teachers: an opportunity to see effective teaching modeled and an opportunity to reflect on what works or doesn’t as they observe.

Modeling and imitation are classical pedagogical techniques. Old-school rhetoric textbooks always include model passages that students are asked to use as the basis for their own imitations. I do this at the sentence level to teach grammar, pulling out various types of sentences and asking students to use the syntax to pattern their own sentences. Again, it’s more effective than having them memorize abstract grammatical rules like “use ‘that’ for restrictive clauses and ‘which’ for nonrestrictive clauses.” Once they get a feel for the pattern in real usage, then I give them the rules.

In terms of measuring learning, it is so important for departments to decide clearly and well in advance what will constitute mastery on each particular assessment. Having transitioned from college teaching to high school teaching, I’m still shocked that even centralized freshmen writing programs do not establish a rigorous rubric for grading different types of writing. Often, these programs don’t even set up a common vocabulary for talking about writing. One teacher talks about a thesis statement, another about a controlling idea. One teacher talks about analysis, another about interpretation, another about forming an opinion, another about commentary.

This isn’t to say that writing should be formulaic. But students should learn to master clear models of effective writing, and they should be evaluated on exactly what they’ve been taught about writing and not on what they’ve picked up along the way. (That often means moving beyond the “holistic grading of writing,” where a teacher evaluates every single aspect of the essay, and moving toward a more focused grading, where the teacher says up front, “So far we’ve covered thesis statements, transitions, and the use of evidence, so those aspects will constitute the majority of your grade for this writing assignment.”)


chris y 06.09.10 at 7:31 am

This isn’t just about physical behavior, although it’s particularly effective there. For example, you don’t just ask a group of 9th graders to read about how to set up a bunsen burner. It’s far better to model the behavior, pointing out as you go what you’re doing and why you’re doing it that way step by step.

Or, as my secondary school English teachers used to say, “Show, don’t tell.”


Bill Gardner 06.09.10 at 8:42 am

This is something like how clinical learning occurs in medicine (or so thinks this social scientist observing docs “in the mist”). Docs learn by doing more than by reading, and part of learning by doing is presenting cases to each other for guidance and under supervision.


David 06.09.10 at 1:17 pm

This New York Times article about developing a taxonomy of the micro-interactions teachers make in classrooms is well worth reading, to my mind. (Sorry for lacking the html-fu to make a pretty link.) It does suggest that there’s more thought going into this than first appears.


Harry 06.09.10 at 1:28 pm

David — that’s right — there is a lot of thought going into this in some circles of the academic education world, and within those circles (on which I am the periphery) people certainly think that progress is being made. Turning that into a set of practices which diffuse through the profession (not just the k-12 profession, but HE as well) is another matter, and no-one really knows how to do it (at the moment).

Laurel — if after looking at your notes you are willing to share them, I’d love to add them to my collection.


Stuart Buck 06.09.10 at 3:43 pm

Sounds like Wagner is recommending lesson study, which is a well-known and longstanding practice in Japan and has been studied by at least a few researchers in the U.S. Japanese teachers in a school collectively design a specific lesson — say, a subtraction lesson for second graders. Then they gather together (often leaving their own classrooms unattended without incident) to watch a second-grade teacher deliver the lesson. They critique her performance and the lesson plan itself on a deep conceptual level. Then they often write up a research report on what sorts of misunderstandings second graders had, how those can be resolved, how a lesson should be designed, etc.

See and and


Stuart Buck 06.09.10 at 3:45 pm

A paragraph from a paper I wrote on the subject:

‎ Japanese “teachers can easily gain access to an array of ‎publications written by their colleagues about their lesson study experiences. . . . Journal ‎publications of research conducted by and for teachers outnumber those of university researchers ‎in Japan . . . . The National Institute for Educational Research compiles every year over 4,000 ‎research papers written by teachers.” (Fernandez and Yoshida, 2004, pp. 212-213). Thus, in sharp ‎contrast to the American situation – in which teachers have little access to what techniques or ‎concepts have proven useful in other classrooms – Japanese teachers “have ready access to ‎information of the form, ‘When presented with problem A, 60 percent of students will choose ‎Strategy One, 20 percent Strategy Two, 15 percent Strategy Three, and 5 percent some other ‎strategy.” (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999, p. 164). Moreover, due to Japan’s national curriculum, any ‎lesson that has been planned and analyzed will be more readily applicable to classrooms in other ‎schools. “Reports published by lesson-study groups have an instant audience among their ‎colleagues throughout Japan. Many such reports, in fact, can be purchased in neighborhood ‎bookstores.” (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999, p. 123). ‎


laura 06.09.10 at 4:13 pm

I haven’t read that Wagner book, but my kid’s school principal was very influenced by it. His ideas have been implemented so stupidly. It’s been a disaster. My kid is now making powerpoint presentations, instead of writing essays. I may have to home school him for English next year. It has been a total disaster. I’m burnt out with blogging today, so I have to blog about it tomorrow.


ChrisJ 06.09.10 at 8:15 pm

This is something like how clinical learning occurs in medicine (or so thinks this social scientist observing docs “in the mist”). Docs learn by doing more than by reading, and part of learning by doing is presenting cases to each other for guidance and under supervision.

Speaking as a long-time medical school physician and teacher, what you say is correct. It’s sort of an apprenticeship model. However, one traditional aspect of such teaching, public ridicule, is one we shouldn’t model.


vivian 06.10.10 at 2:18 am

(Crossposting is a wonderful idea, I hope it becomes a CT trend. Cross-linking is good too.)


Helen 06.11.10 at 2:15 am

Recently, there has been a push by a well known conservative activist to have a thing called “Direct Instruction” adopted in disadvantaged schools. The results, according to a conservative columnist (so you can see there is a considerable bias here) are wonderful. I haven’t been able to find much about DI via google.Hope this isn’t too tangential, but I would love to read the opinions of Harry, Laura and other educators about this. I’m a little suspicious because the writer describes results being sent back to Head Office in the US (from Australia) to be analysed; why can’t they be analysed here? Is this some big moneyspinner for Siegfried Englemann and his organisation?

(When I was a young person in the loud music industry a DI meant a Direct Injection (of your solid body instrument’s audio signal) into the mixing desk. I can’t help but visualise the kids with jacks plugged into their heads, and the signals going back to some Borg in the States. But that’s just my overactive imagination.)


Harry 06.11.10 at 1:32 pm

If you go to the What Works clearinghouse, you will find what they say about DI — if I remember rightly no good quality study shows any benefits to it. In this, though, it is like nearly everything else that WWC evaluates….

I suspect the DI plugs into a certain conservative view (which I think has a lot going for it) that students need to have their attention focused on very specific tasks which they repeat frequently, and a view about teachers (which I think has very limited truth to it) that they are tempted to just allows students to explore rather randomly. But many other programs of instruction include this key component (focussed attention on tasks which repeat) and Direct Instruction is just one version of direct instruction. And, frankly, no-one thinks that an exclusive focus on rote learning is what kids need (the conservative advocates of such things would NEVER allow it to be done to their own kids).


chris 06.11.10 at 4:07 pm

the conservative advocates of such things would NEVER allow it to be done to their own kids

But they’re not suggesting that it be done to their own kids. Every society needs some hewers of wood and drawers of water, so you might as well start educating them that way from an early age, right? And anyway, those kids aren’t like the kids from middle-class backgrounds — you can’t expect them to master complex abstractions. Teach them enough to hold a minimum-wage job and vote how their preacher tells them, and that’s good enough for them.

Of course, they don’t spell out any such analysis. But that’s what’s going on under the surface.

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